All kinds of animals . . . have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue (James 3:7-8).
The things we say.
With our words we can endear ourselves to others and in the next breath embarrass ourselves in front of the same people. With our words we can cast a vision that inspires, and we can cast a cloud that disheartens. Words allow us to compliment and complain, to express gratitude and share the latest gossip.
The things we say. Some of them were worth saying and others weren’t worth saying at all. And very often what comes out of our mouths surprises us, not to mention those to whom we speak. Most of us, at one time or another, have grieved the unruly nature of our ‘big fat mouth.’ Our words pinball here and there, one moment this, one moment that.
James observed that humans have proven competent at taming all kinds of threatening beasts, but when it comes to our words – what James calls ‘the tongue’ – we are weak and impotent. ‘No one can tame the tongue,’ James writes.
That’s a conclusion that doesn’t offer us much hope.
Those Not-So-Finest Moments
But there is hope. And the Bible is full of stories that are meant to encourage us whenever we reach the limit of our own best efforts.
There’s hardly a bigger fatter mouth to be found in the New Testament than the mouth belonging to one of Jesus’ closest friends, Simon Peter. Let’s briefly survey some of his not-so-finest moments.
At Caesarea Philippi Jesus asked his disciples ‘who do people say I am?’ They reported what they had heard, the word on the streets about Jesus. And then Jesus asked them directly, ‘But what about you . . . who do you say I am?’ Peter answered boldly with God-given insight, ‘You are the Christ.’
And then within a matter of minutes Peter rebuked Jesus as Jesus set forth God’s plan of the salvation of all people, a plan that involved his suffering and death (Mark 8:27-32).
On another occasion Peter swore his loyalty to Jesus, loyalty to the point of death. And then on that same night Peter denied that he knew Jesus or had ever been in his company. Not just once but three times. And the last time, just to make himself perfectly clear, he spiced up his denials with cursing (Matthew 26:35, 74).
James was so right on. ‘Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing’ (James 3:10)
But there are some other stories about Simon Peter that we need to remember.
After the crucifixion and resurrection, after Jesus had ascended to heaven, his followers were gathered in a room in Jerusalem (James was likely among them). They were reflecting on all that had taken place and they were constantly in prayer. Then we are told that in this moment ‘Peter stood up’ and spoke words of direction and leadership. Peter proposed the plan that led to the replacement of Judas.
Not long after that, on the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was poured out on this same gathering of Jesus-followers. Peter again ‘stood up’ and addressed a crowd in the streets of Jerusalem. As a result of this sermon, a bold proclamation of Jesus, three thousand people came to faith and were added to the community of believers on that day (Acts 2:41).
Fast forward some years, and Peter commits his words to writing as he pens letters of encouragement for struggling communities of Christians throughout Asia minor. We have those words in our New Testament and they remain a source of teaching and encouragement for followers of Jesus today.
The Wideness of God’s Mercy
Here’s the point in all of this: God was able to use Peter’s big fat mouth. And he can do the same with yours.
Don’t assume that somehow Peter suddenly became a model of self-discipline. There’s no reason to believe that Peter discovered the secret to taming his tongue. What seems to have clearly made the difference for him was a personal encounter with the resurrected Jesus and the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.
For today, let’s land it here: The harm you’ve done with your mouth doesn’t define you. The things you’ve said that should have been left unsaid do not render you unfit for use in God’s work and they do not nullify the work of God in your life.
Peter had to clear the air with Jesus after the resurrection. Those cursing denials didn’t get erased by time or by being silently ignored. Jesus was able to bring them up without throwing them in Peter’s face. ‘Peter, do you love me?’
And Jesus won’t throw your words back in your face.
If you need to, go make amends. Make apologies. But claim the wideness in God’s mercy. A wideness that more than covers your big fat mouth.
Merciful God, heal the harm I’ve done with my words. Forgive the way praise and cursing can come from me, words that bless and words that bruise. In your grace, give me words that might be used to show who you are and draw others closer to you, I ask in the name of your son Jesus. Amen.