How to Tame the Terrible Tongue

James 3:5-12

May 10, 2017 | Ray Pritchard


Evidently Arabella Young talked too much.

After she died and was buried in Hatfield, Massachusetts, someone added this epitaph:

Beneath this stone
A lump of clay
Lies Arabella Young
Who on the 21st of May 1771
Began to hold her tongue.


Let’s hope we learn our lesson better than she did. Evidently Arabella Young never learned to control her tongue, but she’s not the only one. We’ve all known people who couldn’t stop talking. When you’re around them, you don’t have to say much because they dominate every conversation. It was said of one man that “he never had an unspoken thought.”

I wonder what our friends would say about us?

Do we talk too much?
Are we loose with our words?
Are we too quick with our opinions?
Do we love to put others down?
Are we too quick with our sarcasm?

Somewhere I ran across this quote from Elisabeth Elliot: “Never pass up an opportunity to keep your mouth shut.” James 3:5-12 reminds us that the tongue has a fearful destructive power. Left to ourselves, we will never control our tongue because it is set on fire by hell. But as we will see, the tongue itself is never the problem. The tongue merely reflects what is in the heart.

Why is the tongue so dangerous?

It Destroys Everything Good

So too, though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts great things. Consider how a small fire sets ablaze a large forest. And the tongue is a fire. The tongue, a world of unrighteousness, is placed among our members. It stains the whole body, sets the course of life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell” (vv. 5-6).

“The tongue is a fire.”

Fire has many good uses. It warms up a cold room, and it burns the coal that produces electricity. You can cook almost anything over an open fire.

“It only takes a spark to get a fire going”

But a tiny spark sets a vast forest ablaze. The deadliest forest fire in American history happened on October 8, 1871, when cyclonic winds following a prolonged drought whipped up a massive conflagration in Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan called the Great Peshtigo Fire. At its height, the fire covered over 2400 square miles, causing millions of dollars in damage. Over 1200 people died as a result. Few people know about this fire because it happened on the same night as the Great Chicago Fire (that reputedly started in Mrs. O’Leary’s barn). Both fires caused immense damage, though the Chicago fire is better known because it destroyed the heart of the city.

We’ve all seen those ads featuring Smokey Bear reminding us that “only you can prevent forest fires.” History proves the truth of those words. A tiny spark destroys a vast forest that takes years to regrow.

So it is with our words.

James wants us to think about the deadly power of the tongue. It corrupts the whole body, it sets the course of life on fire, and it is set on fire by hell. Stephen Davey says our tongue is like a “pilot light” that burns as long as there is gas in the line. We’ll never get rid of that pilot light because the gas lines reach down to hell and the supply of gas is endless. “Just the flip of a carnal switch and it will burst into flames, and the flames can last as long as you keep the switch on.” (From the message It Only Takes a Spark.)

The pilot light is always lit

Let me ask three questions that probe at a deep level:

1. Do you find it easy to lose your temper when things don’t go your way?

2. Are you carrying a chip on your shoulder?

3. Is your anger keeping you from reconciling with those who have hurt you?

 We need a spiritual alarm within that begins to sound the moment anger takes over. Our hands are not clean because our lips are not clean.

Why bring this up? Because we are guilty of the very thing we said we would never do. We Christians tend to be very quick to excuse ourselves. The Lord Jesus is not as quick as we are to let us off the hook. If we take him seriously, then we’ve got to stop making excuses for our hidden anger, our buried resentment, and our tongue that is as sharp as a razor.

Be careful what you post!

 Modern technology has raised the stakes. Before smartphones turned us all into amateur filmmakers, people could do and say all manner of things behind closed doors and know that they could get away with it. People could swear or threaten or even get violent without fear of reprisal.

Not anymore.

Christians have always said that God is watching us all the time, but now every idle word or every angry outburst is likely to end up on Facebook. Be careful what you say or what you write or what you post on the internet. Today’s careless words may lead to controversy and heartache tomorrow.

It Poisons Our Friendships

“Every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and fish is tamed and has been tamed by humankind, but no one can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (vv. 7-8).

If you doubt these words, go to the circus and you will see elephants and lions and tigers that have been tamed. In the wild they might kill you, but under the big top, in the hands of a master trainer, the animals become docile and compliant. The same is true for dolphins and falcons and many other species. Man has proven himself the master of the created world.

But there is one part of creation he cannot subdue—his own tongue. It remains unruly, uncontrolled, insubordinate and openly rebellious. When James tells us that no one can tame the tongue, he means that no one in his own strength can ever master his tongue. The truth is, we can all control our tongue in certain situations. We can keep silent when provoked, often for a long time. But when the provocations continue, or when we see our loved ones mistreated, or when our anger gets the best of us, we open our mouth and nothing good comes out.

When your anger hits your mouth, nothing good will come out

Has this ever happened to you? Perhaps one night you go to a meeting feeling exhausted and frustrated. Things are said that bother you. Then someone says something that feels like a personal attack. Suddenly you feel the anger rising like lava, and you know that nothing good will happen when the anger reaches your lips. When it does, you erupt in volcanic fury, saying things you never thought you’d say to people you thought you loved.

Most of us have had moments like that. After the eruption is over, and you have calmed down, you can hardly believe what you said. But there it is, and nothing you can do will take those angry words back. That’s what James means when he talks about the tongue corrupting the whole body.

Speak when you are angry, and you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret. Sometimes it takes years to recover from a few angry words. Sometimes the breach is permanent.

 No one can tame the tongue. Without God’s help, we are all volcanoes waiting to explode. No wonder James says the tongue is set on fire by hell. The devil supplies the spark, and we do the rest with fiery speech. A few words can burn down a marriage, a family, a church, or a lifelong friendship.

Your tongue is deadly poison

In verse 8 the image changes to “deadly poison.” How does the tongue become poisonous? It happens when we spread rumors on the Internet. It happens when we lie to make ourselves look good or to get out of trouble. It happens when we pass off unkind words by saying, “I was only joking.” It happens when we make light of evil and make fun of those who stand for the truth.

Poison doesn’t always kill you instantly. Sometimes it works slowly as it enters the bloodstream.  But whether fast or slow, the uncontrolled tongue is deadly poison.

How many marriages have been destroyed because of cruel speech?
How many friendships have ended because of lies someone told?
How many churches split because we hated each other more than we loved the truth?

It Reveals Our Hypocrisy

“With the tongue we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in God’s likeness. Blessing and cursing come out of the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, these things should not be this way” (vv. 9-10).

We all know what James is talking about.

With the same mouth we curse and we bless. We love and we hate. We serve and we steal. We proclaim Christ and then we lie to our friends. We forgive and then we lose our temper 10 minutes later. We read the Bible and then we watch dirty movies. We sing in the choir and then we have an affair. And so it goes. The manifestations differ, but all of us feel the struggle in one way or another.

We live between earth and heaven

When I was in the pastorate, I prayed with a group of men in my office on Sunday morning before the first service. Over time we got to know each other very well, and we became accustomed to the way we prayed together. That happens because we all have certain patterns of prayer. I knew what they were going to say and they knew what I was going to say. But one Sunday while we were praying, one of the men broke through to total honesty when he blurted out, “Lord, too often I am so hard on the people closest to me.” Many of us could say the same thing. Husbands and wives criticize each other. Parents tear down their children and strip away every vestige of self-esteem. Friends attack friends, Christians criticize each other, and many families are held together by the glue of mutual disdain. Why is it that we are so hard on those we say we love the most?

It happens because we are all living somewhere between heaven and earth. We have a new nature (thus we bless the Lord), but the flesh is still with us (thus we curse our fellow man). This side of heaven, we will all fall short in our speech.

That said, we still must face what James is saying: “My brothers and sisters, these things should not be this way.” The fact that we are far from perfect does not excuse our careless speech. We will fight “the battle of the tongue” until the day we die. Sometimes we will win; sometimes we will lose.

We can see significant change!

But if we lean on the Lord and ask for his help,
If we admit our weakness and pray for grace,
If we hold ourselves accountable for what we say,
If we lean on our brothers and sisters to help us,
If we choose to walk in the Spirit,

We can see significant change. I wonder how many formerly foul-mouthed sinners have seen their speech transformed by the Lord? It happens, and even though the process may be slow, we don’t have to stay stuck forever in patterns of cruel speech.

When we fail, we must say with James, “These things ought not to be.” The first step to real change is admitting you need help.

If we ask the Lord to purify our hearts and to baptize our lips, he will not turn us away.

It Exposes Our Rebellion

“Does a spring pour out sweet and bitter water from the same opening? Can a fig tree produce olives, my brothers and sisters, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a saltwater spring yield fresh water” (vv. 11-12).

The heart of the problem is the problem of the heart. That’s always the bottom line in life.

We can fake it for a while because we all know how to say the right things at the right time to give the right impression. That’s part of the problem behind this passage. We all know how to be religious around religious people, but sooner or later, the truth about the heart shows up on our lips.

The heart  of the problem is the problem of the heart

When we lose our temper and begin to criticize or complain or when we become bitter and falsely accuse others or when we blame others for our problems, it won’t do to say, “I lost my cool” or “She made me say it” or “I was under pressure.”

The problem always goes deeper than what we say. Remember what Jesus said:

“A good person produces good out of the good stored up in his heart. An evil person produces evil out of the evil stored up in his heart, for his mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart” (Luke 6:45).

When the heart overflows, the mouth speaks. If we speak angry words, it must be because our heart is filled with anger. If we speak loving words, it must mean our heart is filled with love. If we deceive, it must be because our heart is filled with deception.

From bitter thoughts come bitter words.
Whatever fills the heart fills the mouth.

Whatever fills the heart fills the mouth

The mouth cannot speak independently. The tongue speaks what the mind thinks and the heart feels. That’s why James said in verse 2 that “if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.” That’s not hyperbole; it’s the literal truth. Suppose we set up a contest to find one person in the world who never sins with their mouth. Suppose we offer $50 million to find someone like that. Search high and low, check the young and the old, examine every man, woman, boy, girl, from every nation and culture and language group. When the search is over, no one can claim the money because we all fall short in this area. Some are better than others, but no one is perfect.

No one, that is, except Jesus.

When Peter spoke about Jesus before his accusers, he said this:

“He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth” (1 Peter 2:22).

Did you get that? Jesus never sinned in anything he said. He never lied or falsely accused and never spoke an untrue or unkind word. He’s the only person in history who never had to apologize for something he said.

We Need Jesus!

So what is the cure for an untamed tongue? We need Jesus! I know of no other answer to that question. We can train ourselves to speak better; we can learn grammar and all the elements of good rhetoric. We can become speechmakers who end up having nothing worthwhile to say. Go to Cambridge or Oxford or Stanford or Harvard and take every speech class they offer. You will wind up knowing how to speak, but you won’t know anything about what to say.

We need God’s help!
We need the Holy Spirit!
We need Jesus!

This much is certain. You will never control your tongue in your own power. Try as you might, self-effort will never master a tongue set on fire by hell.

Only heaven can replace the hell in our mouth.

Only heaven can replace the hell in our mouth.
Only Jesus can replace the fire of hatred with the sweet aroma of grace.
Only God can change us from the inside out.

Perhaps the place to begin is by yielding your tongue to God. Have you ever done that? Have you ever said, “Lord, my tongue now belongs to you?” Perhaps you need to say, “Lord Jesus, 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 honor you.”

“Lord, my tongue now belongs to you”

Proverbs 16:1 says, “The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord.” The tongue can be put under the Lord’s control. That’s a great thought. Your tongue, which today may be set on fire by 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.

Shall we not yield our tongue to him?
Shall we not give him our lips?
Shall we not give him our speech?

It’s time for us to say, “Heavenly Father, here is my tongue, let it speak only for you. Let my words lift up and not tear down.”

In 1874 Francis Ridley Havergal wrote a hymn called Take My Life and Let It Be that shows us the true application of James 3. Here are the words to the third verse:

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

Take my voice and let me sing,
Always, only for my King.
Take my lips and let them be
Filled with messages from Thee.

Take a moment and repeat those words to the Lord and ask him to transform your lips, your tongue, your heart, and your life.

Here is the last verse of that great hymn:

Take my love; my Lord, I pour
at thy feet its treasure store.
Take myself, and I will be
ever, only, all for thee,
ever, only, all for thee.

May God help us to take all we have and give it gladly to the Lord that we might be “ever, only, all for thee.”

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?