We must tame our tongue because it tends to control, kill, and corrupt every aspect of our lives, but we lack this ability in ourselves, so we must flee to Christ for forgiveness and spiritual power to begin speaking to God’s glory.
Introduction – Miss Lanham really had the classroom going. Her assignment was to teach a bunch of precocious 8th graders a foreign language, but she could see we were struggling. Anybody knows that it’s best to learn language before middle school for many reasons, one being because grasping the grammar of language requires a person to speak like a child. Best to speak like a child when you are a child! So our teacher decided to stop the lesson and play a fun, engaging game with adjectives. She would say in Spanish, “I am…” and one-at-a-time we would fill in the blank by calling out a Spanish adjective we’d recently learned. “I am…happy.” “I am…sad.” “I am…hot.” “I am…cold.” Now I was one of the class clowns back then, so I immediately recognized the potential laugh-value in this game. When my turn came, the teacher repeated, “I am…” and I yelled out the word for “fat”. Immediately silence engulfed the room as everyone dropped their chins and slumped in their seats. I knew I had stepped way over the line, and I felt terrible (for me, my teacher, and my classmates). My overweight teacher’s demeanor became very somber, then she quietly but firmly told me to see her after class. When I tearfully apologized to her later, she graciously forgave me. But I had a new appreciation and fear of the power of my sharp tongue. My ill-conceived words brought acute emotional pain to myself and others. That day I earnestly vowed to curb my tongue, but I failed (and continue to fail) to tame my tongue again and again. Scripture teaches that my experience is not unique. I know you sin with words too—all the time.
A. Christians (Especially Teachers) Will Be Judged For What They Say (v 1)
1. Our Words Will Be Judged
In this passage, the overriding problem that James confronts is dissention in the local church. People are praising God yet slandering fellow believers. Perhaps even the teachers/leaders are guilty as well. James has already introduced this concern when he tells us that the religious man must keep a tight reign on his tongue (Jas 1:26). Here he expounds this theme in greater detail. First he told us to reign in our tongue. In this passage he tells us we can’t, and we’ll be judged for it. What a way to silence a room!
2. A Teacher’s Words Will Be Judged Strictly
James begins with the example of Bible teachers because a teacher’s primary tool is his words (his tongue). He argues it is a dangerous desire to be a teacher since it can lead to conflict in the church and certainly will lead to a stricter judgment. Is James practicing the art of first preaching to one’s own sins to dispel the notion that as a teacher he is above sins of the tongue? Being a teacher is serious business. According to James, a controlled tongue is the key to blessing—the one thing that stands in our way to perfect holiness (1Pe 3:10). James echoes Jesus, who reserved his harshest words for the teachers of Israel, demonstrating the truth that teachers will be judged more strictly (Mt 23:1-33; Mk 12:40; Lk 20:47).
In Matthew 23, Jesus pronounced 7 “woes” or curses on the Pharisees and teachers of the law for their great hypocrisy. They taught the truth of God with their words, but their motives and lifestyle revealed their wicked hearts. They reveled in the power, influence, and honor that teachers receive. They strained out a gnat but swallowed the camel. How easy it is for teachers to abuse their position! In fact even our casual words will be judged (Mt 23:36). Teachers beware! This is the case because with greater responsibility comes greater expectations (Lk 12:48; Heb 13:17).
B. So Be Mindful! The Tongue Can Control a Person’s Entire Life (vv 2-4)
Why make a big deal of something as small as the tongue? Shouldn’t we rather worry about bigger problems? James establishes the principle that small things can wield great power and yield great results (e.g., horse bit, ship rudder).
1. How to Be Perfect (v 2)
James says that if you can control your tongue, then you are self-controlled to such a degree that you are “perfect”. Winning the battle of the tongue is not an indication that you are strong enough to win all the other battles against sin. No, winning the battle of the tongue is proof that you have already won all the battles! In a sense, the tongue is the greatest obstacle to moral perfection. If you can keep sinful words off your tongue (which is the hardest thing to do), then you have fought the greatest battle and won. If you win the battle of the tongue, then nothing can tempt you to sin. James is saying, “He who controls his tongue controls his life.”
Suppose you are the kind of person with a gifted tongue. You have an extraordinarily dangerous weapon at your disposal. You might be incredibly persuasive—able to convince most people of anything. You know by experience how difficult it is to use your gift to bless and not for selfish gain. Perhaps you have witty, humorous tongue that easily makes people laugh. You know by experience how hard it is to steer clear of jokes that tear people down or appeal to crude tastes. Anyone who possesses control over their persuasive or humorous tongue is in a class by himself!
2. Illustrations from Human Life (vv 3-4)
The horse was the most powerful animal used for physical labor in the first century. The horse was the most valuable “machine” of the day. We still hear remnants of the horse’s strength today when we speak of a car’s “horsepower”. Yet the horse is controlled by a small bit in its mouth. Similarly, the ship was the largest vehicle in the first century. In a culture that still used chariots and horse-buggies for travel, the first-century ship must have seemed a mega-ocean liner. Yet the ship was controlled by a relatively small rudder. Small things can control larger things.
But notice that while it appears from this passage that mastery of the tongue is the key to mastery of life, there is an unsung third party in each illustration. It is important to identify this third party behind the scenes so we do not mistake the tongue as the source of our problem. The horse has a bit in its mouth, but there is a rider who uses the bit to control the horse. The ship has a rudder that steers it, but there is a pilot who directs the rudder according to his will. Likewise, the tongue makes great boasts for the whole body, but a person’s heart expresses itself in the tongue’s speech. In each example, behind the small directional device is a volitional person directing it. The Bible speaks of a person’s will (the directional device) as his “heart”. Jesus taught that out of the heart proceeds good or evil speech (Mt 12:34-35). The heart moves the tongue, and since no man can change the heart, we cannot simply decide to control our tongue by resolving to do so, because our heart controls our resolutions. While the heart is the source of our sin problem, the tongue is the primary and greatest symptom of our problem. James can talk about control of the tongue the way he does because he understands that if the primary symptom of our problem disappears (uncontrollable speech), then is demonstrates the problem is gone.
C. So Be Warned! The Tongue Can Kill a Person’s Entire Life (vv 5-6)
1. Boasting is Playing with Fire (v 5)
The tongue is small, but it speaks pompous things. It is capable of boasts without limit (Ps 12:3-4; Isa 28:15; Acts 8:9-10). All such boasting is destructive, like how a tiny spark of fire quickly spreads, burning and killing everything in its path. One of the most well-known Bible stories about boasting and its destructive power is of King Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 4. This king had become very great and powerful, and his Babylonian empire was the strongest and more glorious of his day. But he did not give thanks and praise to the God of heaven, but instead boasted that everything he had was his own doing. While he was still boasting God humbled him, making him insane for 7 years so that he lived like a brute beast in the field. Only when Nebuchadnezzar humbled himself and gave glory to God alone did his sanity and kingdom return to him.
2. Dancing with the Devil (v 6)
From the start James referred to the tongue not as it was created but as fallen. James is not speaking of language per se, but language corrupted by the fall. The fallen tongue speaks words that destroy. Sins of the tongue are so great they set the course of one’s life. Man’s destiny is hell-bent because of his sinful tongue. The source of the tongue’s destructive power and its eventual destination is hell. Here James employs the tongue as a symbol for the wickedness of the whole world, possibly because it expresses all the evil in the world. It is even set on fire by hell because its evil comes from Satan himself. Listen to how Paul describes the fallen tongue’s nature (Rom 3:10-14). The holy prophet Isaiah immediately understood that his speech was a world of evil when he found himself in God’s presence (Isa 6:5). The imagery of tongue as fire reveals its (1) moral character as a world of evil; (2) corrupting influence on the whole person; (3) continual destructive effects on the whole course of one’s life; and (4) spiritual affiliation with hell. He whose tongue is loose surely dances with the Devil.
D. So Be Consistent! The Tongue Can Corrupt a Person’s Entire Life (vv 7-12)
1. The Untamable Evil (vv 7-8)
While all kinds of animals have been (and still are) tamed by humankind, no human can tame his own tongue. Even the most mature saint lets words fly out that he wishes could be recalled. Your tongue does not sin merely by speaking maliciously. We know what makes words sinful is their intent. Are your words meant for destruction, gossip, slander, insult? Then they are sinful. Are your words meant to lovingly confront or wake someone up from slumbering in sin? Then they are possibly not sinful. “Possibly” because it is very difficult for sinners to speak words of confrontation that are not tainted with sin. It is possible in theory, but not likely because redeemed hearts are a mysterious mix of sinful and righteous motivations. If even your good intentions are mixed with sin, is it really possible for you to speak at all without sinning? Or is James merely exaggerating when he says no man can tame the tongue? Does James mean that it is almost impossible to control one’s speech? Is James encouraging you to redouble your efforts, to concentrate all of your energies on controlling your tongue because that is what it will take to secure victory? I think not. Clearly and simply, James means to say no mere human can tame the tongue. But observe that he leaves open the possibility that someone can tame the human tongue. Hope’s door is still open.
2. Illustrations from Human Speech and Nature (vv 9-12)
Actually, James begins to illustrate how the tongue corrupts our lives at the end of verse 8 by calling it a restless evil. Unstable and restless are the opposite of peaceful. God is good, and he is the author of peace (1Th 5:23). Instability and restlessness are evil. The tongue is not prone to peace, but is an unstable and restless evil, as James says “full of deadly poison.”
Picture a viper sticking his tongue out in recoiled attack formation. Not long ago my family had a run-in with an aggressive snake. We heard our next door neighbors hollering outside on their deck. Turns out they were trying to kill a snake that was climbing up the steps from their back yard. They were dancing and squealing in a panic because this 2-foot snake was getting closer and closer. Finally my wife walked over and hit it over the head with a shovel and guided it into a garbage bag (it was still alive). When I got home I wanted to see what kind of snake caused all the fear. By that time the snake was dead, so I tore open the bag and saw a snake head with its tongue still sticking out like it was ready to spit poison! Fortunately, it was not and dangerous snake, but when we attack others with our words, we imitate a striking venomous snake, spitting poison into their faces, injecting poison into their ears with intent to harm. Our sinful words are so potent they can be deadly—not only to our victims but to our own souls as well.
The tongue’s deadly poison is its inconsistency and hypocrisy. How is it not hypocrisy when we praise God yet also curse people (bearers of his image and likeness)? How is it not an insult to someone to deface a photograph or statue of him, then offer words of praise to his face? How is it not a double insult when we invoke the name of God to curse others? In the ancient world, the worshiping of physical statues (idols) of gods and kings was commonplace. Because the gods were unseen and the king was not always present, worshippers would offer their praise to the idol-statue. This was considered appropriate because the statue was made in the image and likeness of the unseen god or king. Conversely, to publically deface the image of the god or king (or even to refuse to worship it) was considered a sin against the god or king himself. James argues that insulting a person is the same as insulting God himself. In essence we praise and curse God from the same mouth. This is surely wickedness, hypocrisy, and foolishness. James calls Christians to repent of expressing both blessings and curses from our mouths because such conduct is unbecoming of a Christian. He illustrates his point (fresh and salt water cannot come from the same spring; strange fruit cannot come from a plant) and teaches that if the product is evil, then the spring and plant must be evil. Therefore any words of blessing that come from a mouth that curses must be inconsistency and hypocrisy. We are rightfully offended when God’s name is slandered. We quickly rise in righteous indignation when the name of Jesus is dragged through the mud, especially when it happens in the public forum. We write letters to the editor, we call in to complain, we cry foul that our religious sensibilities are assaulted. But we rarely flinch when someone in the Christian family (or even the broader human family) is slandered. James says we should be upset at this, because people are in the image of God. To insult a person is to insult God. To sin against a person is first to assault God’s name. This is a good starting point for action. If the Bible has convinced you that all people somehow reflect God in a sacred way, that somehow they are the imprint of God’s likeness, then you should begin to show a deeper respect for the members of God’s image-bearing family. One commentator summed up the illustration this way: “A fig must come from a fig tree. A grape must come from a grapevine. An olive must come from an olive tree. Bitter water has a bitter source. Sweet water has a sweet source. In the same way, bitter words from a bitter heart; critical words from a critical spirit; defamatory, unloving speech issues from a heart where the love of Jesus is a stranger.”
Conclusion – So who can tame the tongue? Certainly no mere human being. Sinful words control, kill, corrupt, and ultimately condemn us. But Christ forgives, resurrects, and restores to new life sinners who humbly repent of their sinful speech. Later, James explicitly points us to the God who forgives (Jas 4:6-10). How has God shown he can tame the wickedly controlling, killing, and corrupting tongue? Genesis provides a primeval picture of the extent to which the tongue can descend into evil. After the Flood, all of humanity joined forces to make themselves like God. They conspired together in one tongue (language) to erect the Tower of Babel to exalt themselves, to boast in their collective greatness against Almighty God. Imagine the hubris! So God came down to confuse their tongues and scatter them over the earth. God judged humanity’s sinful tongue by confusing their language, but he reserved a future day when he would begin to heal sinful tongues, to tame them. That day arrived when God himself became a man in Jesus Christ. Finally a man was born who had complete control over his tongue and used it to glorify God. But he was crucified for blasphemous and seditious words he never uttered. In his death and resurrection we find right standing before God and forgiveness of every careless word on our tongues. Then at Pentecost, the Spirit of Jesus began to distribute to his people a tamed tongue (in seed form) that blesses God. This first act of new creation was the redemption of the human tongue, a tongue without confusion intelligibly praising God (Acts 2:11). Now the spirit-filled person (i.e., every Christian) is enabled to speak words to God’s glory. No man every spoke like Jesus did (Jn 7:46), but in this new age of the Spirit all believers have the ability to live as Christ did, in word and deed because we are empowered by the Spirit of Jesus. This is God’s call on your life. If you are convinced that your tongue needs to be tamed, that you cannot control it yourself, that you speak destructive words that corrupt your soul and bring judgment on yourself, then I urge you to come to Jesus. He is the only one who can tame your tongue. Praise God he gives the Holy Spirit to empower you to bless God and others with a renewed, tamed tongue.