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Who Can Tame the Tongue?

Day 17 | Today’s passage: James 3:7-8 | Historical context of James

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.

I told myself I wouldn’t speak ill of a colleague when I heard others talking about her. But curiosity got the better of me one day, and I jumped in on the conversation. I told myself I would only listen to what they had to say and wouldn’t add anything to it. Though this colleague was sometimes impossible to work with, I was determined to keep my word. Unfortunately, my resolve faltered, and soon, I was chatting about the said workmate.

Yes, my tongue got the better of me.

I love watching animal performances at zoos or circuses—be it a lion jumping through fiery hoops or sea lions waving on command. These aren’t animals I’d approach out in the wild, yet they have been tamed by humans to obey instructions.

Unlike most wild beasts, however, the human tongue is hard to tame or train. The Bible has called the tongue an untamable animal and a “restless evil, full of deadly poison” (vv. 7-8). It’s restless because it is always itching to pass on the latest gossip. It tries to disguise this as an innocent “Did you know. . . ?” or “Have you heard that . . . ?”, but each tale it spins is a deadly poison to someone’s reputation. It turns a little venting into a huge hate spiel, and kills its victims even before they can defend themselves.

But that is not how we are to live. Realizing this hard but sobering truth about the nature of our tongue and its effects should drive us all the more towards the grace of God. When we see the possible damage we can do to another human being through our words, it should lead us to cry out to God and ask Him for the grace and help to control our speech.

It’s never easy to be nice to a person who has wronged you or rubbed you the wrong way, but we can ask the Holy Spirit to help us speak graciously, avoid “unwholesome talk”, and say “only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29).

May we continue to depend on God, for He alone has the power to tame our tongues and guide our every word.

—Michele Ong, New Zealand

Questions for reflection

1. How can you speak positively about someone today?

2. How can you be more mindful of the words you speak?

3. How will you season your words with grace?

Hand-lettering by Rachel Tu


Michele has an accounting degree but believes God has called her to write, and had spent many years persuading her parents to allow her to pursue a career in journalism. Writing is as essential to Michele as breathing, and knows words have the power to transform lives. She spends her free time buying books but ends up not reading them, chilling with her friends, and lazing at the beach in summer. Every now and then she would push herself out of her comfort zone by agreeing to take part in an outdoor activity like hiking but often with disastrous consequences.

 

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Tasting God’s Grace Through Unexpected Challenges

The year 2017 has been a rollercoaster for me. There have been plenty of ups but also plenty of downs and unexpected twists and turns along the way. So when I think back over these last 12 months, I can’t help but smile and also breathe in sweet relief at the same time.

I made it through!

Despite all that life has thrown my way, God has been so good. So kind. So faithful. Most importantly, God saw me through. Here are some key lessons I’ve learned this 2017:

 

1. God Defines My Worth

In this last year, I had to part ways with a company I was working for. It was a painful process and it left me uncertain about my future. It was a wake-up call, and I soon realized how much I had placed my identity, my value, and my self-worth in my job title.

I was functioning like a product of our egotistical, consumerist, and individualistic society. “What do you do?” became the most dreaded question I was asked at flat parties and I found myself taking a big sip of wine before answering with a half-hearted sarcastic remark. Anything to cover up my shame.

However, this eye-opening experience gave me a renewed sense of worth. I realized that my value was not dependent on what I do, but on Whom I belong to. Embracing our identity as children of God is the most freeing “epiphany” we will ever have. To be honest with you, I am still exploring what it means to find my identity in God today, but I am pleased to say that I no longer feel the need to read out my resume to a complete stranger at a dinner party.

 

2. God is in Control Even When I Don’t Feel like it

During the latter half of 2017, my anxiety disorder resurfaced and reared its ugly head. Basic daily tasks like going to the grocery store became increasingly difficult, and panic attacks became a far-too-common occurrence.

As someone who has suffered anxiety throughout her adult years, I have often asked God to remove my overwhelming feelings of worry and panic. But I also know that healing very rarely takes place in an instant, like a thunderbolt zapping you from heaven.

My road to wholeness has been a long, drawn out process, a journey of learning how to relinquish control and trust the One who is bigger than the problems I face. Had God given me a magic bullet to take away my anxiety, I would never have had the opportunity to experience the all-consuming love, grace and kindness of the Father.

To quote a sermon on anxiety by Christian author and speaker Joyce Meyer, “If God doesn’t remove a problem from your life, then He will give you the strength, patience and abilities to get through it. And if He doesn’t deliver you from it, then there must be a lesson that you need to learn through it.”

Living with chronic anxiety is teaching me how to really trust God when things look pear-shaped, and how to give up the need to have all the answers. Perhaps most importantly, I have learned that even if I do not “feel” like God is in control, I can rest in knowing this truth—that God is in control of all things, and that this truth is not dependent upon my feelings.

 

How kind is God, that He repeatedly and without hesitation extends His grace to us! He could, in an instant, teach us all there is to know about this journey called life, but instead He is patient with His children and leads us by the hand like a gentle father does with his children.

As we see 2017 coming to a close, I hope your hearts will be filled with peace, but most of all, I hope you will be filled with grace—grace for one another and also for yourself. We can often be our hardest critics. Embrace the love of God and know that no matter where you find yourself along this journey, know that you are wholly and fully loved by a gentle Father.

How to Fall and Fail Better

In my time writing for YMI, I’ve shared my reflections on my struggles with perfectionism, alcohol, and masturbation, among others. As this year comes to an end, I wanted to be able to proclaim that I have found complete victory over these struggles. But I haven’t. There were days when I didn’t do so well and days when I failed miserably.

Perfectionism is still something I’m grappling with. I’ve turned to drinking for self-soothing many times. Alcohol has often been a gateway to pornography for me, so I’ve sinned sexually as well. Neither am I entirely free from masturbation.

I thought for a long time about whether or not I should write this piece. If I share about my failures, would others think lesser of me? Would I let people down when they realize I am not exactly who they think I am? Am I ready to write so openly about the struggles I still feel deeply ashamed and guilty about? In my desire to be honest, am I being unwise in what I intend to share? Would it stumble others? What would be the repercussions of this piece? Is it pride or prudence that’s causing me to think twice?

But finally, I decided to go ahead and write about my recent failures and what I’ve learned through them. I personally don’t believe it’s healthy for Christians to feel like they can only share their stories when it’s a success story. I’m convinced that stories of ongoing growth—which necessarily include failures—deserve to be heard, too. I hope that I can encourage others who, like me, are still journeying through abiding struggles in their lives.

Through my failures, these are some lessons God has been teaching me this year. These are His opportunities of grace in the midst of my sins and missteps.

 

Accept God’s Forgiveness

One of my biggest struggles when I fall into sin in an area I’ve been struggling with for a long time is receiving and believing God’s forgiveness. “I can’t believe I’ve done it again,” I say to myself. “I’ve told God I won’t ever do it again, and yet, here I am again.” I’ve trouble believing how God can keep extending His forgiveness and grace to me when I’ve disappointed Him so many times.

The morning after I’d gotten drunk and turned to pornography and masturbation the night before, I felt really lousy about myself and I didn’t know how to face God after what I’d done. He spoke to me through Peter’s question to Jesus, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”, and the Lord’s reply, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:21-22), which was to say, for as many times as it’s needed.

In the midst of my self-loathing and despair, I felt God say to me that He would not tell Peter to do something He Himself was not willing to do. It was as if He asked me, “Would I not forgive you that many times as well?”

I was very moved by His kindness and His grace toward me. Though I still struggle to always deeply believe and receive His forgiveness, I’m learning to hold fast to His promise of forgiveness and cleansing once I’ve confessed my sins to Him: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9).

 

Ask for Accountability

Confessing to God is one thing: despite my insecurities, I know that He will not reject me. Confessing to others is another thing altogether for me.

When I’d sinned, especially sexually, my first instinct was to hide this from people who knew and loved me. I was already overwhelmed with how much I’d let myself down; I couldn’t bear the thought of others also seeing me as a disappointment. These are people who have walked with me, seen me do better for a while now, and yet, I’ve failed in those very areas that they’d journeyed with me.

Still, I’d lived long enough to know that as painful as it was to confess my sins to someone, the pain of not confessing was even greater. I’d hidden my sins from others before—resolving never to repeat them and hoping therefore that I wouldn’t ever need to bring them up to anyone—only for that to backfire on me. What it did was to make it easier for me to create a double life: since no one knew about my sins and I wasn’t accountable to anyone about them, I had lesser reason to think twice the next time I was tempted to sin, since even when I fell, no one would have to know or call me to account for my actions.

So I plucked up my courage and told my mentor what I’d done. He patiently listened to me, lovingly asked questions to find out more about what I was going through, and wisely shared his counsel with me. Instead of rejection and condemnation, I received unconditional love and support. His response helped to dispel my fear that people would only accept me when I did well, and if I messed up, they’d disapprove of me.

 

Admit Failure Humbly

The thought of telling others I’d sinned also felt humiliating. At first, I thought the humiliation had to do with feeling ashamed of myself for my long-standing flaws. While it did indeed involve feelings of shame, I realized that the root of the humiliation actually came from my pride—from my own false sense of superiority. I’d thought I was better than this, that I’d overcome all these weaknesses and I was much stronger. But now that there was evidence to the contrary, my prideful sense of self was utterly wrecked.

God had to humble me to make me aware that apart from Him, I can do nothing (John 15:5) and I have no good thing (Psalm 16:2). And He did this out of His love for me. As long as I held on to any illusion that it was I who achieved my own victories, I was dangerously depending on myself and my strength, rather than on Him and His power, to walk the Christian life. God was protecting me from fostering pride in my heart, which would easily lead to sins of self-reliance and rebelliousness against Him.

 

Acknowledge that Sanctification is a Messy Process

This year, I had to reckon more honestly with what the journey of sanctification looks like. Even though I’d known in my head that I wouldn’t just stop struggling with my sins overnight, I’d secretly hoped that that would somehow still happen for me.

Of course, it didn’t. I had, through repetition over a long period of time, reinforced these habits of sin, so it would also take a period of time for me to unlearn these unhealthy habits and to learn new, healthy habits.

And I’m actually glad that these changes don’t happen instantly, because it is through wrestling with these issues in the trenches that I can cultivate the skill, strength and steadfastness of developing and maintaining godly, healthy patterns in my life.

A few days after I’d shared my struggles with my mentor, he texted me this quote by Gandhi: “Strength does not come from winning. Your struggles develop your strengths. When you go through hardships and decide not to surrender, that is strength.” I understand that sanctification is a messy process which involves making the same mistakes over and over again, and that’s part of the process of developing the strength to walk out the journey better.

In his novella “Worstward Ho,” the Irish writer Samuel Beckett wrote, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” What makes the difference is what I do when I fail. Do I mope around in shame, guilt and self-condemnation, hiding and running away from God? Or do I use them as opportunities to learn how to “fail better”—to struggle better and more faithfully before God?

 

Always Fall at the Foot of the Cross

I once read in a devotional this wonderful line: “When you fall, fall at the foot of the Cross.” The author explained that when we sin, we have to make sure that it doesn’t cause us to fall away from God. Rather, when we fall, we are to draw even nearer to God, to seek His forgiveness and restoration because Jesus has made that possible for us at the Cross.

At the foot of the Cross, I’d found God’s unconditional love and acceptance, grace for my mistakes, and the removal of my guilt and shame. The Cross opened the way for me to always be able to approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that I may receive mercy and find grace to help me in my time of need (Hebrews 4:16).

And because of the Cross, God accepts me not because of what I’ve done or haven’t done, but because of what Jesus has accomplished on it. One particular evening, when I was wrestling with my fears of being disapproved and disqualified by God, I heard Him say to me, “I don’t only want you when you’re successful.”

He reminded me of something the American pastor Sy Rogers said. Rogers pointed out that God already knew all the mistakes we’d make before He saved us. And yet, He came for us anyway, because God would rather have us messy, than not have us at all.

Isn’t that the Gospel? But how easily I forget this precious truth in my moments of failure. What I’m learning this year is to go back to the basics of the Gospel, to rediscover what it means to receive and rest in God’s love and grace.

So instead of seeing my failures as occasions for self-condemnation, I’ve come to see that I can lean into them as opportunities of grace to cling more closely to God and to depend more desperately on His strength. I’m learning in a deeper way what it means to experience His forgiveness for my failures and the perfection of His power in my weaknesses (2 Corinthians 12:9).

This is the Father’s prodigal love and perfect grace for a broken but recovering, a messy but growing, child—for me, and for you, too.

The Time I Attempted Suicide

Pills and broken glass, tears and blood, fear and despair. It was one of the darkest nights of my life. I didn’t want to do it yet I couldn’t see how to face the next day. The pain of ending everything there and then seemed lesser compared to the pain of going on. I lay down in bed, waiting to bleed out and knock out, to sleep the last sleep. I was 19.

Two years before that night, shortly after I entered junior college, I lost interest in my studies. It was a very stressful time for me. My grades took a nosedive, which made me even more unmotivated. I slept a lot and my mood was low most of the time. There were times when I’d cut myself. I thought that experiencing physical pain was the only way to express and cope with my inner pain. I didn’t know why I was feeling that way.

A few months after my A-Level examinations, I received a letter from the Ministry of Defence informing me of the date of my enlistment into National Service (NS)*. That’s when my world came crashing down.

You see, I wasn’t an athletic or sporty kid growing up. So my parents often told me that if I didn’t build myself up physically, I wouldn’t be able to make it through the rigors of NS. I understand now that that was their well-intentioned way of motivating me to be more prepared, but all through my teenage years, I took their comments to mean that I was inadequate for, and so would not survive, military life.

Since secondary school, I also struggled intensely with not being able to fit in with the other boys in class and I realized I was attracted to guys. So the idea of being stuck in a hyper-masculine military environment with other guys terrified me and I was worried of what might happen if they knew I was gay. All of my worries added up into a deep fear of enlistment.

I began to desperately plead with God to engineer a miracle to get me out of this situation. I made bargains with Him. If only He’d take this away, I promised to do certain things in return. I spent nights lying in bed with fearful thoughts and frantic prayers, crying myself to sleep, and getting up again in the middle of the night to beg Him to make this go away.

But the days went by, and nothing happened. I met up with my closest junior college friends for the last time, I researched quick and painless ways to die, and I wrote my final letters to my family members. All through that time, fear was building up in my heart and intrusive dark thoughts kept running through my mind. On the one hand, I didn’t want to end my life, but on the other hand, I believed this was the only exit from the situation I dreaded so much. I struggled with troubling questions of whether God would forgive me if I committed suicide. Was it a pardonable sin or an act so heinous that I’d be condemned to hell?

Then came the day before my enlistment. There was still no miracle. I waited at night until all my family members were asleep, and carried out my plan. As I laid down in bed, I was banking all my hopes on the pills or the bleeding to get the job done. I wondered what I’d see on the other side of life. Would I see God?

When I opened my eyes, the first person I saw was my mum crying hard at the foot of the bed. I gradually realized that I was in the hospital. My first thought was, “Oh, shit.”

I didn’t succeed. I was still here. What was going to happen now?

The love of the Father

Well, what happened as I recovered was that I found out how much I was loved. Sure, I was aware before this that my parents loved me, but that was not something that I knew in any deep, experiential way. When I saw my mum crying her eyes out, I realized she cared for me much more than I’d believed. And I’d never seen my dad and grandma that anxious and heartbroken before.

A close secondary school friend came to visit. She told me that the medical team had to pump the pills out of my body. My tuition teacher visited, and I was surprised to see her burst into tears. She read Psalm 121 to me to assure me that God would always watch over me and help me. After I was discharged, all my relatives came over, showing their concern and sharing their counsel in their own ways. I never knew the people in my life cared this much about me.

I remember the day my family took me home from the hospital. We didn’t talk much on the way back. I went to my room and sat down on my bed. A moment later, my dad came in with a paper bag. It contained my journals, in which I’d written what I’d meant to be my last words to my family members. He handed me the bag and said, “Let’s take it that this never happened.”

I understood it as an act of grace, of mercy. Perhaps it was the tender and quiet way he said it. Or perhaps, it might be how he offered that statement to me as a gesture of kindness. He laid there before me the gift of a clean slate. That, perhaps, was the miracle.

What my dad did was a small yet significant reflection of what my heavenly Father did for me: God offered to forget my sins and give me a clean slate, if I would accept and believe in the gift of His Son, Jesus. The particulars of my story may or may not be similar to yours, but the love and grace of the Father for you and me is the same, regardless of our present struggles or past mistakes. God is eager to heal and restore; He’s in the business of resurrecting lives.

I saw a psychiatrist for two years after that. He helped me to recognize that I had been clinically depressed since my junior college days, and my depression had worsened as my enlistment date—what I’d deeply feared—drew near. Over time, with medication, counselling and a supportive Christian community, I got better.

My enlistment date was deferred until several months later. During my time in NS, I experienced how God was faithful in bringing me through those years. I learned to know Him more truly as the God from whom my help comes (Psalm 121:1–2), the One who constantly watches over me and carefully keeps me from harm (Psalm 121:3–8).

Today, you can still see scars, but much faded now, etched on my left forearm from that dark night. But because of the lavish love and merciful forgiveness of God, shown to me by the wounds of Jesus at the Cross, I can look at the scars of shame and see instead the marks of His grace (Isaiah 53:5).

 

* National Service (NS) is compulsory duty in the uniformed services for all Singaporean males upon finishing their tertiary education (but before any higher education). This usually includes two years of full-time service.