Creature of Habit: The Wild Tongue 

 How many of you have a ritual or regular routine that you follow when you wake up each morning and prepare  to face the day? It may be a day off, or you may have lots of appointments, but you must do these things first to be  ready to function. Does coffee play a part in your morning routine? Hot or iced, maybe depending on the season.  I know that lots of people are looking forward to their pumpkin or pumpkin spiced warm drinks now that we are  closing in on October if you haven’t already succumbed. 


Have you seen those coffee mugs that are labeled kind of like measuring cups? Except instead of indicating the ounces or the parts of a cup it warns people of whether it is yet safe to talk to the coffee drinker. If it’s nearly full … “Don’t even think about it.” Half way, “One or two words only.” Then, finally at the last quarter cup it says, “Full  conversation now possible.” I don’t drink coffee, but I have my rituals, and it usually takes about as long as it reads  on that mug for me to be able to have a conversation with another human. 


I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have my morning routine, my morning habits. I’m not sure that I would be  able to leave the house. I would never remember to do everything that needs to happen.  


We are in the second week of our worship series, Creature of Habit. We are looking the habits that help us and hurt us. We certainly have habits that help us like the ones that I’ve been talking about, but there are many that aren’t so helpful. Our morning routine may include adding a shot of whiskey to our morning coffee. Bad in and of itself one time, maybe not.  Part of your regular morning routine, and you might want to think about it or why you think it’s necessary. Maybe when  you’re stressed you go onto the Amazon website and buy something that is on your wish list, and for those of you who are  not computer or internet people that means “shopping therapy.” I know a woman in Minnesota who did this for years. She  had so many items in her basement, neatly folded and organized on shelves, that she could have opened her own clothing store. All of them still had the original tags on them. Her habit for coping with stressful situations was to go and buy a cute  outfit … that she would never wear. 


There are so many things that we do even though we know that they are destructive for us or for the people around us, but  so often we find it difficult to change, over and above the difficulty of breaking a habit. We don’t like change. We are afraid  of the uncertainty. We will resist as long as we can. Think of the people who are in the path of a hurricane but refuse to  evacuate when the order comes. They would rather stay in their homes and risk death rather than go to some unknown  place. Believe me, I would be resistant, too.  


Hear some quotes about the creatures of habit that we are. In her book The God of Small Things, Indian author Arundahti  Roy writes, “Human beings were creatures of habit, and it was amazing the kind of things one could get used to.”  


Robin Williams said, “Change is not popular; we are creatures of habit as human beings. ‘I want it the ways it was.’ But if  you continue the way it was there will be no ‘is.'” (No “now.”) 


And Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do.”  


Last week, we talked about how when we enter the Christian life as followers of Jesus that we take off our old self like an old worn out set of clothes, and we put on the new clothes of our new life, our new identity, with Christ. We heard from Paul that we should not continue to repeatedly do those harmful things from our former life. 


You know one of the things that we repeatedly do is talk and communicate. And the Bible is full of examples and instruction of how we should and should not do this. The way we talk is one of those things that is very much part of our habits, those  things that we do without really thinking about it. Can be a very good and encouraging thing, but it can also be very damaging and hurtful to ourselves and those around us. We may not even realize it, or it may be intentional. The way that Bible often refers to this is the tongue or the power of the tongue.  


This week we have three Scriptures that will help us see this. The first is from Proverbs 18:21. The second is Ephesians  4:22-25, 29. (We’ll be looking at verses 26 and 27 next week.), and our longest passage comes from James 3:2-12.    

Proverbs 18:21 

21 The tongue has the power of life and death,  and those who love it will eat its fruit.
 Good or bad. The point here is that we need to be careful because there is power in the tongue. 


Ephesians 4:22-25, 29 

    22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires;23 to be  made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. 25 Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body.

      29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up  according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. 



James 3:2-12 

     2 We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check. 

     3 When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal.

     4 Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. 5 Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark of the tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body,  sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. 

    7 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by  mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 

     9 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers and sisters,  can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water. 


One of the things that is consistent through all of these passages is the power of the tongue or speech for good or bad. The power is so great that we have to constantly monitor and keep it in check, so it won’t run wild.  


When James says that the tongue cannot be tamed, he’s relating it to a wild animal as contrasted with a domestic  animal. Comparing our pet dogs to a wolf or a coyote. Our pets can be trained, theoretically, but a wild animal remains wild. It may be controlled, but it will never be tame. You always have to be on your guard around it because as soon as you stop, it will revert to its normal or default behavior.  


I work on my speech all the time, trying to be kind and compassionate, helpful and uplifting, but then I’ll turn around and realize that I’ve said something hurtful. It’s bad enough when there is a misunderstanding, but to  recognize that I actually did say something thoughtlessly. I am mortified. I might have even been alone when  using some “colorful” language, but it doesn’t matter. For one, God knows, and for another, that the thought  pattern is even in my  brain risks that it could come out at some other time. If at any time I have offended any  of you by my speech, either directed toward you or by the wordsI used, I ask for your forgiveness.  


At any time we can realize that we are still wearing some of the old garments of our old life that we need to take off,  so that we can wear the new clothes of our new identity. One of the ways that we can do that with our speech or any  of our habits is to slow down and identify the triggers that cause us to react in one way and choose to do something  different. This doesn’t work in the heat of the moment. We need to review the past and prepare for the future. It is  the reaction that is the habit. If we can see the trigger as it’s happening, we can choose to respond differently in the moment.  


Today’s Scripture shares three main ways that the tongue, our speech, can wreak havoc: 1) Lies; 2) Purposefully hurtful talk, that which intended to put someone down; and 3) Unwholesome talk (as Ephesians puts it, in other words, profanity  or foul language). 


Do you consider yourself a truthful person? What does that mean to you? Does that mean that you don’t lie; you don’t usually  lie; or you tell the truth under oath as long as it doesn’t put you in jail? Maybe, we should define what a lie is. 


These days, it seems like people define a lie when someone says something that is untrue or factually in error, on purpose.  That sounds reasonable, right? I would agree that is a lie, but is that the limit? What if I know that what I said was accurate, but the listener ended up believing something that was false.  


Let me give you a wild hypothetical example. Let’s say this woman has been accused of having an affair with Horatio. She  says, “No, I have never even thought of having an affair with Horatio. How could you even suggest such a thing?! Don’t you  trust me?!!!” Does that give you the impression that she has been faithful and true? Perhaps, and it was completely accurate.  She wasn’t having an affair with Horatio. It was with Gaston. Did she lie? 


I don’t know what a court of law would say about it, but the Bible would call it a lie. The woman was trying to deceive and  willfully mislead. It’s a lie. We actually see Satan do that when he tries to tempt Jesus in the desert. Satan even quotes Scripture to try to manipulate Jesus into doing what he wants. 


You might say, I’d never do anything like THAT! Perhaps, not but what about what we call “white lies,” those intended  to spare someone’s feelings? It can feel like a grey area, but really it’s not. The Apostle Paul talks about speaking the truth in love. (Eph 4:15) Some people use that verse as an excuse to call out or correct someone in a sharp or downright mean way . I don’t mean to hurt your feelings. I’m just speaking the truth in love. Paul is not talking about saying something in a hurtful way, quite the contrary. Sometimes the truth is hard to hear, so if we care about someone, we will tell them the truth, but in  as thoughtful and kind way as possible.  


We like to think of ourselves as truthful people, but the truth is that a majority of us lie all the time. There was a study out  of the University of Massachusetts that examined lying for more than 10 years. It found that 60% of people lie during an average 10 minute conversation. Even more striking is that they average about 2-3 lies during that 10 minutes!   (Travis Bradberry, “Sixty Percent of Your Colleagues Are Lying to You,” Huffington Post, January 21, 2017, 


One would hope that we would be more truthful in the church, after all “Do no lie.” is in our Top Ten Things not to do,  but as I hope we all know, churches are not full of perfect people. A church is more like a hospital where broken people come to get better. We are ALL undergoing that healing process. The truth is that many of us are afraid, afraid that we  won’t be accepted, that people wouldn’t understand the why of our truth, that we will be criticized. Maybe someone has  asked us something that isn’t any of their business, and we’re afraid of hurting their feelings, or that we will be found  out about something that we shouldn’t really be doing. 


Again that idea of slowing down in our response and thinking it out before reacting. Maybe it is none of their business.  How can we express that in a kind way that still gets the message across. That is also something that I’ll be focusing on  in a minute that also involves our speech. Maybe we don’t really need to know that personal detail that our friend might  be reluctant to share. We think we’re being friendly, but we aren’t considering how they might view it. Is it building them  up? Is it helpful? We need to keep a tight rein on our tongue, or it might go bolting off in some direction before we can catch  it. We can’t un-say words. Once they are out, no matter how much we would like to, we can’t bring them back. There is a line  from one of my favorite books, “When silence is called for, I too often say exactly the wrong thing.” (WEB Griffin, Counter  Attack, New York: GP Putnam’s Sons, 1990) 


However, there can be something refreshing about the person who speaks without a filter and says exactly what is on  their mind. Usually he or she is not mindful as to whether what they say will be uplifting or hurtful. These days when  we hear so many lies whether it is from the 60% or false advertising.  I bought this product, and it solved all my  problems … Dear Sir or Madame, I am from the National Bank of Nigeria. I have been authorized to send you $100,000,  I just need you to … to give me all your personal banking information. 


You can say to yourself, “Will someone just tell me the TRUTH!” The unfiltered tongue of some seems refreshingly truthful.  We may be tempted to admire the person who does this. It can be very revealing, for good or for bad. Jesus talks about this  in Luke 6:43-45:  

43 “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. 44 Each tree is recognized by its own fruit.  People do not pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briers. 45 A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks  what the heart is full of. 


And, as James tells us, the uncontrolled tongue can be very dangerous, “It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”  (James 3:8) Because what happens if we say whatever pops into our head without concern about the people around us or whomever we may be talking about? Pain, that’s what happens. In our society today, we are debating the balance  of “free speech,” “hate speech,” and things like that, but what is Christian speech? A couple of verses down in  Ephesians 4, it tells us what it is not, talk filled with, “bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every  form of malice” (Eph 4:31). It seems like every time that I turn on the news all I see are people talking with or about each other just that way. 


Let me ask you a question. Do you think that this improves things? Does it make things better? Does it foster a world  you want to live in? It seems to me that it just makes people more and more angry. It makes it harder and harder for any of us to love our neighbor. I haven’t even touched on some of the other kinds of speech that can be so hurtful, like gossiping. When we are tempted to do that, please try to choose something else. The Apostle Paul teaches about the destructive nature of gossip in three separate letters, Romans, 2 Corinthians, and 1 Timothy.  


In Christian speech Paul goes on to say in Ephesians, “32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other,  just as in Christ God forgave you.” (vs. 32) 


There are many places where we are urged to be encouraging and uplifting to others. Proverbs 15:24 says, “Gracious words  are like a honey comb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.” (ESV) Hebrews 3:13 says, “13 But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. ” 1 Thessalonians 4:18, “18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.” (Talking about the return of Christ) And,  1 Thes 5:11, “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.” 


You know what else doesn’t do that, using foul language, what Paul calls “unwholesome talk” in today’s passage. I suppose all of what we’ve been looking at could be considered “unwholesome talk.” No matter what we call it, cussing, cursing,  swearing, colorful language, we are instructed to avoid that too.  


James says, “9With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made  in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.” It reminds me of a phrase I’ve heard many times in my lifetime (in movies or on tv rather than directed at me). Perhaps, you are familiar with it. You kiss your mother with that mouth!  


While I was researching this, I found so much to justify this colorful language. Of course, that descriptor is a euphemism to make it sound okay. As opposed as being an indicator of lower intelligence, the opposite may be true. It exhibits an  unfiltered honesty like we were talking about earlier. When someone uses foul language, you do know exactly what they’re  thinking or their emotional state. Because of its taboo nature, it also gives power to the speaker. (Kristen Wong, “The Case for Cursing,” New York Times, 


There is one example of this that I found fascinating. One study, and this single study was referenced in almost every article that I saw about this topic, found that a person that plunged their hand into ice water could withstand it longer if they were cussing at the time. Apparently, no one has found the need to conduct a second study to confirm this result. It was so telling to me about the perverseness of human nature that using offensive language might be able to help us  withstand pain longer. If the word has become more socially acceptable, then its power is gone. The fact that it’s  considered bad is what makes it work. (Wong) 


You could think, “What’s the big deal? I’m grown-up. I should be able to say what I want.” In a sense that is true, but I’ll  tell you, when I’m in a restaurant and the people in the next booth are turning the air blue with their unrestricted use of  colorful language, I notice, and it’s not pleasant. Maybe it’s because I’m a pastor, and people are more mindful about it  around me, but I rarely hear foul language anymore. Therefore, when I do hear the words, they are that much more shocking.  


There is another kind of power these words have, and that is one of dominance. The words are meant to be offensive and perhaps even demeaning either to the listener or toward the topic of discussion.  I remember last year, I was sitting at a stop sign minding my own business waiting for the oncoming pickup truck to make his left turn in front of me. As he was approaching me, I noticed he was saying something to me, and as he got closer, I heard him say something to the effect that I should get my *expletive deleted* car on the right part of the road, and he continued on his way. I was shocked. I don’t  expect that kind of thing in Joseph in general, but I also took a couple of seconds to assess where my car was in the road.  I was well on the right side. I was behind the sidewalk. I couldn’t see where any driver’s license examiner would have any  problem where I was. My next thought was that if the man needed more room on the road than I was giving him then he  needed to learn how to drive his dually pickup truck better. But, it really shook me. Ford days, I was concerned about  encountering this person again. I hate to admit it, but he asserted his dominance over me. He expressed his opinion that he had a right to critique my driving, and that he had a right to share it with me in a vulgar way. Despite being a strong, intelligent, independent minded woman who can drive very well, thank you very much, it took me at least a week to get  over this incident. 


The bottom line is that it demonstrates a lack of respect. David Edmonds writes, “Swearing is best viewed as a breach of  etiquette. It is a little like putting your shoes on a table when you are the guest in someone’s house. If you know it would  offend, and do it anyway, you are guilty of showing insufficient respect.  


“It doesn’t matter that it’s a swear word. Imagine meeting someone who has a fear of [potato chips], and who finds references to [potato chips] traumatic. If you carry on talking about [potato chips] in their presence, even after discovering about their  phobia, you are sending a signal that you don’t respect them, you don’t have any concern for their feelings.” 


Choosing other language, “acknowledges that we are taking the feelings of others into account. By censoring the word we show respect.” (“Why Do People Swear?”, BBC News, 


And, that applies to all of the habitual language that we’ve been talking about: when we lie, when we talk negatively unreservedly about things whether we are gossiping or saying things in hurtful ways, when we use foul language, we are showing a lack of respect, a lack of respect for God, for the people made in his image, and for ourselves. We are  demonstrating our self-centeredness, our desire for self-preservation and power, and how far we have to go in taking off the clothes of our old selves and putting on the new ones.   


Once again, as James says,

“9With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings,  who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.”  Often it’s because our tongues seem to have a mind of their own. We cannot tame the tongue.  We can only hope to control it, and we have to be mindful about it all the time, or it will get away from us. 


When we are so used to doing things without thinking about them, our habits, after all, we are creatures of habit. It’s  hard to change. However, with the help of the Holy Spirit, if we stop and think, if we review and assess where we might  be missing the mark in this area, if we consider how we might do things differently. If we had a plan, if we had a … dare  I say it … a method of how to do things differently, we can do it. Can you imagine what it would be like if we all  intentionally treated everyone we meet with respect, not as a manner of course, but as an intentional act, how different  the world around us could be? I think it could be a bit like the Kingdom of God, and what a glorious thing that would be. 




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