Exposing the Heart via the Tongue – Part 1 (James 3:1-12)

Exposing the Heart Via the Tongue

The test of a believer’s speech, part 1–James 3:1-12

I am that guy. Don’t ever tell me about your big surprise party, because I don’t keep secrets–I will let the cat out of the bag. I will unwittingly mention it to the surprizee and all your work keeping it a secret will be ruined. I don’t do it to be mean, I do it because I was made to be open and direct. I don’t keep secrets, I don’t play politics, I don’t enjoy surface level polite talk. I never like hiding the truth. Those are strengths, but they are also weaknesses.

But that also means I come off blunt, confrontive, and am always willing to address the elephant in the room, the uncomfortable issue, the glaring problem (the real issue). I am the person who will tell you everything, but also the guy who will address anything. I love this church family because of our commitment to discipleship. There is a deeper level of openness, transparency, and people without guile, making our church family unique and special by His grace–a true family. I won’t survive if that ever changes.

But that does not mean all of us are without communicative challenges. You may be quiet, reserved, only in need of one to three friends. Or you may be loud, bombastic, and want 100 friends. You may get up each day with, “Good morning, Lord!” Or you wake up each morning with, “Good Lord, it’s morning.” But regardless of how you are made, you all have to work on your speech, your verbal interactions, what you say and how you say it. Some need to talk more, others need to talk less. Some need to be positive, a few need to be more discerning. Others need to be more encouraging. Most need to listen more, still others need to stop speaking certain ways.

Some Christians will think nothing of uttering an angry word, speaking unnecessarily, passing on rumors, gossip, slander, half-truths, and a host of evil speech. Christ died for their sin, yet they will flippantly sin with their mouths by making insinuations, uttering swear words, boasting about accomplishments, even lie, criticize, speak contentiously, and continually complain– all the while they ignore the fact that their speech is on trial. Your everyday talking will be judged by Christ.

Jesus says in Matthew 12:36 and 37, “Every careless word that men shall speak, they shall render account for it in the day of judgment. 37For by your words you shall be justified, and by your words you shall be condemned.” Believers forget that two of the ten commandments refer to the tongue and the book of Proverbs is packed with over 100 warnings against unrighteous talk. And Jesus said in Luke 12:3, “Whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in the inner rooms shall be proclaimed upon the housetops.”

Even though you may think nothing about sinning with your words, the Bible teaches that your speech is actually a very accurate thermometer of your soul. Just as a thermometer gives a good reading of the temperature, the Bible says your everyday talking–what comes of out your mouth with friends gives an accurate reading of what you are really like, what your true spiritual condition is. Jesus says in Matthew 12:34, “For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart.” The tongue is the messenger that carries the words from the heart.

The real problem is not the tongue, but your heart, your inner man. The tongue is the bucket that dips into the well of our heart and shows everyone what kind of water exists within–sweet or poison. That means, if you really want to know how you are doing spiritually–to really know whether your heart is right before God or not . . . don’t trust in church attendance, praying before meals, loyalty to the Bible, sporadic prayer, or giving a tithe. All good things–but you can do them without your heart being in Christ or intimate with Christ.

But examine your conversation with fellow employees, your comments concerning superiors or subordinates, or your lunchtime topics. If you want to know your true spiritual temperature, recall what you said to your spouse during your last argument. Or what you said to your children or parents when they made you angry. If you want to see inside your soul, then examine your response to the last juicy rumor, tantalizing gossip, critical statement or complaint. What does your talk with friends, family and rude strangers tell you about your heart?

MacArthur says, “The tongue is you in a unique way. The tongue is a tattletale that tells on the heart and discloses the real person.” Every one of you battles with your talk–amen? Your speech is a challenge. And because speech is one of the clearest indicators of your heart, James now brings up the tongue again–but this time in chapter 3, to challenge, to equip and to examine you. The tongue is a great concern to James.

The tongue is mentioned in every chapter of this letter. Now in James 3:1 to 12, he uses the tongue as still another test of true faith, because the genuineness of a person’s faith will inevitably be demonstrated in his speech. Those who don’t have a regenerated heart will not be able to control their tongue. And those who are born again still must depend upon the Spirit to guard their speech. And only those mature in Christ are going to see their speech become more like Christ–more gracious, more wise, more building, more truthful, more confrontive, and more loving.

Turn in your Bibles to James chapter 3 as he tests the reality of your faith by reminding you of the power of speech, the persuasiveness of talking, the danger of teaching, the risk of conversations, and ultimately the need to guard everything you say. The tongue exposes the heart, creates fear of judgment, and motivates maturing. Controlling your speech assures of salvation and increases usefulness. How does James say it? We’ll unpack verses 1-5a this week, and 5b-12 after Christmas.

Read verses 1-5a aloud. “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment. 2For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well. 3Now if we put the bits into the horses’ mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well. 4Look at the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires. 5So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things.”

The half-brother of the Lord has been testing the faith of his scattered and battered readers. He is helping you know if you are a genuine Christian. If you are, then you will (chapter 1) seek to express joy in trial, take responsibility for sin in temptation, obey God as a doer of the Word, (chapter 2) love everyone without partiality, and make certain your faith produces works—that’s the main theme of James. If you say you believe like you should, then why do you behave like you shouldn’t.

Now in chapter 3 James asks, if you say you believe like you should, then why do you say things you shouldn’t? In chapter 3, James x-Rays your heart with the test of speech. Controlling your speech assures of salvation and increases your Spirit-filled usefulness. Today the Lord wants you to grow in godly fear of the misuse of your speech –or what you say is more powerful, more dangerous, more impactful, more persuasive, more destructive and more important than you realize. Which is why James begins with . . .

#1  Your talking has the PROFICIENCY to Determine  Verses 1 to 2  Teachers & Maturity

Your speech is able to determine your maturity and the kind of judgment you’ll face as a teacher. Read verses 1 to 2. “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment. 2For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well.” James begins this paragraph with a negative and positive motivation about the way you talk.

Negatively, it almost feels like James is attacking teaching in the Church–but in fact, James is protecting teaching. James starts with a direct imperative, the only command in these verses on the tongue. Don’t run too quickly to the role of teaching-why? There must have been some sort of rivalry in the assemblies over who would teach. James says those who teach will be judged more strictly than those who listen.

It is a sad thing when immature Christians try to become teachers before they’re ready. They think they’ve attained a great place of honor, when what they’ve actually done is demand from God a more severe judgment. The Greek word for teacher was used by rabbis of those who functioned in a recognized role as a teacher. But CG leader, youth discipler, jail guys, women’s class leader, children’s teacher and parent–you’re also teaching! James says, “Beware of misusing your tongue in teaching.”

But this caution, “Let not many of you become teachers,” is not to discourage you from communicating biblical truth. Nor does James want those called to teach not to. But, James is saying make certain of two things–you’re saved, and called.

First  Make certain you are genuinely BORN AGAIN

The book of James is about the indicators of true faith. One of those indicators is the tongue. James already brought up the tongue in 1:26, “If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless.” So don’t become a teacher unless you’re born again. Notice that James addresses verse one to “my brethren”, talking to believers, so . . .

Second  Make certain you are CALLED BY GOD TO TEACH God’s Word

How do you know that? You have a passionate desire to teach. You have the spiritual gift of teaching. People come to Christ or become like Christ under your teaching–meaning their lives change. And finally, other leaders and gifted teachers both affirm you are a teacher. Make certain you are called to teach.

The point James is making is that no believer should begin any form of official teaching of God’s Word without embracing just how serious the responsibility is. To sin with the tongue alone or with one or two is bad enough. But to sin when talking to many is worse. But to sin with the tongue with many as you teach the Bible is deadly. The Bible teacher is responsible to speak the truth, not personal opinions. What that teacher says affects many lives, so the responsibility to handle God’s Word accurately cannot be taken lightly. And teachers are also expected to live the truth, not merely teach it. They must labor to be doers of the Word. Or do what I did—marry someone who expects you to live everything you teach.

There is a reason I study a minimum of 20 to 24 hours for each sermon. In addition, there is a reason I invest time each day reviewing Sunday’s sermon in advance. There is a reason I pray each week to make certain Christ is central and I’m not the issue–that you are His sheep and not mine–and you must never mess with Christ’s sheep. That is why verse 1 says there is a stricter judgment for teachers—”knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment.” Teachers and preachers use their tongues a lot–and with the added responsibility of correctly communicating God’s Word, they experience a more intense judgment.

There is one word in this verse that should cause every teacher to panic–which word is it? It is the word “we”. James is the half-brother of Christ. James is an apostle of Jesus Christ. James is the apostle leader of the Jerusalem Church. James is an author of Scripture. But even those men were not exempt from a stricter judgment. Every teacher, without exception, is to be, 2 Timothy 2:15, “Diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.” If you teach the Word, then do the work of an accurate teacher.

Why? James 3:1, “Knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment.” The Greek word for judgment is neutral. It can be either positive or negative. The verb will incur means you will yourself in the future receive–this will happen. And stricter is the Greek word mega–greater judgment. What does this mean? For unbelieving teachers, in the future they will face the Great White Throne judgment, spoken of by John in Revelation 20:11 to 15, and will experience greater scrutiny and greater eternal punishment. The worst part of Hell is reserved for those who teach a false salvation.

For believing teachers, their judgment will be in the form of chastening in this life and also eternal reward when they face Christ at the Bema judgment when Romans 14:12 says, “Each one of us will give an account of himself to God.” And 1 Corinthians 3:13 to 15, “Fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.” Negatively, the tongue results in mega judgment, especially for teachers. But positively, the tongue when controlled indicates massive maturity.

So what do you say to a brand new baby Christian who wants to preach here next Sunday? Instead of running to the function of a teacher too quickly, what James says in verse 2 may be it would be best, first, for you to mature in Christ some. Verse 2, “For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well.”

Notice the first phrase–it applies to everyone, but especially the Bible teacher. Nobody is infallible, verse 2, “For we all stumble in many ways.” Everyone messes up with their speech, their words, their conversations and their tongue in general. But when a Bible teacher stumbles, they can cause a whole crowd of God’s people to stumble with them. To stumble refers to sinning, missing a step, or falling–but it actually means to slip. That is an appropriate description of the danger of the tongue–why? Because God put the tongue in a wet place–therefore it can easily slip, right? The tongue is a teacher’s indispensable tool. But an ignorant, or deceptive, or worse–wicked tongue is a deadly weapon. If you have the responsibility of teaching, but have an untamed tongue, James says you will become the object of God’s severe judgment.

Every Christian, including teachers of God’s Word, need to embrace the next truth in verse 2, “If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man.” Perfect has two possible meanings.

The first means without flaw or error. Now the doctrine of the New Testament does not allow for any believer in this life to ever achieve absolute perfection–even in their speech. No one here is perfect in the same sense that Jesus is perfect. There is only one perfect man, therefore we will all stumble a lot or a little in what we say.

So the second meaning for perfect is complete or mature. The idea is every area of your life, including your speech, is seeking to be under the direction of God’s Word. Like Paul says, you are complete in Christ. Like Jesus says in the Great Commission with making disciples, includes teaching them to obey all that I have commanded. James is saying that if you don’t stumble in what you say, whether what you teach or what you talk about with friends–then you are a mature, believing man or woman. Through the filling of the Spirit, dependently relying on and following God’s Word in His power alone, you can begin to display more God honoring talk and teaching. The idea is spiritually mature (Spirit-filled) believers can control their tongues.

Then James makes this shocking statement at the end of verse 2–if you begin to make progress in controlling your tongue, then you’ll be “able to bridle the whole body as well.” Here in verse 2, the Greek body best refers to a believer in general–to his whole being. James promises, if you can control your tongue, which is always ready to sin big, then controlling everything else will follow. If the Holy Spirit begins to gain control of this most volatile part of your being, then His control over the rest of your life will be much more dominant. When a person’s speech is Christ-exalting, God-honoring, and edifying, then the rest of their life will be spiritually healthy. Controlling your speech assures of salvation and increases your Spirit-filled usefulness.

Why should you want to–why should I make the effort to control my tongue? Why should I want to pursue Psalm 39:1, “I will guard my ways that I may not sin with my tongue, I will guard my mouth as with a muzzle.” Or, Psalm 141:3, “Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth, keep watch over the door of my lips.” James says because your tongue, your talk, your conversations are powerful. Yes, the tongue is very, very small–but it can have a huge impact, both good and bad.

#2  Your talking has the POWER to Direct  Verses 3 to 5a  Bits and Rudders

Read James 3:3 to 5a, “Now if we put the bits into the horses’ mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well. 4Look at the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires. 5So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things.”

Don’t forget what the little tongue can do. It can start wars, hold nations together, end friendships, destroy neighborhoods, split families, bring joy, teach the Word, exasperate children, change lives, disqualify leaders, end bitterness, anger parents, get spouses to fight each other, heal emotional wounds, express love, allow us to pray audibly, cure depression and discouragement, sing praises and give thanks . . . and begin marriages, just to name a few.

James uses two analogies to show the power of the tongue to control. First, he points out in verse 3 that if we put the bits into the horses’ mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well. How many of you have done a lot of horseback riding? How many have owned a horse? I used to lead trail rides and ride pony express for a camp every day. You know a horse’s bit lies on top of a horse’s tongue, and when attached to the bridle and reins, it is possible for the rider, using that bit, to easily make a giant horse obey.

Controlling a horse’s mouth controls their head, which in turn directs their entire body as well. This is super necessary for feisty horses like Apache. But even most gentle horses like Wampum, who have been ridden for many years, are not controllable without a bit in their mouth. As long as they are expected to perform a service, whether riding, carrying a load, pulling a wagon, or pulling a plow, horses require that bit, that control.

So James says it is the same with believers–to be useful to God, we will need our tongues controlled so everything else can follow in submission. That small bit controls that giant horse. And a little talk can make a giant impact. Therefore, it is crucial to control that little talk–that little tongue.

James gives another analogy, using the huge sailing ships of his day. Some of them were massive–almost like giant barges. Plus we know Paul’s ship that sank held 276 people. So James says in verse 4, “Look at the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder.” The largest ships back then were small compared to the cruise ships and navy warships of our day. But James wants you to think proportion. Compare the rudder of the ship to the size of the ship. Compared to its overall size, a ship’s rudder is very small, yet it easily steers a giant vessel. James says in verse 4, “wherever the inclination of the pilot desires.”

Just like that little rudder controls that giant ship, so a little talk can accomplish great things for God’s glory, or horrific evil that will destroy people and damn souls. The tongue is very small, but extremely powerful. Your talk is a very small thing, but it can do great bad or great build.

James continues in verse 5a, “So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things.” Like the bit in a horse’s mouth and the rudder of a ship, the tongue has power to control the rest of us. It is a master control for the whole body, directing virtually every aspect of behavior. Commentator J. A. Motyer writes this profound quote–listen to what he says carefully. “If our tongue were so well under control that it refused to formulate the words of self-pity, the images of lustfulness, the thoughts of anger and resentment, then these things are cut down before they have a chance to live: the master switch has deprived them of any power to ‘switch on’ that side of our lives. The control of the tongue is more than an evidence of spiritual maturity; it is the means to it.” (The Message of James [Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1985], 121)

James gives no specifics when he says, “the tongue … boasts of great things.” But he obviously has in mind for all of us, our natural inclination to boast, to brag, to be proud, to be self-centered, to live insecure (pride), or to have too high a self-image. Whenever the tongue boasts, it leaves a wake of destruction. It tears down others, it destroys churches, harms families, weakens marriages, and ends friendships.

In order for the tongue to control our lives in the right way, we must resist the ever-present inclination and temptation to boast and brag. We should speak only gracious and kind words–words that build, rather than tear down, words that edify, comfort, bless, and encourage. They should be words of humility, gratitude, peace, and wisdom. Such words, of course, can only come from a heart that not only is indwelt by the Holy Spirit, but is also wholly submitted to His control by dependently obeying God’s Word in every way possible. Controlling your speech assures of salvation and increases your Spirit-filled usefulness.

Next time, James will say your speech can delight or destroy. Your tongue can build up or break apart. Your dialogue can sweeten or sour a relationship.


A  Start DEPENDING on the Holy Spirit to work on your talking

Apart from Christ, you can do nothing. But when you seek to be Ephesians 5:18, “filled with the Spirit,” then God can work through you in order for you to control your speech. To be filled with God’s Spirit is to depend on Him every moment, seeking His control through you, while you engage your will to step out in obedience to Christ. To be filled with the Spirit is usually the response of being overwhelmed with gratitude for what Christ did for you–a desire to please Him by obeying Him. Based on the filling of the Spirit and love for Christ, take two steps . . .

Step 1  Speak less

You have two ears and one mouth for a reason. Listen to what Jesus said, when He was accused falsely–ready? . . . We need to become Christians of few words. When we want to speak, don’t. When we think we should speak, wait. Proverbs 10:19, “When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, but he who restrains his lips is wise.”

Step 2  Screen what you say

Ephesians 4:29, “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.” God says here, your words must build, not barf. It will help, not harm. They must be timed well and point others to the God of all grace.

Step 3  Select key Words to say often

Words like thank you, I love you, I appreciate you, please forgive me, is there anything I can do for you? how may I help? I am so thankful for you. Look at the close of many of the letters of the New Testament and hear the heart of Christ through the apostles toward the saints. Choose to say select words often.

B  Take extra care when you TEACH God’s Word

The very first verse I ever memorized, I never had to work at it–I read it once and never forgot it. Do you know which one it was? Today’s James 3:1, “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment.” As a baby Christian, I foolishly told the Lord, “Bring it on, I want that scrutiny.” But now that I know the Lord a little better, I don’t say that, but I fear Him and take the task of teaching His Word very seriously.

So should you, whatever your function–preacher, counselor, discipler, teacher, or parent. Make certain you are accurate, that you depend on the Holy Spirit, you are as clear as you can be, and all glory goes to the Triune God as you fear His scrutiny over your words and you seek to fulfill your calling.

C  What does your speech reveal about your HEART?

You can’t talk like Christ unless you are in Christ. You can’t control your tongue until the Lord has control over you. You can’t stop letting evil out of your mouth until God has killed the old evil man within you and given you a brand new man. Christ came to die so that we could be freed from the penalty of sin and from the power of sin in our lives, even the incredibly tiny but amazingly powerful tongue sins.

What does your speech reveal about your heart? Your speech is a window revealing what your heart is truly like. And if all you hear is corruption, gossip, slander, criticism, complaints, sarcasm, hurt, hate, judgment—then you do not have a new heart. Cry out to Christ to transform you, forgive your sins, and make you new so that your speech might be gracious, kind, loving, because you have a heart that has been reborn. Let’s pray.

About Chris Mueller

Chris is the teaching pastor at Faith Bible Church - Murrieta.

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