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“The Taming of the Tongue”

James 3:1-12
Bob DeGray
February 18, 2001

Key Sentence

Your words are the key issue of your Christian life.


I. The Perfect Tongue (James 3:1-2)
II. The Powerful Tongue (James 3:3-8)
III. The Perverse Tongue (James 3:9-12)


        I hope you’ll forgive me. I’m about to do something that some of you may find a little bit disconcerting. I’m going to ask you a question: are you aware of your tongue? I mean physically? Aware of it lying there in your mouth? When you become aware of it, it always feels awkward: You don’t quite know what to do with it

        Now was that kind? No. You can stop being aware of your tongue now. But I do want to ask another question: are you aware of your tongue verbally? Are you aware of your words, and of the impact they have on those around you and on the course of your life. According to James, there is nothing more expressive of your Christian life than the words you speak. Your words are the key issue of your Christian life.

        In James 3:1-12 we are briefly shown the ideal of a perfect tongue - appropriate words in all circumstances. But then we are reminded how powerful the tongue is, and how perverse or double-minded our speech can be. The effect of this is to sober us - to increase our awareness of what a dangerous weapon we wield so that we remember to use it carefully. Do you believe your words are the key issue of your Christian life? If you don’t, you probably will after reading James 3 a few times.

I. The Perfect Tongue (James 3:1-2)

        Let’s begin by looking at the ideal: a perfect tongue. This is verses 1 and 2. Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. 2We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check.

        James makes the transition to the subject of the tongue by talking about teachers, who are especially required to choose their words carefully and with the right motives. It seems that in the early church, where very few people could read or write, the position of teacher had been granted a great deal of respect. But some who became teachers could not handle the responsibility that came with the respect. They began to use their position to benefit themselves, or sow dissension, or distort the truth. As Paul describes it in Philippians 1:17, they became those who “preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble.”
        So James warns that not many should presume to become a teachers, and that those who do will be subject to a stricter judgment. If you claim to have knowledge of God’s word for his people, and feel called to deliver it, then you are responsible to do so clearly, and to obey it, and you will be subject to increased accountability. Jesus said, “from everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”

        Every one of us will stand before the judgment seat of Christ. This will not be to receive punishment for sins, since in Jesus we have freely received forgiveness. But the works of believers will be judged. In Corinthians Paul depicts individual believers presenting their life works to Christ in the form of buildings. The eternal foundation of each building is Christ, but the super-structures and building materials vary. At the judgment seat one who has built with straw, hay, or wood will find these things burned by fire and consumed. They themselves will escape as through the flames. But the one who has built with enduring materials, the truth of God, and the proper application of it, will find that their work endures. The teacher, who has built in the lives of others as well as his own, will have more to burn, or more to be preserved. But if what you have done burns, this is the stricter judgment James promises.

        Having said this to teachers however, James begins to expand the thought to others. The ‘we’ in verse 1 includes James and teachers, but the ‘we’ in verse 2 includes all his readers. He says “we all stumble in many ways”. ‘Stumble’ means ‘sin’. There are many ways different people sin. But, James says there is one sin characteristic of all people: “If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check.” Words are the key issue of your Christian life.

        We have seen ‘perfect’ several times in James. It can also mean complete or mature. The person who is able to control what they say is almost certainly mature as a believer, able to handle other temptations as well. As Douglas Moo says “so difficult is the mouth to control, so given to utter the false, the biting, the slanderous word, so prone to stay open when it were more profitably closed, that the person who has it in control surely has the ability to conquer other, less unruly members of the body.”

        So the ideal is perfect control over all of our speech. But each of us, if we are honest with ourselves, admit we have not achieved that perfect or mature control over what we say. Even those who seem to come closest would admit that while some of their words may be godly, they still stumble a lot: they have not yet reached completion. Therefore all of us need to be aware of our tongue.

II. The Powerful Tongue (James 3:3-8)

        In the remaining verses James reinforces this by showing how powerful the tongue is, and how perverse the tongue can be. We see it’s power in verses 3 to 8:When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. 4Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. 5Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. 6The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. 7All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, 8but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

        James stacks up four illustrations to convince us of the importance of the tongue. Each of these shows how a small thing can control or unleash great power. First, the horse. A horse weighs a thousand pounds or more, and can easily carry 500 lbs for long distances. The same horse, unburdened, can sprint a quarter of a mile in about 25 seconds. Yet, place a bridle and bit in its mouth and a 100 lb. girl who knows what she’s doing can literally make this powerful animal dance.

        Second, the rudder of a ship: James observed in his day that ships small and large were steered by an amazingly small rudder. It’s still the same, whether we are looking at a tiny sailboat or the U.S.S Enterprise. He who controls the rudder controls the ship. Just this week we’ve been hearing about the U.S. submarine Greenville, which accidently surfaced into and sank a Japanese fishing crawler. Now it appears a civilian was at the rudder of the ship. Though the military authorities tell us they were in control, intuition tells us that he who controls the rudder controls the ship.

        James pauses at this point in his illustrations to briefly apply them. Verse 5: “likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but makes great boasts.” As the bit controls the horse through its movement, and the rudder the ship through its movement, so also the tongue controls the body and affects other things through its movement: the words that it forms, the boasts that it makes, these are the source of its influence.

        James’ third illustration is the one I personally find most compelling: the tongue is like the spark of a fire, with great potential for destruction. When we visited the National Parks in Montana this summer we saw the destructive power of fire. Yellowstone was still recovering from the fire nearly ten years ago that destroyed a third of the park’s forest and rangeland. The trees still stand like rows of charred pencils, silent witnesses to the powerful flames that stripped them bare. In the Grand Tetons a fire destroyed the area around a lake. What impressed me about that fire was that despite the efforts of the firefighters, the fire had burned down in the under growth for weeks after it was supposed to be out, bursting forth into destructive flames at different points. In the same way the spark of our words can start a destructive fire, or a deceptive hidden fire, in our own lives and in the lives of those around us.

        Verse six is particularly daunting: “the tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets all who course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” Your tongue, those few ounces of mucus membrane, as Chuck Swindoll calls it, has tremendous power for destruction. It can create a world of evil among the parts of your body, destroying you. It can set the whole course of your life on fire. Your words have tremendous consequences, so much so that at times it is obvious they come from the flaming pit of hell. Earlier I asked you to be aware of your tongue, physically. Now imagine that the tongue you’re aware of is a flaming fire in your mouth. The pain you imagine is nothing compared with the pain your tongue can cause to you and to others.

        The fourth illustration is in verse 7: “all kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue.” In Genesis God gave man dominion over all the creatures, and though that dominion is imperfectly expressed, it is true that man has tamed nearly all animals, or at least subjected them to his control, constraining them in zoos and aquariums. R. Kent Hughes says “I have seen whales playing jump rope at Sea World. I have seen African lions cowed, submissive to the wizardry of Gunther Gebal Williams. I have seen eagles kill their prey and humbly lay it at their master’s feet. I have seen a woman obediently kissed on the lips by a deadly cobra. But I have never seen one man or woman who in their own power could tame the tongue.”

        James agrees: “no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, fall of deadly poison”. James pictures the tongue as relentlessly searching for those it can hurt. And since it can’t be tamed, you would think it must poison those around you. But Augustine points out that James “does not say that no one can tame the tongue, but no one among men; so that when it is tamed we confess that this is brought about by the pity, the help, the grace of God.” No man can tame the tongue but God can tame the tongues of those he has redeemed and made new.

        James’ point in these four graphic illustrations is to help us know and fear the great power of our words. Here’s another illustration that struck me. “ In 1899 four newspaper reporters from Denver, Colorado set out to tear down the Great Wall of China. They almost succeeded. Literally. The four met by chance in a Denver railway station, because their editors had sent them to dig up a story for the Sunday editions. They were each hoping to snag a visiting celebrity. To their mutual frustration, no celebrities showed up. They would return empty-handed to their four papers.

        One of them declared that he was going to make up a story and hand it in. The other three reporters laughed. They went over to a hotel to have a beer, where another said he liked the idea of faking a story. Why not have each of them do it? And instead of four fake stories, why not one huge one? They had another round of beers. A phony domestic story would be too easy to check, so together they created a foreign one. A group of American engineers en route to China had told them that the Chinese government was going to tear down the Great Wall as a symbol of international goodwill and to welcome foreign trade. The Americans were bidding on it.

        Thoroughly sloshed, the reporters left the hotel. And all four papers carried the story. On the front page. The Denver Times trumpeted: "Great Chinese Wall Doomed! Peking Seeks World Trade!" Other papers across America picked it up, then those around the world. When the Chinese learned that the Americans were coming to tear down their national monument they were indignant or enraged. Particularly incensed were members of a secret society, a group of patriots that despised foreign influence.

        Inspired by the story, they exploded in revolt, attacked embassies in Peking and butchered hundreds of missionaries across the country. 12,000 foreign troops then invaded to protect their citizens. This bloodshed, sparked by a journalistic hoax invented in a bar in Denver, became the international incident known to every high school student as the Boxer Rebellion.” And now you know the rest of the story - as reported by Paul Harvey. It illustrates the awesome destructive potential of mere words.

III. The Perverse Tongue (James 3:9-12)

        But if words are entirely bad would we be better off never saying anything at all? At times! Yet God invented the tongue, and though often turned to evil, it can also be the source of great blessing. James depicts this perverse dichotomy in the last several verses: 9 to 12. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God's likeness. 10Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. 11Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.

        In his years as a church leader, James must have experienced believers who were double minded with regard to words. On the one hand they blessed God, but on the other hand they cursed men, cursed those made in God’s image, who they were supposed to love in Christ. This was particularly obvious because these early Christians had the Jewish habit of adding the phrase ‘blessed be he’ to every mention of God. Their meetings were apparently filled with praise. Yet the same people who blessed God could begin even as they left worship to curse men, to seek their damnation. Jesus prohibited his disciples from cursing others; indeed, they were to ‘bless those who curse you’ Luke 6:28. And what makes cursing particularly horrible is that the one whom we damn has been made in God’s image. What sense does it make to bless God out of one side of your mouth and curse his creation out of the other.

        Notice in verse 10 that James drops the use of the word ‘tongue’ and begins using the word Jesus favored, mouth. Jesus saw a person’s speech as a barometer of his spirituality; revealing his heart. Listen to Matthew 12 “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken.”

        As he did previously, James vividly illustrates that if you want your mouth to produce good it must by nature come from your heart. So he says “can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?” Obviously not. A spring is one or the other, but not both. “Can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs?” Jesus taught that a good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit. The fruit reflects the nature of the tree. In the same way a pure heart, a heart renewed by God, cannot produce false, bitter, harmful speech.

        And there is actually hope in these last few verses compared to the previous paragraph. Here we see at least the possibility of blessing, which is a step toward the perfect speech we saw in verse two. We can bless God in all his goodness, and bless others. The fact that the tongue can be used so dramatically for evil needed not discourage believers, for as those redeemed by God and given the Holy Spirit we can receive strength to use the tongue for good. But we must resolve to bless rather than curse.

        As we close I would like to walk through a short list of common tongue diseases, abuses of words into which we often fall. If the warning of these verses has sobered us, we will want to be aware of our tongue, to avoid hurtful words, and to use our words to bless. So listen to this list and to the voice of the Holy Spirit so that later you can go before the Lord and seek his strength to bless with your words.

        Four wrong uses of the tongue, then. First, anger. James has already said that we must be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. But many of us struggle with anger: we respond in anger when others get in the way of our self interest. It comes out in one of two ways: rage, or verbal hammering. Rage is the sudden explosion of words that blasts a person and attempts, verbally at least, to destroy them. It is verbal abuse, verbal violence. But then there is what I call verbal hammering, in which we take offense and won’t let go. One sentence identifying the offense is not enough: we say it over and over in different ways. Somehow we have convinced ourselves that if we hammer the person with this perceived offense we will change them. Unfortunately, in human relationships, we are far more likely to break them.

        Second, gossip and innuendo. With gossip you can destroy a person not through what you say to them, but what you say to others. Gossip often veils itself in acceptable phrases such as “Have you heard...?” Or “Did you know...?” Or “They tell me...” R. Kent Hughes adds “Of course, the most common rationalization in Christian circles is, “I’m sharing this so you can pray.” This seems so pious, but it is pitiful and hurtful. As Morris Mandel writes “gossip is the most deadly microbe. It has neither legs nor wings. It is made entirely of tales, and most of them have stings.” A cousin of gossip is innuendo. Consider the ship's first mate who after a drunken binge was written up by the captain in the ship's log: "Mate drunk today." The mate's revenge? Some months later he surreptitiously wrote on his own log entry, "Captain sober today." We can hurt by what we imply as much as by what we say.

        Perhaps this is the time to mention the tests you can use to see if your words are blessing. William Norris says “If your lips you would keep from slips, Five things observe with care: To whom you speak; of whom you speak; And how, and when, and where.” That’s good, but I think I like Alan Redpath’s ‘THINK’ formula better: T _ Is it true? H _ Is it helpful? I _Is it inspiring? N _ Is it necessary? K _ Is it kind? If what we are about to say does not pass these tests, we simply shouldn’t say it.

        Third on my list would be hurtful humor. You know immediately what I mean by that. It is possible to get away with saying almost anything if you make it a joke, or with a humorous lift of your eyebrows. But the person you have directed this against doesn’t hear the humor they only feel the hurt. I’m not saying humor is wrong: I love to laugh. But humor directed at a specific individual is wrong. It is a slap in the face or a knife in the back. As James says “brothers these things ought not be.”

        Last, but only because it may be less harmful to others, is boasting. James told us that the tongue makes great boasts. Egotism can easily consume our speech. To use Karen Main’s words, your tongue can have ‘I’ disease. Listen to yourself and see if your speech is focused on you: on your needs, on your wants, on your successes, on your experiences. This is ‘I’ disease. And since it is an eye disease, it’s easier to see in others than it is to see in ourselves. When Jesus said don’t strain to take the speck out of your brother’s eye before you remove the log from your own, he was talking about how you choose words. We are to be self-critical and other focused.

        But for each of these verbal sins that hurt others there is an alternative that blesses. Against the sin of anger there is the gentle word of caring, compassion, and comfort, the word that builds up instead of tears down by rage and hammering. Your words can be a blessing to others, and a blessing to God, for he made them in his own image.

        Against the sin of gossip, there is the blessing of silence. This too is a verbal skill. James has already said we should be slow to speak. And if we THINK: “Is it true, is it helpful, is it inspiring, is it necessary, is it kind?” we will often find that what we were about to say doesn’t need to be said at all. Silence can be a blessing.

        Against the sin of sarcastic humor, there is the blessing of blessing. My hearts desire for my marriage is that at every chance I would say a kind, complementary, uplifting word about my wife. And that you would never hear from my lips a word that cuts her down or a joke at her expense. This is the way it ought to be in all relationships. There is enough humor in the world without directing it against someone you’re supposed to love. There is little enough affirmation in the world without neglecting it when the opportunity arises. Go out of your way to say the affirming word.

        Against boasting there is the simple exercise of substituting “you” for “I” and replacing statements with questions. To get your mind off yourself, put it on somebody else. Focus on them, on their needs, and on the joy of getting to know who they are as a person. It is in such dialogue we come to realize that we’re brothers and sisters in Christ; we come to care for each other on a heart level. You can’t truly care for someone you don’t know. You can’t truly know someone you haven’t listened to.

        So James has taught us to be aware of our tongues. If being aware of our words raised the same level of discomfort that being aware of that slab of flesh in our mouths did, maybe it would be good. But it doesn’t. So we have to think. We have to recognize that our words are the key issue of our Christian lives.

        How will you respond? Have these words of Scripture heightened your awareness of the importance of your own words? If so I’d like to ask you to take the next several minutes to think and pray and apply. Talk to God about the importance of your words, tell him what you’ve recognized from this Scripture text, and ask his help to deal with anger or gossip or sarcasm or boasting in your own life. Jesus said it is out of the overflow of your heart that your mouth speaks. God can deal with your heart right now. A little Holy Spirit heart surgery may be just what you need for tongue and “I” diseases.