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James 3:1-12: Words Matter

“You have minds like a snake pit! How do you suppose what you say is worth anything when you are so foul-minded? It’s your heart, not the dictionary, that gives meaning to your words. A good person produces good deeds and words season after season. An evil person is a blight on the orchard. Let me tell you something: Every one of these careless words is going to come back to haunt you. There will be a time of Reckoning. Words are powerful; take them seriously. Words can be your salvation. Words can also be your damnation.”

Matthew 12:34-37 MSG

We had an older pastor once, a little bit country. He used to say, “What’s in the well comes up in the bucket!” I can picture him in the pulpit, with his gentle smile and sincere concern for our welfare. And his repeating that statement has stuck with me.

James doesn’t use the familiar country saying, but instead, he gives us several illustrations about the power of our words and how as Christians, we should be careful about our speech.

Our words direct our lives

In James 3:3-5, the analogies describe how words can alter the direction of our lives:

  • We can make a large horse go wherever we want using a small bit in its mouth. 
  • A small rudder makes a huge ship turn wherever the pilot chooses to go, even though the winds are strong.
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Words change the course of our lives. When I said “YES!” to Ron’s proposal, my life changed … for the better, I might add! (Ummm, his life also 😉)!

The words, “You’re hired!” or “You’re fired!” also alter the next steps in our paths. So do simple words of encouragement!

Positive and negative words

I had teacher friends who encouraged me in my career to seek an administrative opening – something that was not in my personal life plan. Their encouraging words made a huge difference in my life – I spent the next 12 years as an assistant principal and principal. Those were some of the most rewarding years of my career. And yes, some have spoken negative words in my life, words that still have the power to hurt me, wounds that are deep and slow to heal.

Should you wonder, sure, I have said words I wish I could swallow as soon as they left my mouth! In school, we often used the toothpaste illustration. We challenged students to squeeze all of the toothpaste out of a tube. They were always excited because it’s easy to empty a tube! But then we issued the challenge of putting the toothpaste back into the tube. I don’t know if you have ever tried that, but it’s just not possible – or at least not without any special equipment. And so it is with our words. They spill out of our hearts (the well), out of the bucket (our mouths), and words cannot be retrieved. Once they are heard, they cannot be unheard.

Our words have the power to be destructive

James uses fire and poison to describe the destructive nature of our tongues. Used to be we would hear news of devastating fires that were started by the flick of cigarettes. Fires started by smoking have decreased significantly, but still, just last year, (2022) humans were responsible for some 66,255 fires burning a total of 7,534,403 acres. There is no way to measure the damage done by words this past year. But just a few minutes on social media reveals how little we practice words that build up instead of tear down. In the last several years, instead of listening to one another and seeking to understand one another, we make fun of, label, put down, and are distinctly mean to one another.

Our words can be deceptive

With the same tongue, we speak blessings and then turn around to curse. James uses a spring of water to illustrate. Can it produce both sweet potable water and bitter, salty water simultaneously? No. That’s not possible. Neither can a fig tree produce olives nor a grapevine produce figs. James calls us to be consistent, to control our speech, and to let it be true, representing the Spirit who lives within us well.

The power of blessing

Some time ago, I read about blessing others … that someone said it takes 37 positives to reverse 1 negative in the heart of a child.  That is staggering.  I don’t know if it’s correct, but what if it only took half as many … 18 positives to reverse 1 negative in the heart of a child … wouldn’t that still be astounding?!?

Jesus was the master of blessing others, children, women, tax collectors, and lepers! A proverb says, “The one who blesses others is abundantly blessed; those who help others are helped” (Proverbs 11:25 MSG).

‘Tis a strange mystery, the power of words!
Life is in them, and death. A word can send
The crimson colour hurrying to the cheek.
Hurrying with many meanings; or can turn
The current cold and deadly to the heart.
Anger and fear are in them; grief and joy
Are on their sound; yet slight, impalpable:–
A word is but a breath of passing air.

~ Leticia Landon


Father, you who created us and said your work was good,
You who gave us tongues and words to communicate,
Give us new hearts, pure, clean hearts
So that what comes up in the bucket will represent you well.
May our conversation always be full of grace,
Seasoned with the salt of the new covenant,
Merciful, kind, generous, and loving
Consistent, focused on blessings, not curses
So that our words are pleasing in your sight,
LORD, our Rock and our Redeemer.

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