The Wagging Tongue: James on Gossip

by Jud Wilhite

We live in a culture that’s inundated with tabloids and dirty laundry. There is gossip in our work places. People talk about other people. We spread hearsay and rumors. The rumor mill turns. Sometimes it’s hard to know. Even in conversations have you wondered, “Am I gossiping right now when I’m saying this? Is it gossip? Is it not gossip?” It can be a real challenge. One thing I’ve realized is that it’s hard to nail gossip down and to determine when you are doing it. But it’s always easy to tell when you are being gossiped about. Isn’t that the truth? You wonder “Is this gossip? Am I telling gossip?” But when you hear someone else talk about you, you know when you are being gossiped about.


I thought Rick Warren gave a great definition of gossip and how we know when we are gossiping. He said this, “When we are talking about a situation with somebody who is neither part of the problem or part of the solution, then we are probably gossiping.” When we are talking about a situation with someone who is neither part of the problem or the solution; I found that very helpful. Let’s say you are at work and you have employees that you work with, maybe you have a work situation and you have a conversation with your employee about another employee, maybe someone under you.


How are you going to deal with a situation? Is that gossip? Not if it’s part of the problem or solution. You are trying to actually get to an end solution that is actually good for everybody. I think intent is really important when we talk about gossip as well. Do you say these things to harm them or to really help them? You can have some hard conversations with people, let’s say in a work environment, but the end goal of it is to actually help that individual take steps and improve and be able to thrive in their work environment. What is our motivation in the things that we share?


When you think about words, statistics say we speak about one-fifth of our entire lives. The average person has over thirty conversations a day. That would fill up in a year sixty-six books at eight hundred pages a book – each year. Crazy, huh? There are lots of opportunities to make mistakes. James says this, he talks about the tongue more than any other writer in the New Testament, he says this in chapter three, verse three: “When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Take ships for example. Although they are so large and driven by strong winds they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body but it makes great boasts.” The tongue is a small part of the body but it makes great boasts.


Now when you go to the doctor and you’re sick and not feeling good, what’s one of the first things the doctor says to you? “Stick out your tongue.” Because your tongue reveals something about what’s going on inside of you. James says in our own lives our tongue is so significant because it steers our lives and it talks about deep internal things that are happening.


The first thing he says is the tongue directs your life. If you want to know where you are going to go in the next five to ten years, look at what you say. If you want to know the direction your life is moving, look at your conversations. Look at the words that are coming out of your mouth. We shape our words, listen to this, but our words shape us. We shape our words and then our words shape us.


He gives us a couple of examples on how the tongue directs your life. First of all, he says it’s like your horse. It’s a huge, beautiful, muscular animal. But you put a bit in a horse’s mouth, this little piece of metal right over the tongue, and then you add a ninety pound jockey on the back of that three thousand pound horse and that jockey can steer that horse wherever he needs it to go.


James says that’s what the tongue is like. You have this little bitty muscle that has a huge impact on our lives. It can make you or break you. It can open doors for you into the future. It can close doors for you. It can help other people. It can hurt other people. It’s wide open. It will determine the direction of your life.


James gives another example. Think about a ship, like the Queen Mary in Southern California. It’s this massive ship. It has three acres of recreational space on it. It’s huge! In fact, the anchor of the Queen Mary is the equivalent in weight to ten cars put together. It’s a massive ocean liner. Yet it’s steered by a relatively speaking small rudder that directs that ship into the wind and waves of the sea. It takes it here and there.


James says the same is true for our tongue. It literally directs your life.

The next thing he says is the tongue pierces others. The tongue has tremendous force for either good or harm. It can pierce others. He says it this way in chapter three, verse five: “Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire. A world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person. It sets the whole course of his life on fire and is itself set on fire by hell.”


Verse seven: “All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles, and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil full of deadly poison.” There is James giving us the uncensored, straight up, no holds barred truth about the tongue. Don’t you affirm that statement? Even when you hear it as harsh as it is, doesn’t it just ring true? The tongue can be a restless evil. It can be a deadly poison. It can destroy lives.


It’s like a fire. Think about a beautiful area in Colorado like the Rocky Mountains. It’s beautiful with the trees and greenery. All of it can be up in smoke due to a spark. The Hayman Fire was the largest fire in Colorado history. It literally cost 150 million dollars. One hundred homes were destroyed in the midst of this fire that burned through 137,000 acres.


James says the same is true for our tongue. You can make a statement or a comment and then things begin to get out of control. One of the big problems with gossip isn’t just that gossip hurts other people. It’s that in the statement of gossip we often get the story wrong.


Then James gives another illustration. He says, “Think about the animals at the zoo. Man has been able to tame animals, reptiles, birds, and all these different things but no man has been able to tame the tongue.” He says, “It’s a restless evil.” Which is a term, restless, that he used back in chapter one, verse eight when he talked about a double minded man, unstable in all of his ways. In other words, it’s liable to break out at any moment. It’s a restless evil. You never know what the tongue is going to do. Then he says it’s like a poison, a deadly poison. The Greek word there is literally snake venom. Let’s just say the word gossip on three. One, two, three. Gossssssssssssip. It’s like snake venom. It’s deadly and poisonous. It even sounds snaky. It can hurt and damage people. The tongue can pierce others.


Then James says, “The tongue reveals our hearts.” The words that we say point to something deeper that’s going on in our lives. He says it this way in James 3:9, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father and with it we curse men who have been made in God’s likeness.” Oh, that’s convicting, isn’t it? We walk into our home and sit around the table. To curse somebody doesn’t mean you say a curse word. It’s a lot deeper than that. You could curse someone by saying, “You’re good for nothing.” What are you doing? You are putting a curse on their life. “You’re a horrible person.” “You’re worthless.” When we say those things we are cursing the very people that are made in God’s likeness. James is saying this shouldn’t be. “Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing, my brothers this should not be.”


James says to watch our tongue because people are made in the likeness of God. They are valuable.


I love the story that Ken Blanchart tells, a business executive that does business training all over America. Ken Blanchart and Barbara Glands did some training with three thousand front-line workers at grocery stores and retail outlets across the country. They talked about the power of words and how what you say really does make a difference in people’s lives. A month later, Barbara said she got a call from a guy named Johnny, who was at the training. Johnny told her early on, “I’m nineteen years old. I have Downs Syndrome. I work as a bagger at a grocery store.” He said this almost immediately. He said, “I went back to the store and I didn’t know how to apply your statements. I liked your talk but I didn’t know what to do with it. I went home and talked with my dad and got an idea.


My dad and I sat down at the computer and everyday we come up with a statement that is affirming of people, that’s encouraging. If I can’t find one in a little quote book, I’ll make it up. We’ll type it up six different times on the computer. I print off fifty sheets and cut all of them.” So he has three hundred of these quotes. Then, every night, Johnny signs each one of them personally. Then the next day at the grocery store he puts this stack right by where he bags the groceries. He gets everyone’s groceries bagged up. Then on the last sack he puts the quote of the day, the encouraging word, in the sack. He makes sure he looks them in the eye and says, “I put something very special for you in this sack. I hope it will brighten your day.” He’ll take them out to their car and help them load up.


Johnny does this every single day. Barbara said after about a month she got a phone call from the manager of that grocery store. He said, “Barbara I can’t believe it. Something really amazing is beginning to happen. I was walking around the store and I noticed while we had lots of checkers at the checkout line, there was no one there but maybe one or two people. The line where Johnny was doing bagging went all the way back to the frozen food section.”


True story! He said, “I would tell them over the intercom that there were other lines you could move over to. We would walk down the line and tell people there were other lines open. People would just look at us and say, ‘No, we’ll wait because we want Johnny’s encouraging word for the day.’ One woman came by and grabbed the supervisor. She said, ‘I used to only come to the grocery store once a week or once every other week. Now I come by almost every day. I buy something just so I can get Johnny’s encouraging word for the day.’” About a month later, the store manager called Barbara and said, “It’s changing our entire culture of our store. Even in the floral department when a flower was broken they used to just throw it away. Now they walk out into the lines, on their own initiative, they pin it onto elderly women or young girls. They brighten their day.”


Listen, there are a lot of people in the org chart at that grocery store but I’m telling you the most important person is Johnny, the bagger. He’s speaking words of life and words of life can change a culture. It can change a group of people. Friends, if it can happen at a grocery store it can happen in a church. This is a place where we speak words of life to one another. We are a community that says, “We’re not going to gossip. We’re not going to share hearsay. We’re not going to engage in this deadly poison that can destroy lives, family, and people. We’re not going to spread those stories. We’re not going to hear them or pass them on. We’re going to put a stop to them. We’re going to share words of life.” 



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