The Taming of the Tongue

March 17, 2024 Speaker: Ben Janssen Series: James

Scripture: James 3:1–12

1 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2 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. 3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. 4 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. 5 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! 6 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. 7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.

Last week, we focused on that tricky passage at the end of chapter 2, where James is arguing that faith without the works that come from that faith cannot save, is useless, and dead. The Christian faith—faith in Jesus—is not only about your own personal destiny after you die; it is about your place in God’s new world and the kind of person you are meant to be within it.‌

We must keep that in mind as we come to chapter 3 with its emphasis on “speech ethics.” We must be quick to hear, slow to speak, James has already said (Jas 1:19). Now, he begins to expound upon that theme. He does so beginning here in chapter 3, and this theme is what loosely connects his thought all the way through to chapter 4 verse 12.[1] The way we use our tongues, the words that we speak and the way in which we speak them, is one of the “works” that God demands of those who possess real faith.

By now we’ve all rejected the idea that “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” We know that just isn’t true, but I’m not so sure we’ve really thought about just how serious this issue is. The ancient pagan moralists cared much about this, as does the Old Testament, and especially the book of Proverbs.[2] Jesus taught that “on the day of judgment people will give account” for everything they have said, explaining that “by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt 12:36-37).

James, the brother of Jesus, takes up this topic, addressing it from within the Christian faith. He knows that the tongue cannot be tamed so long as the heart remains unchanged; but it is the Christian faith that can do just that.

Let’s look, then, at what James has to say about the power of our words. James wants to show us the destructive power of the tongue, the proper motive for wanting to control it, and the power that is able to truly tame it.

The Destructive Power of the Tongue

Consider, first, the destructive power of the tongue. James says, in verse 5, that though the tongue is just a small part of our body, it has enormous power, “it boasts of great things.” The words we speak can do a tremendous amount of damage.‌

The Tongue Is a Fire

The comparison James makes is to the destructive power of a fire. “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire,” he says, at the end of verse 5. And then, in verse 6, “And the tongue is a fire.” The tongue has this kind of destructive power. If a fire gets out of control, it can destroy an entire forest. Like a wildfire blown by the Oklahoma wind, this is the kind of destruction that the tongue can also cause.‌

So, if anything, James ups the ante on this issue. We know the tongue has power, destructive power even. But would we think of its destructive power like this? Is this the metaphor we would choose to describe it?‌ “The pen is mightier than the sword,” says the playwright, the power of words more effective than the threat of violence. But James says, “It’s mightier than that even.”

What he says in verse 6 can be confusing. The ESV has it so that the tongue is called not only a fire but also a “world of unrighteousness.” But this latter phrase is probably meant to be read as the predicate of the verb “set,” as the NRSV reads: “The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity.” The point being made is that the tongue “becomes the conduit by which all the evil of the world around us comes to expression in us.”[3] If you want to know how sinful the world is, and how all tied up in its sinfulness you are, well, just open your mouth!‌

It Can Ruin Your Life

Just know that when you do that, James says, the whole body is stained, defiled. This is what Jesus taught, too. “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person” (Matt 15:11). And the reason for that, Jesus explained, is because “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person” (Matt 15:18).‌

Have you ever heard someone try to take back something offensive or damaging they said with an apology followed by this explanation: “I’m sorry I said that. That is not what I meant. That is not what is in my heart”? A more accurate apology would be, “I’m sorry for saying exactly what was in my heart!” What comes out of your mouth often betrays what is in your heart.‌

And it’s not just the whole body—the entire person—that is defiled by our tongues. James goes on to say here that the tongue that defiles sets on fire “the entire course of life.” One wrong word at the wrong time can make our lives go in very bad and costly directions. Relationships can be damaged for a very long time, and sometimes they are irreparably damaged by our words. Reputations can be ruined, which no defamation lawsuit can resolve. Opportunities can be missed. Miscommunication and lying, gossip and deception, slander and libel—all damages that are done caused by what comes out of our mouths.‌ Who can estimate the cost of what this fire damage has caused?

It Will Be Extinguished by Hell

You have no doubt experienced such damage from the mouth of another. You have no doubt caused some of this damage by what came out of your own mouth. But lest we think that this is not that big of a deal, James says at the end of verse 6, that the tongue that does this kind of damage is “set on fire by hell.” That is to say, the tongue that uses its power to cause such destruction will receive its rightful punishment.[4] That which causes so much destruction in God’s world must be rooted out of God’s world.‌

So, do not think, “Well, I may have this problem with my tongue, but at least I’ve got my ticket to heaven.” If we are approaching the Bible asking only about how do I qualify for entrance into heaven, then this passage will not seem to matter too much. Perhaps Christians should be nice people, speak kind words and such, but if they don’t, what’s the big deal? They’re still going to heaven, right?

Well, the Scriptures teach that nothing unclean or defiling will be allowed to enter the New Jerusalem (Rev 21:27). If we want to enter into life, something must be done about our tongues and the destructive power that so often comes from them. This is an issue that Christians, at least, should be most aware of.

The Motivation for Controlling the Tongue

‌James makes the case that the destructive power of the tongue is not something that anyone who wants to live in God’s eternal world can ignore. But we need the proper motivation to even care about this. We can’t just want to “stay out of hell.” We have to desire the alternative. We have to want to be in God’s eternal world in which the tongue will have to be tamed. So, let’s consider our motives.

Check Your Motives

In verse 1, he says, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” Teachers describes both a formal office in the church that some may have as well as a spiritual gift that any could have. Either way, the fact that a teacher, or one who has the gift of teaching, will therefore be talking a lot is what leads to James’s caution that “not many of you should become teachers.” He’s not, of course, discouraging people from exercising this gift or serving in some ministerial office, but he is issuing a warning for those who do and a caution to those who might desire the gift or the office wrongly. Those who teach “will be judged with greater strictness.”‌

Because teachers in the church are often respected and carry authority, it would be natural for some to be interested in this ministry for all the wrong reasons.[5] This is the reason for the warning. The warning itself is that teachers “will be judged with greater strictness.” There is a higher standard for those who serve as teachers. Those who teach the Bible are held accountable to live by it themselves. Those who teach others must pay special attention to the words they speak.‌

James has used this warning to teachers in order to propel him to what he really wants to say to all Christians. As soon as we get to verse 2, and then all the way through this passage, it is not just the teachers who are being addressed but all believers in Jesus. And what James is concerned with here is how we use our words in relationship with one another. James wants to help all Christians avoid the danger of sinning with their words. But he doesn’t just say, “Don’t say bad things.” He wants them to see the issue more deeply.‌

Seeking Perfection

For example, when he says in verse 2, “For we all stumble in many ways,” that sounds like just another way of saying, “Nobody’s perfect.” Well, fine. True enough. But a statement like that can sound as if we’re saying, “No sense shooting for that which is impossible. No sense worrying too much about the power of our words.”‌

Quite the opposite. “If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bride his whole body.” Verse 2 is not there to discourage us from trying to reform our speech. It is there to motivate us toward just that.‌

A perfect man or woman is a true human being, what we were meant to be all along. The poet says, “To err is human.” Sure, but only insofar as we are fallen from the glory for which God made us to possess. God’s plan all along, however, is that we would “be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing”; in fact, he is at work in the various tests of our faith to bring such perfection about in us (Jas 1:4). That is what God wants for you; may it also be what we want for ourselves.‌

What is this “perfection” that we ought to desire? It is not a particular type of personality. Most non-perfectionists know this about “perfectionists”: They ain’t perfect!‌

Look at verse 7. “For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind.” James divides the animal kingdom into four divisions, which reflects what we read in the Genesis account. Listen to Genesis 1:26: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’” Notice not just the same fourfold division of the animal kingdom, but the same emphasis on “taming” or having dominion over these creatures and on being made in God’s image. This is what human beings were designed to be. To be perfect is to have dominion, to subdue, to see that God’s creation is ordered so as to bring life and flourishing.

Radioactive Tongues‌

“But no human being can tame the tongue,” verse 8 says. Human beings can do a lot of things; God gave us an amazing capability that goes with the responsibility of the creation mandate. But in spite of all that we are able to achieve, there is this one thing that we seem to not be able to do. And that’s a big problem. We can cure diseases once thought incurable. We can travel to distant places, at incredible speeds. We can communicate with people on the other side of the planet instantaneously. We can solve complex problems. We can Google to find answers to almost anything we can ask. We can sail the ocean, split the atom, and fly to the moon. God himself once said of us, “Nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them” (Gen 11:6). But here’s one that seems to baffle us all: we can’t tame the tongue.‌

Just when you think you have, something slips out. The tongue “is a restless evil,” James says, “restless” being the same word James used to describe the “double-minded” person back in James 1:8—they are “unstable in all they do.” Our tongues are radioactive! They are more unstable than uranium, and far more toxic too. Our tongues are “full of deadly poison,” James says.‌

Consequently, the failure to tame our tongues is perhaps the greatest threat in the world today. And yet, it seems like no one is paying much attention to this clear and present danger. In fact, you’ll find plenty of encouragement to use the tongue to get back at people, to get what you want, to tell someone what you really think.‌

The Power to Tame the Tongue

‌Christians, of all people, ought to pay attention. Not only because we see the damage that comes from the tongue, but also because we know the power that can, in fact, tame it. What is that power, and how do we make use of it?‌

Double-Tongued‌

In verses 9-10, James observes that with the same mouth “we bless our Lord and Father” one moment and then “curse people who are made in the likeness of God” the next. “These things ought not to be so.” The contrast he makes here reminds us that the strategy cannot be to simply silence the tongue, to not speak at all. The tongue is powerful because it is good, and it is to be used for the good purpose for which God made it.‌

It is the “doubleness” of the tongue that James cites as the problem. When we use our mouths to bless God, perhaps in song or in prayer, that is a good thing. It is what our tongues were made to do. But if we then go out the next moment and use our words to “curse people” we have just shown that our worship of God was insincere, because people are “made in the likeness of God.” You can’t genuinely worship God if you are blaspheming his image with the very next breath.‌

Taming the tongue must begin with the recognition that what we say, or don’t say for that matter, to God’s image bearers is what we say, or don’t say, to God himself. No matter how much you disagree with someone, no matter how detestable they are to you in their practices, their preferences, their personality, or their politics, no human being can be treated as an enemy. For Christians know, as C.S. Lewis wrote, “that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strong tempted to worship.” It is because “there are no ordinary people,” he says, no “mere mortal[s]” that we must “conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics” with “the awe and the circumspection proper to them.” Lewis adds a note of clarification, when he says:‌

This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind . . . which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance, or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour, he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ, . . . Glory Himself, is truly hidden.[6]

‌Our quest to tame the tongue begins by the recognition that what we say of one another is what we say, de facto, of God himself.‌

Go to the Source‌

If “no human being can tame the tongue,” then it should be obvious that it is a fool’s errand to try to find that power within yourself.[7] It simply won’t do to resolve to never utter a biting word. Of course, that’s a good resolution to make, and, yes, to live by the motto, “if you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all,” is better than to not live by such a proverb. But we cannot rest until every last vestige of the tongue’s deadly poison has been eliminated.‌

In verses 11-12, James reminds us, then, that if we want to tame the tongue, we’ve got to go to the source. No spring of water produces both fresh and salt water. No fig tree produces olives, no grapevine grows figs. So, if you want fresh water, you can’t go to a salt pond to find it. If you want olives and figs—if that is the fruit you seek, then you have to make sure that that is the kind of root you’ve got.‌

Taming the tongue requires the consistency of life that James is pressing throughout his letter. However “religious” a person thinks he is, James said in chapter 1, if that person “does not bridle his tongue” his “religion is worthless” (Jas 1:26). At the same time, if you think you can bridle the tongue without true “religion,” without a genuine worship of God, then you are equally deceived. The only hope we have for taming the tongue is to find ourselves regularly in God’s presence, for he alone has the power to change our hearts, which is the root of what comes out of our mouths.

The New Covenant

And this is what we have been given in and through Jesus—access to the very presence of God himself. The new covenant promise, that God would put his Spirit in his people (Ezek 36:27) and write his law upon their hearts (Jer 31:33), this is the power that can tame the deadly tongue.

With Jesus, what is otherwise impossible becomes entirely possible. The power that broke into a broken world on Easter Sunday and inaugurated a new creation is the power that is available now for those who will receive Christ.

Only Jesus Christ, the true human being, possesses the power to tame the tongue. And it is ours if we want it, if we will receive him. His is the power to bring forgiveness and to heal the deep wounds our words have caused. But his also is the power to bring our words into conformity with his own to turn them into a life-giving source.

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[1] Douglas J. Moo, The Letter of James, Second edition, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, ed. D.A. Carson (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2021), 180.

[2] Ibid., 184.

[3] Ibid., 196.

[4] Hell here is not the source of the destruction but the punishment that will be meted out for those who cause such destruction. See Richard Bauckham, James: Wisdom of James, Disciple of Jesus the Sage, New Testament Readings (New York: Routledge, 1999), 45, note 9.

[5] I-Jin Loh and Howard A. Hatton, James: A Translator’s Handbook on the Letter from James (New York: United Bible Societies, 1997), 100.

[6] C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses (HarperOne, 2001), 45–46.

[7] Bible scholars debate whether James is here making a subtle point, that while no human can tame the tongue, God can. See Moo (Letter of James, 200-201), who himself admits that he has gone back and forth on this question over the years.

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