For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.
How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water. (James 3:2-12)
This passage is quite clear on the damage that can be done by our words, but I want to focus on verse 9: "With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God." This bears repeating: we cannot love our God in heaven if we hate other people, who have been created in the image of God. The ten commandments have been condensed to two by Christ: love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, strength, and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself, but really there is one commandment: love the Lord your God. If we do not love our neighbor, breaking the second commandment, then we also do not love God, breaking the first. When Christ says that a "second is like unto it," he's not making the comparison between the word "love" in the first and second great commandments. He is making a comparison in the objects: loving your neighbor IS loving God. I'm not saying that your neighbor is God, but you demonstrate your love for God by loving your neighbor.
We learn Christ's take on this in Matthew 15:
1. The Pharisees' "Tradition of the Elders" was geared toward honoring God but not one's neighbor, even one's own parents. Christ quotes Isaiah when he says to them, "The people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me."
2. What defiles a person is not what goes into him but what comes out of him, because the defiling comes from the heart, not from external sources. We are not tempted to become sinners, we are sinners who feed on the temptations.
3. The ungodly are offended when they hear this truth, because they so desire to blame their sin on outside influences and environment. "Not my fault," is the mantra repeated in hell.
4. We are to leave the ungodly alone and let them reap their reward.
5. The ungodly will lead others astray with their words, and both will be lost.
The alternative position is Christ himself. On the cross, dying, he forgave the ones who killed him. On the cross, dying, he made sure that his own mother was cared for after his death. He loved his neighbor to the end. He took a keen interest in their lives. He made himself nothing, and made his neighbors everything. This is how we are to live, but since we can't because of sin, we are to cling to Christ and have his righteousness escort us into God's presence with fear and trembling.
I could end there, but Matthew drives the gospel home powerfully after this segment in the following passage:
And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly. (Matthew 15:21-28)
The fact that this appears right after the discussion about the sin of the tongue is no accident. Here we have an actual sinner, an outsider, who throws herself on Christ's mercy. The disciples try to get Jesus to send her away, but instead he tests her faith by asking her questions. We have a demonstration here of the tongue of someone who is outside of Israel saving her from destruction. Her daughter is healed, demonstrating that God saves all who throw themselves on his mercy. Those who throw themselves on his mercy can only do so by faith. She agreed with Christ about her state as a "dog," and that showed true faith. The unbeliever will stand at the gates of heaven on judgment day and try to convince the Lord to let him in. The believer will try convince the Lord to shut him out. The words, "I don't deserve this," come to mind. For the sake of his son, God brings us into communion with him, and gives us everlasting life, because we have confessed a righteous truth about ourselves (sin) and Jesus (savior).
We also have a scene where the disciples are cursing their neighbor by attempting to send the woman away, and the woman is blessing not only God but asking for the life of her daughter, blessing her neighbor. She accepts the curses of the disciples, confirming that she deserves to be sent away, but asks Christ to have mercy on her anyway. He does, and he will have mercy on us, as well, but only through a faith that only God can provide.
How can we be like the Canaanite woman? Thankfully, God knows we have little faith, much less than she has. But Christ has a God-sized faith, much more than she has. We, being in Christ by his own will, receive his righteousness as our own, and so we look to Christ's faith to sustain us. Jesus cries out to God on our behalf. We are the sick daughter for whom Christ vouches. He intercedes for us in humility, knowing we are not worthy to receive his gifts, and his faith is worthy enough to get us through the trials of this life and into his holy presence. By his wounds we are healed, and healed eternally.