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 NKJV “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers.”

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 NKJV “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, And those who love it will eat its fruit.”

Jesus said in Matthew 12:36-37 NKJV “But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. 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 NKJV “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.”

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 NKJV “Set a guard, O Lord, 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 NKJV “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate 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 NKJV “How can a young man cleanse his way? By taking heed according to Your word.
10 With my whole heart I have sought You; Oh, let me not wander from Your commandments! 11 Your word I have hidden 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 NKJV “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. 10 Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring send forth fresh water and bitter from the same opening? 12 Can a fig tree, my brethren, bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Thus no spring yields both salt water and fresh.”

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 NKJV “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, And those who love it will eat its fruit.” 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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