James 3:1-12 – Taming the Tongue

Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.

When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or 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. Likewise, 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. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and saltwater flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water. (New International Version)

Words and speech are the most powerful tools we have in the Christian life. And the tongue is the means of forming the words and using the speech God gives us.

The problem is, we may too often underestimate the importance and the great power of the tongue to effect both good and evil. We might not believe that our particular words carry much weight.

Yet, in reality, our words are very powerful.  In fact, what we say with our tongues is either the vehicle of praise to God, or the ruin of another person. We must measure our words because the tongue is a beast to control and tame. 

The tongue is so powerful that it determines the direction of a person’s life.

The horse is a strong animal, and the strength of a horse must be respected at all times. Yet, a small woman, even a young girl who knows what she is doing with a bridle and a bit, can make a horse do whatever she wants. Ships can be massive and carry thousands of people and huge amounts of cargo. Yet, it is controlled and directed by the rudder – a very small piece of the ship.  In our own day, we know the devastating power of a very small handgun trigger which can literally snuff out a life in an instant.

Likewise, the tongue is quite small among the parts of the body. Yet, it sets the course of a person’s life and has the power to determine its destiny.  A rider who does not know how to handle a horse is in trouble.  An undisciplined pilot of a ship is in danger of shipwreck.  A gun owner loose with gun safety is a danger to others. And the loose, unbridled, untrained and undisciplined tongue is on a one way course to destruction.

The tongue is so powerful that it can destroy another person.

Like fire, the tongue has an awesome potential for harm. The great Chicago fire of 1871, one of the costliest disasters of the nineteenth-century, killed three hundred people and destroyed seventeen-thousand buildings.  All the destruction was started by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicking over a lantern in a barn. 

The Yellowstone National Park fire of 1988 burned for several months and completely destroyed nearly 800,000 acres of the park.  At the peak of the fire there were 9,000 firefighters battling the blaze. All the devastation was caused by one quick flash of lightning.

The largest fire in American history occurred in 1871 and began in northern Wisconsin. The fire created its own wind system and turned into a tornado, moving into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. By the time it was over, 3.7 million acres were scorched with 2,500 people left dead. All the destruction was likely caused by a small meteorite.

Whenever we underestimate the power of our speech and allow a stray word to fly off the tongue, the spark has the potential to start a huge conflagration of evil. A firestorm of destruction can be set off with just a few uncontrolled words. 

Through gossip (saying something behind somebody’s back that you would not say to their face), flattery (saying something to someone’s face that you would not say behind their back), negative criticism, sarcastic humor, boasting, and a host of evil words, the tongue has the immense power to destroy life.  It is speech fueled and spread by Hell itself.

The tongue is so powerful that it cannot be tamed.

Animals can be tamed, even crocodiles.  I once took my oldest daughter to the circus, when she was a small girl, and watched as a guy had a trained crocodile open its mouth and stuck his head inside the crazy reptile! 

Yet, no one can tame the tongue. It is like a tarantula, biting its victim with paralyzing venom so that the arachnid can eat its prey alive. The untamed and uncontrolled tongue is like a poisonous spider which spreads its verbal venom, paralyzing other people and sucking the life out of them.

The Apostle James paints a hopeless picture because he wants to drive us to the grace of God for help. We cannot tame the tongue – but God can. When we begin to see the true nature of our speech, it reveals something of ourselves.

The tongue is so powerful that it exposes the duplicity of the heart.

Whatever comes out of our mouths reveals what is on the inside of our lives. If we can grasp the truth of this, I believe it could transform the way people talk to one another. Even more metaphors to communicate the point….

Salt water and fresh water cannot both come from the same spring. A fig tree cannot bear olives, and a grapevine is not going to produce figs. And whatever comes out of the mouth reveals the source. Evil words come from an evil source; good words come from a good source. 

A pattern of negative condescending speech is drawing from a well, pumping up words from the depths of Hell. Conversely, a continuous stream of helpful words that encourage and build up others, draws its nourishment from God’s Word.

Conclusion

The following are four ways to help bring the tongue under control:

  • Train your tongue for good. Speech is a skill to be developed. When starting an exercise regimen, we are deliberately training our bodies for health. When dieting, we are saying “yes” to certain foods, and “no” to others. The tongue needs to be trained to express gratitude, good news, and grace. And one of the best ways to do it is through speaking Scripture out loud in a daily regular regimen. Consider going on a fast from talking and seek only to be silent and listen for a specified amount of time.

Do not waste time arguing over godless ideas and old wives’ tales. Instead, train yourself to be godly. “Physical training is good, but training for godliness is much better, promising benefits in this life and in the life to come.” (1 Timothy 4:7-8, NLT)

Solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil. (Hebrews 5:14, NRSV)

  • Read a chapter of Proverbs each day for a month. There are thirty one chapters in Proverbs, one for each day of the month. Pay attention to the power of words. Notice the difference between the speech of a wise person and the words of a fool – and take to heart the consequences of both approaches. 

You will say the wrong thing
    if you talk too much—
    so be sensible and watch
    what you say. (Proverbs 10:19, CEV)

Careless words stab like a sword,
    but wise words bring healing. (Proverbs 12:18, NCV)

  • Build friendships with people who are positive and encouraging. If a negative person keeps being negative, even after you have warned them more than once about it, you likely need a new relationship. 

Warn a quarrelsome person once or twice, but then be done with him. It’s obvious that such a person is out of line, rebellious against God. By persisting in divisiveness, he cuts himself off.  (Titus 3:10-11, MSG)

  • Listen and learn before speaking. A judgmental spirit often comes from misinterpreting another person’s words and/or actions. We can too often jump to conclusions about something or someone with only partial information and without the whole story.

Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first,”
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7, MSG)

Right and Just God, teach us to speak wisely. Let us avoid useless thoughts and useless conversations. Help us to speak often of you. Grant that our words may never hurt others but always bring comfort to those in sorrow, and guidance to those in need. Take our tongues and make them yours. Take our minds and make them instruments of your goodness and a channel of truth. May you help us to use both words and silence in redemptive ways, through Jesus Christ our Redeemer. Amen.

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