I suspect that we all have said things we regret. The matter of the tongue is a convicting one. In the interest of full disclosure, I confess that this is an area which has been a particular challenge for me. For many years, I blurted out whatever popped into my head without regard for its potential impact. Thankfully, God showed this rather unsavoury aspect of my behaviour to me and has shown me how to bring His grace to bear on it. This is one of those areas where, though I am not where I should be in regard to controlling my speech, I’m also a long way from where I was. You could say it’s a work in progress. That said, let’s look at what James had to say about our tongue and the words it produces.
James 3:1-12 “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment. For we all stumble in many things. If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body. Indeed, we put bits in horses’ mouths that they may obey us, and we turn their whole body. Look also at ships: although they are so large and are driven by fierce winds, they are turned by a very small rudder wherever the pilot desires. Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things. See how great a forest a little fire kindles! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and creature of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind. But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring send forth fresh water and bitter from the same opening? Can a fig tree, my brethren, bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Thus no spring yields both salt water and fresh.”
This single paragraph uses no less than seven word pictures to help us get a sense of the disproportionate problems our tongues create and how difficult it is to control them. We’ll look at them, one at a time, in a moment.
Before he launched into his thoughts on the tongue, James offered a warning to all who would one day read his letter. Some of these fine folk, no doubt, would have a deeper knowledge of the Scriptures and be inclined to share what they knew with others in their circles of fellowship. To these, James wrote:
James 3:1-2 “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment. For we all stumble in many things. If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body.”
James reminded his readers that all of us will be judged, at least in part, according to our own words. Those who fancy themselves teachers — with ability and authority to tell others how to live — had better live up to their own teaching. Paul challenged his friends in his letter to the Romans, along similar lines.
Romans 2:21-24 “You, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that a man should not steal, do you steal? You who say, “Do not commit adultery,” do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who make your boast in the law, do you dishonor God through breaking the law? For “the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,” as it is written.”
Both of these New Testament writers emphasize our responsibility to practise what we preach, whether we are officially “preachers” or not. None of us has a right to hold others accountable to a standard that we are not living up to. James made it clear that if we attempt to, we will be judged more rigorously. And, as he pointed out, we all stumble in many things. Then James introduced the specific matter he would address in the rest of this paragraph. He wrote: “If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body.” In this sentence, James stated his thesis that the most difficult part of the human body to control is the tongue. If we can control that, we’ll be able to control the rest. And the more perfectly we control our tongues, the more perfect we will be.
To help us grasp his teaching, he used a series of word pictures. The first involved horses. This is something I know something about, having had horses on the farm where I grew up and having a couple on the farm where I live now. Horses range in size from 800 pounds or so for smaller breeds to over a ton for the largest. That’s 380 to 1,000 kilograms if you’re more familiar with the metric system. To keep the math easy, let’s peg the weight of a man at about 200 pounds (a little less than 100 kilograms). Even a small horse is about 4 times heavier than an average man. A big horse can be 10 times heavier.
When we introduce the fact that not all equestrians are average-sized people, things get even more interesting. I’ve seen charming pictures of curly-headed little girls leading a horse 50 times her weight. Of course not every little girl can do that with every horse. The disposition of both the girl and the horse are extremely significant. However, the fact remains that small people can control large horses. All that it takes to do this (besides training) is a bit in its mouth. Something that weighs only a few ounces and would fit in your pocket, allows us to control a large animal.
The second word picture is of something I know less about personally. James pointed out that a large sailing ship, driven by fierce winds, can be turned by a very small rudder. Of course, rudder designs and sizes vary with the kind of boats they are intended for, but the idea is the same as the horse and bit. The course of very large ship can be altered by a relatively tiny device. Both of these illustrations underscore scale: large horse, small bit; large ship, small rudder. In both cases, the small thing exerts the power of control over the large one.
The next word picture reinforces the scale issue but adds another element. James pointed to the example of a small flame setting fire to an entire forest. But this time he draws our attention to the negative impact a small thing can have. Every year, fires which destroy thousands of hectares of forests and grasslands are started by a small flame, sometimes only a spark. What is so benign and useful when it is small and under control, becomes dangerous and destructive when out of control.
James makes a straightforward statement: “The tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity.” In stating this, he reminded his readers that an uncontrolled tongue is not a small good thing like a horse’s bit or a ship’s rudder. It is evil. He goes so far as to say that it is set on fire by hell. These are extremely strong words. But can we argue with them? Wagging tongues spread words of hate, anger, revenge, discrimination, genocide, and on and on.
If you thought James’ words were strong, consider what Jesus said about our speech when He was talking with the Pharisees.
Matthew 12:34-37 “Brood of vipers! How can you, being evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things. But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
As I consider the teaching of Jesus and James along with that of the Old Testament wisdom literature which we don’t have time to explore today, I am startled to find significant emphasis on our speech. Then again, it is reasonable, given that, as James said, it defiles the whole body. That is, our words often become the basis on which our reputation is built. Too often, we defile ourselves with unwholesome speech.
Why does this happen? Because we struggle, and often fail, to control our mouths. James emphasized this by again turning to the animal kingdom. He reminds us that “every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and creature of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind.” Clever people who have a way with animals, have tamed and trained just about every kind of wild beast we can imagine. In contrast to this, James wrote: “no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.”
Do you, like me, think that James is indulging in hyperbole here? Do you wish he’d turn down the heat a few degrees. I mean “the tongue is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison”— isn’t that a bit much? Apparently not. Admittedly, James does focus on the negative side. There is positive teaching about our speech in the Bible, but James can’t pull his attention away from the harm he has seen words do. Our mouths are an insurmountable challenge to us. In response to all of the negativity, you might be tempted to say, “Ok I say some things I regret, but I say good things, too. I quote poetry. I pray. I encourage people with my words. I’m not such a bad person.”
To this, James replies in verses 9-12, “With it [our tongue] we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring send forth fresh water and bitter from the same opening? Can a fig tree, my brethren, bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Thus no spring yields both salt water and fresh.”
James declares your argument to be inconsistent. You claim to be “not such a bad person” because you sometimes say good things. He reminds us that a spring always produces the same kind of water and trees always produce the same kind of fruit. We delude ourselves if we think that we can make everything OK by sprinkling a few nice words into our speech. It’s not that easy.
James argued for holiness, righteousness, faith. He could not accept a worldly perspective and lifestyle dressed up on Sundays with a sombre expression and pious words. I confess that I enjoy coming to the close of some of our studies because I have at least a limited sense of satisfaction. We enjoy our insights, make our conclusions, and tidy everything away until next time.
I don’t know about you, but that’s not working for me, today. James has challenged us with a very practical, everyday issue that I don’t think will ever go away, at least not for me. Surrendering our conversation to the lordship of Jesus is something we have to pay attention to every day, probably many times a day. And I’m not just thinking about always saying nice things. James’ words that we’ve looked at today are hardly nice, encouraging ones. For some of us, the greater challenge comes in being willing to say the words that need to be said even when no one wants to hear them.
When you’re reading a book, especially a novel, you’re not supposed to jump ahead and read the end, before you get there. However, I do want to leave you with a verse from the end of James today:
James 5:11″ Indeed we count them blessed who endure. You have heard of the perseverance of Job and seen the end intended by the Lord — that the Lord is very compassionate and merciful.”
We may be feeling convicted about our tongues and the way we use them, but don’t give up. The Lord is very compassionate and merciful. He will hold us up as we persevere through the long process of becoming the people he wants us to be.