The Apostle James acknowledges that it’s common to tame a bird—a useful proof text for falconers, ostrich riders, and pigeoneers—but he also warns us of something impossibly untamable, the wildest beast of the jungle. “No human being can tame the tongue.” (James 3:8) The two ounces of muscle resting just behind your teeth has been called a fire, a poison, an untamable restless world of evil.
Not if you’ve been on the receiving end. Every hasty word, every morsel of gossip, every lie, every tirade of verbal abuse, every ostracizing cutdown, every snide remark, every self-righteous boast, every racist or sexist dismissal, every let-me-give-you-a-piece-of-my-mind is a hurtful illustration of the adage, “The tongue has no bones but is strong enough to break a heart.” (The originator of that more familiar and psychopathic adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” clearly didn’t anticipate the invention of social media, talk radio, or middle school).
Author Sam Allberry writes,
“The tongue has a capacity for evil like nothing else. You can’t imagine whole sections of the book of Proverbs being taken up with the use and misuse of the elbow or the toe. But the tongue is an entire ecosystem of sin, a world in itself: continents of wickedness, vast uncharted interiors of any number of evils. The potential for any number of world-changing horrors lives right there in your mouth.”
Yes, other people’s tongues have created some of your deepest wounds. But I’d wager that your own tongue is no saint—very likely the leading character in most of your deepest regrets and worst-behaved moments. Out of the heart the mouth speaks. That means that perfect speech would require a perfect heart. And less-than-perfect speech reveals something far less lovely. Our speech is just the fin in the water; there’s a shark underneath.
So let’s take a field trip to the front lines of the war of words, with an unlikely guide who knows a lot about the power of a strong mouth: the woodpecker.
SMH (Smacking My Head)
Of course, the woodpecker is far more renowned for its beak (and we’ll get there in a moment), but their tongue is an unheralded oddity. For starters, it’s surprisingly long—in some species more than four times longer than the actual beak, creating the obvious question of where it stows when not in use. The woodpecker tames its tongue by housing it in a sheathe that runs from the back of the beak over the rear of the skull, then up along the top of the skull and down over the front of it. That means that, under the woodpecker’s forehead, there’s a tongue that’s made a trip around the head to get there. Naturalist David Attenborough writes, “This equipment is invisible within the woodpecker‘s head so we tend to forget that it is there, but it must surely rate as one of the most extraordinary devices for collecting food possessed by any bird.” The chances of getting tongue-tied are far greater when you’re a woodpecker.
That impressive tongue, with its barbed and sticky tip, is the bird’s finesse tool to hook ants and other insects. But to go bug-mining in a hole, first you need a hole, and the woodpecker is a living jackhammer, gifted with a powerful beak and strong neck muscles that can head-butt a tree up to twenty times a second, up to 12,000 times a day, with a force that would send any NFL linebacker into concussion protocol after the first hit. Imagine smacking your head against a tree trunk at 25 miles an hour. Now imagine doing it again. And again. The woodpecker keeps pounding, day after day without Tylenol, because of a series of shock-absorbing advantages, including a longer lower jawbone for transferring impact to the jaw rather than the skull, and a light brain set tightly in a skull that’s oriented to receive impact from the front, through a layer of spongy bone and jaw muscle. Who knows, maybe that wraparound tongue helps too—a sort of brain seatbelt.
Our human mouths are dangerous enough already, as James 3 warned. Imagine what we would do with the enhanced hardware of a woodpecker. A mouth that’s good for pounding is a power to be wielded for good or for evil.
And with that in mind, the next three posts will be devoted to both: good and evil, healing and wounding, encouragement to speak well and conviction where we haven’t. We’ll look at three different woodpecker species, using each one as both a negative and a positive illustration of the power of words, striving for speech that is “always full of grace, seasoned with salt.” (Colossians 4:6)
Taming the things we say (and type and text and post) might be the biggest battle we wage in our sanctification. This exercise will be convicting. But as we begin, please remember this. Jesus died for your fiery tongue and the heart it flows from. Conviction shouldn’t jump straight to “try harder” without passing first through the finished work of Christ—the only one perfect in heart and speech.