Taming the Tongue

James 3:1-12

March 2, 2019 | Brian Bill

Words have started revolutions, riots, revivals and reformations.

Join me as I pray the words of Psalm 19:14, Psalm 141:3 and portions of our passage in James 3:1-12 back to the Lord: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer…Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips…because you say teachers will be judged with greater strictness, enable me to speak only what is true so I don’t stumble in what I say. Use my words to build up, not tear down.  Though my tongue is small it’s dangerous if I don’t submit it to your control.  Forgive me for ways I’ve poisoned people with what I’ve said.  Help us now to hear your words.  In Jesus’ Name.  Amen.”

A week ago Friday morning I dropped our van off to get worked on and decided to run back home.  I had just started to listen to a sermon by Paul Tripp on the dangers of our tongue tripping us up when I tripped on a hidden coat hanger frozen into the snow.  I went down hard on my left knee and right elbow.  I limped around last weekend, wondering if I had done some serious damage.  Thankfully, nothing is broken.  

How many of you have been tripped by your tongue? 

Last weekend we learned this truth: We’re not saved by works, but saved people do God’s work.  Today we move from proving our faith by our works to proving our faith by our words.  Here’s a summary statement: Control your tongue, or it will control you.

I’m going to borrow an outline from Warren Wiersbe to help us work through the first twelve verses of James 3.

  • The tongue has the power to direct (3:1-5a)
  • The tongue has the power to destroy (3:5b-8)
  • The tongue has the power to delight (3:9-12)

James illustrates the power of the tongue using six vivid word pictures — a bit in a horse’s mouth, a rudder on a ship, an out-of-control fire, a dangerous animal, a bubbling spring and delicious fruit.

1. The Tongue Has the Power to Direct

Let’s look at verse 1: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”  Because teachers were thought of as having a prestigious position, it’s likely too many were teaching topics they didn’t understand.  Perhaps they were impressed with the authority and prestige of the office and forgot about the tremendous responsibility.  I remember one time I stumbled through a hard-to-pronounce Bible name and without thinking said something like this: “Who’d ever choose that name for their baby?”  I quickly found out that was someone’s mom’s name.  That afternoon I had to make a phone call.

Here’s the principle: greater authority brings with it greater accountability.  Because I preach and teach on a regular basis, I will be “judged with greater strictness.”  The word “greater” in Greek is megas, meaning huge or large.  This is humbling and frightening at the same time.  

Teachers are not the only ones who get tripped up by their tongues.  In verse 2 we read, “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.”  Notice James is including himself and everyone else by using “we” and “all.”  The word “stumble” is the idea of falling or tripping.  Literally, it means this: “We all are stumbling repeatedly in many ways.”  

How would you feel if everything you said this past week was recorded and broadcast for everyone to hear?  Jesus said we’ll all be judged for the words we speak according to Matthew 12:36-37: “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”  Remember this: your conversation reveals your character because what you say shows who you truly are.

James continues by saying if our tongues don’t trip us up, we’re “perfect,” or complete.  If we’re able to muzzle our mouths, we’re able to “bridle” our entire bodies.  James is circling back to a theme introduced in 1:26: “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.”  The hardest sins to control are the trespasses of the tongue.  Proverbs 21:23 says, “Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble.” 

As a good teacher, James uses some unforgettable figures of speech to help us see the importance of being wise with our words.

  • Bit.  The first illustration is the bit in a horse’s mouth: “If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well.”  This relatively small piece of metal can control a very powerful animal, which on average weighs about a thousand pounds. 

The same way a small bit can control a large animal, a small rudder controls a large ship, which is James’ second illustration.

  • Rudder.  We see in verse 4: “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.”

In high school, I was out water skiing with some friends. When it was my turn to ski we circled the lake a couple times and then I signaled I wanted to quit.  My buddy was driving the boat and was sitting on top of the driver’s seat.  He decided to turn the wheel sharply to make me wipe out.  As he turned, the boat dipped suddenly, causing him to fall on the floor between the seats.  I hit the water and the boat came right toward me with the throttle wide open.  At the very last second, my sister reached over and turned the wheel.  The boat missed me by just inches!

What was intended to be delightful, almost turned into disaster.  With just a small turn of the wheel, my life was saved.  Friends, our tongues are the same way.  Though tiny, they have a tremendous power to direct.  

By the way, I often get teased for using alliteration in my sermons.  I want you to know Pastor James does the same thing in the Greek.  Check out  verse 5: “So also the tongue is a small (micron) member (melos), yet it boasts of great (megala) things.”  

While the tongue only weighs about two ounces, it receives more exercise than any other muscle in our bodies.  Chuck Swindoll called the tongue a “two-ounce slab of trouble.”  Someone else referred to the tongue as “the two-ounce beast.”  

My beloved brothers and sweet sisters, control your tongue or it will control you.

2. The Tongue has the Power to Destroy

After establishing the power of the tongue to direct, in the last part of verse 5 we’re introduced to the image of an out-of-control fire that destroys: “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!”  

  • Fire.  Few disasters in the ancient world were as feared as an out-of-control fire.  Fires started easily in the dry season and were almost impossible to extinguish, leaving destruction in their wake.  

When I was about 12 years old a couple of my buddies and I were out in the woods playing with fire – literally.  Our family had ventured from the Promised Land for a weekend visit with my mom’s old college roommate in northern Illinois.  We were lighting matches and throwing them into the dry grass and stomping the flames out before the fire could get out of control.  I threw a match and a clump of dry grass went up in flames.  I remember calling to my friends to come and see what I had done.  I must have enjoyed my masterpiece too long because the flames soon engulfed a pine tree and then spread throughout the entire forest preserve!  

We ran out of the woods, stopping just long enough to tell a couple to call 911.  My buddies told me not to say anything to our parents.  I wasn’t sure that would work, not because I wasn’t a good liar, but because I knew my mom would be able to tell I had done something wrong.  As soon as we got back to their house, my mom asked what I had done.  I confessed to being a young arsonist.  She made me call the Fire Department and tell them I was responsible.  I’ll never forget the drive home that night, sitting in the back of the car while my parents listened to WLS.  When it came time for the news, the announcer reported three juveniles had started a forest fire.  All four of my sisters pointed at me.  I just shrank in shame.  By the way, I was kicked out of the Promised Land and now live in Illinois as part of my penance.  JK.  

A little spark caused extensive damage to an entire forest…and to my backside after my parents were finished with me!  Like a careless match thrown into dry grass, our words can incinerate individuals.  Listen to this paraphrase of Proverbs 16:27: “Mean people spread mean gossip; their words smart and burn.”  

Look at verse 6: “And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness.  The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.”  

Here are four truths about the tongue from these verses.  

  • Our words contain a world of unrighteousness.  We often speak of the world as evil and it is, but there’s a world of rottenness on the tips of our tongues.  
  • The fires we start with our mouths can quickly become infernos.  Just like a small spark can ignite an entire forest, so too words can cause relationships to go up in flames.  I’m reminded of Proverbs 26:20-21: “For lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, quarreling ceases.  As charcoal to hot embers and wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife.”
  • Our words can defile and set the direction of our entire lives.  The word “stain” means “to soil or defile.” The words we use can chart the course of our life. 
  • Evil words are from the pit of hell.  Somehow our tongues have a direct connection to hell itself.  “Hell” is the word Gehenna, which was the name of the garbage dump outside of Jerusalem, where garbage and refuse burned continuously.  When some of us speak, raw sewage comes spilling out of our mouths.  This place became a metaphor for the reality of the ever-burning fires of eternal torment and was referred to by Jesus eleven times and once by James.  Here’s the main point.  Our uncontrolled speech is set on fire by Satan himself.  

How many people have you crippled or killed with your words?  Are your kids dying a slow death because of your lethal lexicon?  Do your words build up or do they tear down?

  • Animals.  As important as it is not to speak death words and instead to speak words of life, we have a problem.  Verse 7 gives the fourth illustration: “For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind.”   The word for “kind” is the word “order” and hearkens back to the classifications used in Genesis 9:2 for the animal kingdom. 

Ferocious lions can jump through burning hoops, grizzly bears can ride on horses, and huge elephants can do handstands.  We have a remarkable ability to train ferocious beasts but we can’t tame our tongues.  It’s like we have wild animals loose in our mouths!

Check out verse 8: “But no human being can tame the tongue.  It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”   This is a very strong statement meaning, “no one of man.”  Notice it doesn’t say our tongues can’t be tamed; it says we can’t do it.  We need outside help.

Because our mouths are filled with poison we should handle our words as cautiously as we would a vial of anthrax.

“Restless” refers to “staggering, unstable, unsteady and unsettled.”  The tongue is restless and incapable of human restraint.  Have you heard of “Restless Leg Syndrome”?  The Bible says we all have “Restless Tongue Syndrome.”  Because our mouths are filled with poison we should handle our words as cautiously as we would a vial of anthrax.

When Paul builds his case that all have sinned, he speaks of the sins of the tongue in Romans 3:13-14: “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.  The venom of asps is under their lips.  Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”  This week I saw a story about a woman finding a snake in her suitcase after a 9,000-mile flight from Australia.  When she opened it up, she found a python curled up inside one of her shoes.  James is saying snakes don’t live in our shoes but instead are coiled up in our mouths and their venom comes out through our words!

The tongue has the power to direct and to destroy.  That’s why we must control our tongues or they will control us.

3. The Tongue Has the Power to Delight

Our tongues also have the power to delight.  Verses 9-10 lay out the dichotomy and hypocritical nature of our tongues:  “With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.  From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.  My brothers, these things ought not to be so.”

The word “bless” is the word from which we get “eulogy,” which means to speak well of.  We bless God while we blast away at people made in the image of God!  Some of us praise Him and then within minutes we pulverize someone made in His image.  

James now draws his fifth word picture to help us see it should be impossible to both exalt and incinerate with the same mouth.

  • A spring.  Listen to this penetrating question in verse 11: “Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water?”  The image here is of a fresh, flowing stream that has both sweet and sour water flowing from it.  The word for “salt” is “bitter,” which would have reminded his readers of the waters of Marah from Exodus 15:23.

James is saying just as it is impossible for a spring to have both sweet and sour water, so too it is inconceivable for the tongue to send forth both righteousness and rumors, praise and pummeling, compliments and cursing.

  • Fruit.  The final image is that of fruit in verse 12: “Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs?”  We expect a fig tree to have figs and a grapevine to have grapes.  Nature reproduces after its kind because trees cannot bring forth fruit inconsistent with their nature.  God is calling us to be consistent because what comes out of our mouths is a reflection of what is in our hearts.  We see this in the last phrase of verse 12: “Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.” 

We’ve learned we must control our tongues or they will control us because they have the power to direct, to destroy and to delight.  

Putting into Practice

If we want our tongues to be tamed, we must put into practice what we’ve learned.

1. Think First. 

When our daughters were young Beth would often ask this question when things would get heated between them: “Are your words flames or flowers?”  This helped them realize they can plant beautiful flowers with what they say or they can unleash a raging fire.

Using the acronym THINK, ask these 5 questions before you speak.

  • Is it True?  
  • Is it Helpful?  
  • Is it Inspiring?  
  • Is it Necessary?  
  • Is it Kind

Related to this, let’s make sure we watch our words on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, email and in our texting.  Once they’re out there, they’re on there for all to see.

2. Talk Less. 

Your chances of blowing it with your words are directly proportional to the amount of time you spend with your mouth open.  King David, after seeing how his words got him in trouble wrote this in Psalm 39:1, “I will guard my ways, that I may not sin with my tongue; I will guard my mouth with a muzzle…”

3. Memorize more. 

One of the best ways to change the words you speak is by getting the words of Scripture into your heart.  Psalm 119:11: “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” 

4. Build others up. 

The Bible continuously reminds us to encourage one another with our words.  Hebrews 3:13: “But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” 

5. Speak up for life. 

As Christ-followers, let’s continue to look for ways to speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves (Proverbs 31:8).  This week I read a post by Tim Challies called, “The Eternal Significance of One Little Word.”  Recently U.S. senators were given an opportunity to speak a simple yea or a nay as their vote in favor of or against the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, meant to extend basic human rights to infants who might survive an abortion procedure.  53 senators chose the word “nay,” thus defeating the bill to protect the most vulnerable.  Challies writes, “They will be called upon to give an account for that word, that one-syllable, three letter, packed-with-significance word.  I can’t help but wonder how that ‘nay’ will sound before the throne, before the one who creates life, who loves life and tells us to protect life.”  The article is posted on Sermon Extras on our website if you’d like to download it.

Related to this, there are two bills under consideration in the Illinois House, which permit abortion through all nine months of pregnancy, for any reason, without restriction.  These bills would also allow non-doctors to perform surgical abortions, force all private health insurance plans to cover abortions, and would repeal the Illinois Parental Notification law, which requires a physician to inform the parent or legal guardian of an underage girl before giving her an abortion.

Proverbs 18:21 says, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.”  Let’s use words of life to speak on behalf of life.

6. Have Heart Surgery. 

This passage is really challenging.  We’re presented with a standard to follow and then told we can never achieve it on our own.  

Why is it so hard to say kind things with our tongues?  It’s because the Bible says our tongues are untamable in our own efforts.  Where does all the sewage come from that spews out of our mouths?  Jesus is clear in Matthew 12:34 and 15:19: “You brood of vipers!  How can you speak good, when you are evil?  For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks…for out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, lies and slander.”  

If there are horrible things in your heart, they will come gushing out of your mouth.

Someone remarked: “What’s down in the well comes up in the bucket.”  The tongue simply delivers the dictates of a desperately sick heart.  If there are horrible things in your heart, they will come gushing out of your mouth.  That’s why Proverbs 4:23 exhorts us, “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life.”

If you want to be a dispenser of life words instead of death words, you need to be rightly related to God.  Repent from how you’ve been living, confess your sins and receive the free gift of forgiveness.  Romans 10:9-10 challenges us to use words to communicate our new allegiance: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”  

If you’ve been tripped up by your tongue and find yourself sprawled on the ground because of your sins, Jesus stands ready to help you back up.  Just as a horse needs a rider guiding its reigns and a ship needs a captain at its rudder, your tongue needs a master.  Jesus is the only one who can do the job!  

Words matter.  And the words of Jesus really matter.  He knows we’re a people who forget so He instituted a memorial meal designed to help us remember what He did for us on the cross.  Lock into His words from Luke 22:19-20And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you.  Do this in remembrance of me.’  And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.’”

Did you catch His words that speak of substitutionary sacrifice?  “This is my body, which is given FOR YOU…This cup that is poured out FOR YOU is the new covenant in my blood.”

 The Savior died in your place, as your substitute.  That means He died for you…instead of you…because of grace, He died in your place.  

This meal called the Lord’s Supper is filled with word pictures.  The bread and the cup remind us the Lamb of God sacrificed Himself for sinners, satisfying God’s justice.  His blood was shed so our sins, including the sins of our speech, can be forgiven.

 Before we take communion it’s important to take a spiritual inventory.  1 Corinthians 11:28 says, “Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.”

  • Consider your relationship with God
  • Confess any sins God brings to mind, including any trespasses of the tongue

Thank you Jesus for this reminder of what you did for us on the cross.  We’re grateful for forgiveness and the freedom that come from saving faith in your finished work.  Because our words can build others up or break them down, would you enable our words to be life and truth.  We only want to say words which point the world back to you.

Receive these words found in Ephesians 4:29-32: “Let no corrupting [lit. rotten] talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. 32 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?