Taming the Tongue (James 3:1-12)

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. We may have said this as kids, but we know it’s not true; words do hurt. Ephesians 4:29 TLV “Let no harmful word come out of your mouth, but only what is beneficial for building others up according to the need, so that it gives grace to those who hear it.”

We know we should say kind things to others, yet it’s easy for us to let something mean fly out our mouths before our brain has a chance to stop us. Why is that? James says our tongue is like a fire. We’ve all seen a raging fire; our mouths can be like that at times. Have you ever been driving and the person in front of you is going ten under the speed limit? I cannot count the times I have yelled, “Drive you idiot, or GO, GO, GO, GGGGOOOO!” That may seem like a small thing, but it is not. I let anger get the best of me and control my words. I know you can relate or have seen someone lose control with their words, be it your spouse, partner, friend, or co-worker. 

Scripture has much to say about our words; here are two examples of the weight and importance of our words:

Proverbs 18:21 AMP “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, And those who love it and indulge it will eat its fruit and bear the consequences of their words.”

Jesus said in Matthew 12:36-37 TLV “But I tell you that on the Day of Judgment, men will give account for every careless word they speak. 37 For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”

Looking at those verses we can see why James would spend the time in his letter discussing our words. Last week we talked about faith and works. Our words are a part of our works. We are saved by grace alone, through faith alone; yet, we will be held accountable for our words and actions. Our words are so important that James mentions our words throughout his letter, the most notable being half of chapter three.

James begins chapter three by addressing those who want to become teachers. In verse one, he says, “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we will receive a stricter judgment.” Those who teach in the name of God need to be accurate. They are either leading God’s people in truth or error, and they will give account for what they say in God’s name. It is a serious thing to handle the Word of God; those who are behind a pulpit, on a podcast, or writing a blog will give account for what they declare to be the teaching of Scripture.

Now, James doesn’t leave out the believer but goes on to various examples concerning the use of our words. He begins with the analogy of a horse, a ship, and a fire.

James 3:2-6 TLV “For we all stumble in many ways. If someone does not stumble in speech, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well. And if we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole body as well. See also the ships—though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered 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. See how so small a fire sets a blaze so great a forest! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is a world of evil placed among our body parts. It pollutes the whole body and sets on fire the course of life—and is set on fire by Gehenna.”

When it says the one who does not stumble is a perfect man, it means he is a mature man. Those who learn how to control their tongue are mature believers. It is easy to fly off the handle; it takes restraint not to; that is why self-control is a fruit of the Spirit. Anyone can give into their base nature, but the more we mature, the more we grow into the likeness of Christ the less we will yield to the flesh.

If we put a bit in a horse’s mouth to control it, how do we control our mouths? Psalm 141:3 “Set a guard, Adonai, over my mouth. Keep watch over the door of my lips.” We cannot tame our tongue on our own; it will require God’s help. The next verse says, do not incline my heart to any evil thing, to practice wicked works. Does not Proverbs say, out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks? Our words are first and foremost an issue of the heart. To control our mouths, we must first check our hearts. If we are angry on the inside, it will come out of our mouths; if we’re frustrated, it will come out; if we’re joyful, it will come out. If we want to change our words, we must fill our hearts and minds with the Word.

Philippians 4:8 TLV “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable—if there is any virtue and if there is anything worthy of praise—dwell on these things.”

If we think about the things in Philippians 4:8 we will speak those things. Just as a ship is controlled by a small rudder, so we are controlled by a little member of our body, the tongue. This is why Paul said he put his body under subjection. If we are to grow in Christ-likeness, we must submit to His Word. Do you remember that in all Job went through, the Bible says that Job never sinned with his lips? I’ve often wondered how in the world someone could go through that kind of suffering yet keep their words in check. As astounding as Job’s good behavior is to us, Scripture provides us with the answer to how we can live like that as well.

Psalm 119:9-11 AMPC “How shall a young man cleanse his way? By taking heed and keeping watch [on himself] according to Your word [conforming his life to it]. 10 With my whole heart have I sought You, inquiring for and of You and yearning for You; Oh, let me not wander or step aside [either in ignorance or willfully] from Your commandments. 11 Your word have I laid up in my heart, that I might not sin against You.”

There is no magic formula for taming the tongue; it is just something we have to work at. The tongue is an unruly fire set on destruction that does not sound very hopeful; it isn’t in my strength. There’s a reason why James said that it’s the mature person who can tame their tongue because it isn’t easy, but it is doable with the help of the Holy Spirit.

James 3:7-12 TLV “For every species of beasts and birds, reptiles and sea creatures, is 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 Adonai and Father, and with it we curse people, who are made in the image of God. 10 From the same mouth comes blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, these things should not be. 11 A spring doesn’t pour out fresh and bitter water from the same opening, does it? 12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Neither can salt water produce fresh water.”

James ends his discourse on the tongue by stating the sad truth, we bless and curse with the same mouth. Just as fresh and bitter water cannot come from the same stream, good and bad words, loving and unloving words, should not come from the Christian. As James said earlier, faith without works is dead, and so too are words without actions. Jesus said, These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me. How many times do we praise God in church yet gossip at lunch? These things ought not to be so. 

We need to be watchful over our hearts and put a guard over our mouths. We will end where we began, Proverbs 18:21 AMP “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, And those who love it and indulge it will eat its fruit and bear the consequences of their words.” We will be justified or condemned by our words. With the help of the Holy Spirit, we can grow in maturity and learn how to control our tongues. This won’t be an overnight change but a day-by-day, decision-by-decision changing of the way we speak. Submit your words to the Lord every day; like David, ask for a guard to be placed on your mouth. Fill your heart with the Scripture so that they may easily flow from your lips. Be quick to repent when you sin with your words, and know that each day the Holy Spirit is present to help you grow in maturity.

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