Bite Your Tongue!

James 3:1-5

August 11, 2016 | Ray Pritchard

No, I don’t mean that literally.
That’s just a figure of speech.

Biting your tongue means you don’t say everything you could say. You hold back when you could give someone a piece of your mind, which is also a figure of speech. It’s what you do when you tell someone what you think of them, especially in anger.

It’s better to bite your tongue than to give someone a piece of your mind. That’s the lesson for today.

It’s better to bite your tongue than to give someone a piece of your mind

I am writing this sermon in the midst of a very heated presidential campaign in the United States. A friend commented that he has never seen people more divided than they are this year. In my travels around the country, I have observed the same thing.

We are a troubled nation.

We are a troubled nation

According to a recent poll, 75% of Americans say they are casting their vote not for a candidate but against someone else. We see the same divide inside the church. My friend said he has never seen Christians as upset with each other as they are this election. Feelings are running so high that friendships are strained and then broken. A certain amount of disagreement is inevitable in any democracy. But you would hope that inside the church, we could disagree agreeably on political questions.

A while back I heard about a church in Birmingham, Alabama that was filled with passionate fans of the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Auburn Tigers. Down south they say football is not like religion; it’s much more important than that. Having grown up in Alabama, I can testify to the truth of that statement. The leaders of the church put up a sign outside the auditorium that read, “In this room we are all one team.”

That’s how it ought to be—but often isn’t.

We’re all one team

No matter what happens this November, we’re going to need each other when the voting is over. I believe hard times are coming for Christians in America. Let’s not make things worse by breaking with Christians who vote differently than we do.

We’re all one team.
Let’s act like it.

In order to do that, we’re going to have to learn to bite our tongue when we feel greatly provoked. You don’t have to give everyone around you a piece of your mind. Some things are better left unsaid.

That’s the burden of James 3:1-5. It reminds us about the awesome power of the tongue for good or evil. Let’s see what James has to say about how we talk to each other.

Solemn Warning             

“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (v. 1).

Teachers and preachers talk a lot. I once calculated that the Keep Believing website contains over three million of my words. That’s a lot of talking and a lot of writing. James is saying to me, “Pay attention, Ray. You’ll have to answer someday for all those words.”

Social media lends itself to verbal vomit

The less you say, the less you have to answer for. Keep that in mind the next time you want to fire off an angry email or post a hasty Tweet or put up a critical Facebook post. Social media is like any other medium. It’s a tool that can be used for good or evil. But it lends itself to a lot of verbal vomit.

We will all have to answer for our spoken and written words, and teachers will have the most to answer for. So be careful about what you say and what you write.

Surprising Reason

“For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body” (v. 2).

We all understand the first part of this verse because we all stumble in many ways. There is no one except Jesus who can truthfully say, “I never stumble because I never sin.” The rest of us stumble through life, saying foolish things that wound those closest to us. We don’t need to wonder about our spiritual maturity. The folks closest to us know the truth. We all clean up pretty well on Sunday morning. We know how to look and sound very righteous. But your wife, your husband, your children, your closest friends, they know the truth about you. It’s not an entirely pretty picture.

Don’t argue with God!

It’s better to admit the truth than to argue with God.

We all stumble through life.
We say dumb things.
We make foolish decisions.
We get angry too quickly.
We’re too slow to forgive.
We make hasty judgments.
We criticize without knowing the facts.
We judge others while excusing ourselves.
We make mountains out of molehills.
We speak before we listen.
We brag too much.
We use words as weapons.
We belittle those who hold a different opinion.

Your family knows the truth about you

When James says, “We all stumble in many ways,” he’s including all of us. I stumble, you stumble, all of us stumble along the way. Said another way, we’re all in the same boat. When I’m preaching on this point, I often ask people to quote Romans 3:23, which almost all of us know by heart: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” That’s the first verse on the “Romans Road” plan of salvation. But then I ask, “Who can quote the last phrase of verse 22?” No one can, even though it’s the key to verse 23. The last phrase of Romans 3:22 says, “There is no difference.” When it comes to being sinners, there is no difference between rich or poor, young or old, male or female, black or white, Democrat or Republican, or any of the other ways we slice and dice the human race. God is no respecter of persons. When he looks down from heaven, he sees an entire planet that has “gone rogue” by rebelling against him. That’s why “no difference” is the key to Romans 3:23.

We’re all in the same boat, and the boat is going down.
If God doesn’t do something, we will all sink together.

We’re all in the same boat

That brings me to the truly surprising part of verse 2. “If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.” How we use our tongue reveals our spiritual maturity or lack thereof. The word “perfect” has the idea of being whole or complete. Show me a man who controls what he says, and I’ll show you a man who controls his whole body.

From time to time I hear about certain pastors who are eloquent speakers, but real stinkers when they are out of the pulpit. They are vain, egotistical, and downright cruel. Here’s the problem. A man like that will have a great reputation because 99% of his listeners never see him outside the pulpit. But the 1% know the truth.

His wife and his kids know.
His close friends know.
His staff knows.

Such a man fails the test of this verse even though his sermons are heard by millions.

But consider this from another angle. Over here we have a man who preaches to just a handful. His church isn’t large, his sermons aren’t broadcast, and he doesn’t write any books. He’s not well-known to the public. But his congregation holds him in the highest esteem because his life backs up what he says. He isn’t cruel in his comments or harsh toward his wife or unkind when provoked by others. By God’s grace, his tongue is under the Spirit’s control. That man has done more of eternal value than the man with the large ministry who cannot control his tongue.

Sins of the tongue lead to sins of the body

Verse 2 confronts us with a hard truth about the spiritual life. Sins of the tongue lead to sins of the body. First we speak, then we act. I love how the NLT translates Proverbs 21:23,Watch your tongue and keep your mouth shut, and you will stay out of trouble.” Brian Bill offers a succinct summary of the power of the tongue. It can . . .

Express or repress,
Release or restrain,
Enlighten or obscure,
Adore or abhor,
Offend or befriend,
Affirm or alienate,
Build or belittle,
Comfort or criticize,
Delight or destroy.

How are you using your tongue?

Simple Illustrations        

 If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.(vv. 3-4).

These illustrations hardly need any explanation. A tiny bit controls a massive horse. The rider pulls left or right, and the horse goes in that direction. He pulls on the reins, the bit tightens, and the horse stops. A five-inch bit weighing a few ounces can control a thousand-pound horse.

In the same way, a tiny rudder controls a mighty ship. If the captain turns the wheel one way, the rudder turns the whole ship that way. If he turns the wheel another way, the rudder turns the whole ship in a different direction. It’s the difference between ending up in Copenhagen or Hong Kong.

The tongue is a tiny organ

The bit and the rudder both require a strong hand to be effective. The bit controls the horse only if the rider pulls the reins. A rudder will not steer correctly unless the captain turns the wheel. Because the tongue has such power to influence every part of life, we must learn to direct it properly.

The tongue itself is a tiny muscular organ weighing 2-3 ounces. That means it makes up 1/10th of 1% of the average person’s weight. Almost everything in your body weighs more than your tongue. But what havoc the tongue wreaks. What trouble it causes.

The tongue can produce great evil or enormous good. Proverbs 18:21 says, “The tongue has the power of life and death” (GW). Every time you open your mouth either life or death comes out.

What will come out of your mouth today?

Sobering Reminder

 “So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! (v. 5).

The Great Chicago Fire started on October 8, 1871. One story says it began when Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lantern in the barn. While that may or may not be true, investigators determined the fire started in or near the O’Leary barn. By the time it was extinguished on October 10, the fire had consumed 17,500 buildings, killed nearly 300 people, and left 100,000 more homeless. It caused an estimated $200 million in damage, equivalent to $4-5 billion today.

The tongue is like a fire!

Years ago we used to sing, “It only takes a spark to get a fire going.” That’s true regardless of the purpose for starting the fire. It applies to spreading God’s love (from the song “Pass It On”), and it applies to other, less noble activities. While speaking to a group of young people, I told them sexual desire in itself is good, not bad. It’s a fire that may be put to good or bad use. Fire in the fireplace—good. Fire on the living room carpet—dangerous and deadly. Likewise, the tongue may be set ablaze for God or for evil. The choice is always ours.

The U.S. Holocaust Museum owns a 1937 painting by German artist Hermann Otto Hoyer. It shows a young Adolph Hitler speaking to a group of followers in the 1920s when he was still an unknown rabble-rouser. The followers are mesmerized by his oratory. Hoyer titled his painting, In the Beginning was the Word, from the first verse of John’s gospel. Words have the power to do enormous evil. Tens of millions would die from the fires of hate ignited by Adolph Hitler. But in the beginning, there was just one man and his words. The conflagration came later.

As I mentioned earlier, I am writing this message shortly before a presidential election in the United States. In three months the election will be over, and we will have a new president. In that sense, the warning I gave in the introduction is very time-limited. But the application will never grow old. In this contentious, angry world, filled with so many voices ready to argue, to call names, to cast aspersions, and to use words to destroy others, we need to take seriously the call of God to watch what we say.

Loose lips sink more than ships

Your words have the power of life and death. Loose lips sink more than ships. They destroy marriages, end friendships, spread rumors, split churches, incite violence, and spew venom in all directions.

Better to say nothing than to speak when you are angry.
Better to bite your tongue than to wish you had.
Better to stay out of the conflict than to get in and make it worse.

J. Vernon McGee once remarked that “it takes a baby two years to learn how to talk and then fifty years to learn how to keep quiet.” We would all do well to learn how to keep quiet sooner rather than later.

Let’s end this message with two simple applications:

# 1: Think Before You Speak

Proverbs repeatedly warns of the danger of hasty speech:

“When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise” (Proverbs 10:19).

“He who guards his lips guards his life, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin” (Proverbs 13:3).

Better to bite your tongue than to wish you had

“A man of knowledge uses words with restraint” (Proverbs 17:27).

 “Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue” (Proverbs 17:28).

We all instinctively know these things are true. We know we would be better off if we said less and thought about every word. But how can we do this? A friend shared with me the TKN rule. He said he and his wife taught their children to ask these three questions before they spoke:

T—Is it true?
K—Is it kind?
N—Is it necessary?


Eventually the children learned it so well that if anyone started to make an unkind comment, one of the kids would say, “TKN! TKN!” If the statement didn’t meet the rule, it didn’t get said. It would be a good idea if every family adopted that rule for mealtime conversation, although it might mean we eat most of our meals in total silence. But silence would be preferable to breaking the Lord’s command.

# 2: Yield Your Tongue to God

You cannot tame your tongue. It is too unruly. Left to ourselves, we will eventually descend into profanity, ugly threats, dirty jokes, foolish talk, gossip, and outright lying. Whatever is in the heart will eventually come out.  Jesus said, “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). In the end, the tongue is not the problem. “The tongue is simply the messenger that delivers the mail composed by the heart. The tongue is the tattle-tail of the heart” (Stephen Davey).

Lord, my tongue belongs to you

What is our hope? Yield your tongue to God. Have you ever done that? Have you ever said, “Lord, my tongue now belongs to you?” Have you ever told the Lord, “I have been using my tongue for myself. I am now going to use it for you. Here are my lips, let me speak for you. Here is my mouth, let my mouth speak the words that you want.” Proverbs 16:1 says, “To man belongs the plans of the heart, but from the Lord comes the reply of the tongue.” Your tongue can be put under the Lord’s control. That’s a great thought. Your tongue, which today may be set on fire from hell, may become a tongue under God’s control. He can give you new lips. He can give you a new tongue. He can put new words in your mouth. He can baptize your speech.

The hymn “Take My Life and Let It Be” contains a line that speaks to this point:

“Take my lips and let them be
Filled with messages for Thee.”

That’s a prayer God will always be glad to answer.

Recently I ran across a prayer that seems to summarize all I’ve been trying to say. We’ll let it be the final words of this message:

Lord, fill my mouth with worthwhile stuff and nudge me when I’ve said enough. Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?