Use one or both of these questions to introduce the lesson:
1. Nineteenth century American poet Emily Dickenson wrote this couplet: “A word is dead when it is said, some say. I say it just begins to live that day.” Paraphrase her thought into a single sentence. What evidence do you have that it is true?
2. Consider a time when you wished you could have taken back something you said as soon as the words left your mouth. What were some of the results of your hastily uttered speech?
Read James 3:1-5a.
1. Imagine that your congregation’s Christian education director is desperate to fill some volunteer teaching positions in children’s Sunday school. Why would you caution him or her against making a pitch to prospective teachers with the words, “Anyone can do this”?
2. James speaks of two mechanical devices that give direction. He makes the point that, like the tongue, these devices are relatively small. But note another significant comparison. From where do these devices direct? Why is it important that speaking constructively be an “inside job”?
Read James 3:5b-8.
3. James moves from the constructive task of giving direction to the destruction that uncontrolled power can wreak. Think of the destructiveness of forest fires and some ways people can accidentally cause them. How could you use that illustration to answer someone who defends a harsh word by saying that he or she did not mean to hurt anyone?
4. The picture of the human tongue being full of poison brings forth the unflattering image of a venomous reptile. Look up the meaning of the phrase “poison pen letter.” What is the intent of such a note? How are such letters often signed? What lessons can we draw from this about a place to start in controlling our words?
Read James 3:9-12.
5. In 1966, the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act was passed by the U.S. Congress. It required that products have a label telling what they are, where they were manufactured, and what ingredients they contain. How does James say believers can violate such a law when we label ourselves “Christians?”
6. Review what James said about being a perfect person (v.2) and who can control the tongue (v. 8a). If the tongue is out of our control, is it even possible to reign in our speech? How do Galatians 5:19-23 and James 3:13-18 give us insight concerning that question?
7. Although we cannot take back words we hastily speak, we can work to mitigate the damage. To whom do you need to offer an apology for something you said?