What James Says about Taming the Tongue
With our tongues, we can speak truth or we can speak lies. We can build people up or we can tear them down. Sometimes we say the wrong thing. Or we fail to say the right thing.
Everyone has experienced times when they’ve said something they didn’t mean to. When the words came out before they decided if they should say them. Sometimes it can even feel as if our mouths aren’t really under our control, like our tongues are separate from our bodies.
But the reality is, the words on our tongues come from the overflow of our hearts (Matthew 12:34).
It’s easy to shrug away slips of the tongue. They’re simply part of being human. But as Christians, we should always care about what we say—even when it’s unintentional. We’re representatives of Christ and vessels for his transforming power.
James’ epistle is one of the most practical books about Christian living, and in chapter three, it dedicates twelve verses to taming the tongue.
Here’s what he says.
What we say matters
“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.” —James 3:4–6
We can’t pretend that our words aren’t important. They have a serious impact on other people. A single, simple word like “idiot” can follow someone their whole lives, penetrate their heart, and corrupt their sense of self. Every person is created in the image of God with unimaginable worth, but hurtful words devalue others. And as Christians, what we say can affect what someone believes about their standing with God.
Notice that James’ first two images don’t portray the tongue as inherently bad. A bit can steer a horse the right way, or the wrong way. So can a rudder on a ship. But it all depends on how we use that bit and that rudder.
The third image highlights the tongue’s volatile potential. Our words can quickly spread beyond our control and leave us powerless to stop the consequences or undo the damage. A completely unfounded rumor can spread so far so fast that destroys a person’s reputation, even if it is proven to be false later. And when we speak evil, we defile ourselves.
James makes it abundantly clear: our words have power. And that’s why it’s so important for Christians to learn to control our tongues.
No human can tame the tongue
“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.” —James 3:7–8
Your tongue has eight muscles that determine how it moves and what sounds it helps you form. But no matter how hard you try to control those eight muscles, you will never have complete control of the words that they create.
Jesus talks about how if we want to keep from sinning according to the Law, we need to keep our thoughts in line, too, not just our actions (Matthew 5:21–22). His point isn’t to give us more rules to follow. His point is that we can’t overcome sin by our own power. We need him. And the same is true if we ever hope to tame the tongue.
Humans didn’t need a divine intervention to control other creatures. But God is the only one who can keep our tongues in check. We need to continually submit ourselves to God and hand him the reins.
We should use our tongues for good
“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 salt water 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.” —James 3:9–12
As Christians, we don’t want to give sin free reign in our hearts. But if we ignore the sin that comes from our lips—the hate, lies, gossip, and slander—and convince ourselves it’s simply a natural result of our humanity, we’re surrendering to sin, not Christ. We’re letting sin overflow from within us, when our speech should be overflowing with Christ’s love.
Christian leaders are held to a higher standard
“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.” —James 3:1–2
The mantle of leadership comes with a heavy burden: the collective judgment of the people you lead. Everyone makes mistakes and says the wrong thing from time to time. But when someone in a position of influence does, it affects more people.
While every believer is a representative of Christ, Christian leaders are called to guide, teach, and lead God’s people to follow Christ more closely. Every action they take and every word they speak is scrutinized in light of that responsibility.
James paints a grim picture of how dangerous our tongues truly are. After reading James 3, you may come away feeling like it would be better to never speak at all. While James doesn’t go this far, he does caution us to err on the side of speaking less, “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry . . .” (James 1:19, emphasis added).
Jame’s point isn’t that we should never open our mouths. He wants us to understand that we should be careful about when, why, and how we do. Because the more we speak when we should listen, the more likely we are to say something unhelpful—or even destructive.
Learn more in the video lectures on James, taught by Craig L. Blomberg and Mariam Kovalishyn and available through MasterLectures.
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