Taming the Tongue
The test of a believer’s speech–James 3:1-12, part 2, verses 5-12
Do you know what your most powerful muscle is? It is so strong it can damage, destroy–even kill. It is so deadly God caged it behind your teeth. It remains in a wet environment, making it slippery to control. The Bible teaches a lot about your tongue, your communication device. And God is very concerned with not only how you speak, but also the extension of your speech–which is email, texting, Instagram, phone and tweets.
But the tongue is the source of what you communicate–and every single one of you has had massive difficulty controlling what you say. How many times have you longed to take back words you’ve said? The moment you spoke them, you wished you could pull them back and shove them back down your throat—which is why Psalm 141:3 challenges you, “Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips.”
One of the big reasons for family and friendship failure is simply, students, not guarding your mouth. Proverbs 10:19, “When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, but he who restrains his lips is wise.” Psalm 39:1 says, “I will guard my ways that I may not sin with my tongue, I will guard my mouth as with a muzzle.” Why should you be concerned about the words you say? There are many biblical reasons, but allow me to highlight three.
First Your WORDS are a THERMOMETER of your heart
Your words accurately indicate your spiritual condition. Your conversations tell you who you really are. Just as a thermometer gives a good reading of your temperature, God says your speech gives an excellent reading of the condition of your heart spiritually. Jesus says in Matthew 12:34b, “For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart.” Jesus says you are measured by your words.
Recall your last intense marital discussion, or what you said when your children upset you, or students, the last comment you made in your circle of friends. Then you’ll know your heart and your maturity level. Your words are the thermometer of your heart. That’s why you must ask each day, “Lord, set a guard over my mouth.”
Second Your WORDS are DANGEROUS
There is little difference between a gun and a tongue. James 3 will teach us today in verse 6, “And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity.” One of the biggest lies I ever told while growing up was, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” That is a lie right out of the pit of Hell–for bones heal stronger than before, but some names, comments and statements can fester and destroy a person.
Every single person here has been cut by words so deeply that you remember that comment for years, even decades. That is why we must listen to our Lord, Savior and Friend, Jesus Christ 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.” You must take slips of the tongue, even normal conversations, more seriously.
The Bible even teaches in Proverbs 18:21, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue”–death and life! Is there anything more important than death and life? Yes—eternity and Heaven and Hell are also measured by your words. Matthew 12:36 and 37, “I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment. 37For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” Your words reveal whether your heart is regenerate or not.
Casual talk is also serious talk. Your words are dangerous to you and to others, encouraging you to “Set a guard over your mouth.” And one more reason . . .
Third Your WORDS are INFECTIOUS
Words spread sin. Words spread unbelief. Words infect others with doubt and mistrust. Look at the nation of Israel. The Israelites were delivered by ten supernatural plagues–but how did they respond? They complained in Exodus 14:10 and 11, “As Pharaoh drew near, the sons of Israel looked, and behold, the Egyptians were marching after them, and they became very frightened; so the sons of Israel cried out to the Lord. 11Then they said to Moses, ‘Is it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you dealt with us in this way, bringing us out of Egypt?’”
A bunch of whiners–call the wa-a-ambulance! Next they sent twelve spies into the land and ten came back full of fear and full of doubt–and only two came back full of faith. But the ten with a heart of fear expressed in words, infected the people of Israel so severely it lead to a 40-year discipline and delay. Your words are contagious. Your words can cause others to think less of people, to not listen, to doubt God’s Word, to distrust God’s leaders, to question God’s goodness, wisdom and power, to divide up against others, even to lose strength.
Your words will be caught by others. Just say something in front a four-year-old just once and you will hear it repeated for months. When you catch a cold, most of you thoughtfully don’t touch others and you carefully cover your mouth when you sneeze or talk. God says you need to have the same care with your words. Begin every day with a prayer–“Lord, set a guard over my mouth.” Last time we studied verses 1 to 5 and discovered that . . .
#1 Your talking has the PROFICIENCY to Determine Verses 1 to 2 Teachers and Maturity
“Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment” (James 3:1). James instructs Bible teachers first, because they use their tongues most. Obviously, in order to please the Lord, teachers must be born again and called to teach, since they’ll be judged with greater scrutiny since they’re instructing God’s Word.
Then in 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.” James reminds his readers that the ultimate indicator of genuine maturity is the Christian who has learned to control his or her tongue. Your tongue tells you just how godly you genuinely are. How are you doing? Then James taught in verses 3 to 5 that . . .
#2 Your talking has the POWER to Direct Verses 3 to 5a Bits and Rudders
A little talk can make a big impact. 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.”
The mouth full of amazing muscle has the power to direct our entire lives, both for good and for bad, for ministry and for sin, to disciple or destroy others. That is why we must put a guard over our mouth––you must not say everything you think. You must not speak those words of anger, resentment, criticism or gossip.
Modifying what one commentator said, “If your tongue was controlled, so that you refuse to express your insecurity, block yourself from venting your anger, unwilling to speak negatively about that spiritual leader–then all that internal sin is stopped from corrupting you and influencing others. By controlling your tongue, you stop those sins from being spoken, and in effect, you turn off the master switch and deprive sin from being birthed. It is the guarding the tongue which is not only evidence of spiritual maturity, but the means to spiritual maturity.”
Now this week, James continues with verses 5b through 12. Read verses 5 to 12 aloud with me. “See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! 6And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell. 7For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race. 8But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. 9With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; 10from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. 11Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water? 12Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Nor can salt water produce fresh.”
#3 Your talking has the POTENTIAL to Destroy Verses 5b to 8 Fire, Beast and Poison
James’s next point focuses on the tongue’s tremendous potential to devastate others. The little tongue, like a rudder, can steer a giant ship toward good or evil. But here in verses 5b to 7, James emphasizes the tongue’s great capacity to do evil and harm others–like a fire burns, or a vicious beast bites or a deadly poison kills. James does not mention any specific problem area, but because the tongue can talk about anything, it has the power to ruin everything.
The tongue has a vast potential for evil. It can speak falsehood and filth. It can be smooth as butter or as sharp as a knife. It can curse, criticize and complain. There is no evil found in the heart of man that the tongue cannot promote and spread. That little muscle, caged behind your teeth, can burn all that is good, like a fire destroys a forest. Listen to James . . .
Verses 5b and 6, “See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! 6And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell.” We Californians know the power of the wildfire–started by the smallest spark from a reckless smoker, a hot tailpipe, or careless camper. A spark can burn thousands of acres of forest, killing countless animals, even destroying human life and property.
James begins with, “See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire!” A huge forest can be destroyed by a single spark—your words start fires. The writer of Proverbs observes in 16:27 that “a worthless man digs up evil, while his words are as a scorching fire.” And in 26:21, “Like charcoal to hot embers and wood to fire, so is a contentious man to kindle strife.” Not here so far, but I’ve known of female malicious tongues which destroyed a church. I’ve known of an evil mouth who left a church, and the church was restored to a loving body. I know of a large church that fired a pastor because he was so negative and critical.
Your tongue is a fire–Proverbs 26:20, “For lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, contention quiets down.” On October 8, 1871, at about eight-thirty in the evening, a lantern in Mrs. O’Leary’s barn presumably kicked over by her cow, ignited the great Chicago fire. Before it could be contained, 17,500 buildings were destroyed, 300 people died, and 125,000 others were left homeless. Consider the power of fire–fire is extensive. Just like a small spark can burn an entire forest, so a small word can damage others far away. Anyone can repeat a scandalous detail or pass on an untrue story about someone you don’t even know and cause massive harm thousands of miles away.
Fire is uncontrollable. Fires in tinder-dry Palestine are almost immediately out of control. And often, the damage of the tongue can take on a life of its own. Before you speak, remember once a question is spoken it’s gone from your control. Think before you speak, because although you can’t call it back, you will always answer for it. Did you notice the four phrases James uses to describe the fire danger of the tongue? Four elements of danger starting in verse 6, 1) “And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity,” 2) “the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body,” 3) “and sets on fire the course of our life,” 4) “and is set on fire by hell.”
First, verse 6a, “the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity.” What is a “world of iniquity”? World isn’t describing the earth, but a system of iniquity, evil, and rebellion. The tongue is a vehicle of ungodly behavior coming from within sinful man. Your conversations can breed every sort of sinful desire. Your talk is the vehicle of the heart to express remaining fleshly, fallen, wicked humanness–making the tongue the only body part which has such a far-reaching potential for destruction, like fire.
Second, verse 6b, “the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body.” This system of evil spreads out and contaminates the rest of the body. To modify the metaphor somewhat, the destructiveness of the tongue is like smoke that penetrates and permanently contaminates everything that is exposed to it. Whatever the fire itself cannot destroy, its smoke will permeate and ruin.
Have you ever bought something at a fire sale? You can wash it a hundred times, but you will still smell like a chain smoker. An evil tongue permanently stinks up your entire life. A filthy, defiled tongue stains the whole person. Mark 7:20 to 23, “That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. 21For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, 22deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. 23All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.” They burn like fire.
Third, verse 6c, “and sets on fire the course of our life.” Like physical fire, the destructive effects of evil speech expand, not only contaminating ourselves, but also everything we influence. That’s what James means with “course of life”. The course of our life is better translated “the circle of life”–not The Lion King, but emphasizing that the tongue’s evil can extend far beyond any individual to affect everything and everyone in their sphere of influence.
To a large extent, we are known by the way we talk. Over time, what we say gives others a pretty good idea of who we really are and what we are really about. This principle applies to good speech as well as sinful speech. But James’s emphasis in verse 6 is entirely on the negative aspects of our talk, such as gossip, slander, false accusations, lying, filthy language and more–all of which can destroy individual lives, families, friendships and churches, like fire.
Fourth, most horribly verse 6d, “and is set on fire by hell.” The Greek verb for “is set on fire” describes an ongoing state. The tongue is permanently connected to Hell. The tongue gets its fire from Hell. The tongue can be as evil as Hell. James is the only book in the New Testament which uses the word Hell except for the synoptic gospels. And in Matthew, Mark and Luke, the only one who talks about the place of torment, Hell, is Christ. Jesus alone uses the Greek word Hell in the first three gospels.
The word Hell literally means of Hinnom–referring to the valley of Hinnom, a deep gorge southwest of Jerusalem, where trash, garbage, and the bodies of dead animals and executed criminals were dumped and continually burned. Because the fire burned all the time and maggots were always present, the Lord used Gehenna to represent the eternal, never-ending torment of Hell in Mark 9:43 to 44, “the unquenchable fire, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.”
Matthew 25:41 tells us Hell is Satan’s place. Hell was prepared for the devil and his demons, so Hell is used as a synonym for Satan and his demons. By saying the tongue is set on fire by Hell, the apostle James is telling you that your speech, your conversations, your talk, your tongue can be the devil’s tool. What you say can be Satan’s most effective instrument to fulfill his goals—which are what? To pollute, to divide, to undermine, to slander, to accuse, and most of all to lie.
Your tongue is an unbelievably dangerous and destructive tool. That’s why you need to guard your speech. 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.” Again Psalm 141:3, “Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth, keep watch over the door of my lips.”
Verse 7 to 8a, “For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race. 8But no one can tame the tongue.” Not only is the tongue like a fire, but it’s also like a dangerous uncontrollable animal. The tongue is restless and cannot be ruled–it seeks its prey, then pounces and kills. Have you ever driven through a safari park where
you can observe and admire wild animals in their natural habitat from the safety of your car? They had signs posted all over the park, “DO NOT LEAVE YOUR CAR! DO NOT OPEN YOUR WINDOWS!” Why? Because those animals which were not tame, were capable of great harm–even death.
But for 6,000 years, for entertainment or just because they could, people have tamed every kind of animal–from killer whales to giant bears. James says every species includes animals that walk and fly–beasts and birds, as well as those that crawl and swim, the reptiles and creatures of the sea. Animals from every category have been tamed by the human race. The wildest, smartest, fastest, most powerful, and most elusive of creatures are subject to man’s taming.
But even though animals have been tamed, the tongue can never be tamed. But no one, meaning no human being in his own power, can tame the tongue. Only God can control the tongue through His Spirit and His Word, and that imperfectly–because like a wild beast, the tongue is restless, unruly and uncertain. Even for Christians, the tongue can easily slip out of its sanctified cage behind your teeth, and do great harm. Like a beast the tongue is wild, undisciplined, irresponsible and savage. And talk can often be so subtle, it sometimes escapes notice until the damage is done. What kind of damage?
Verse 8b, “The tongue it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison.” Your tongue is so evil, it is restless. Restless is the same Greek word rendered unstable. In this context, it’s the idea of a wild animal fighting fiercely against the restraints of captivity–that’s your tongue. Evil chafes at confinement, and is always seeking a way to escape and spread its deadly poison. Its venom is more deadly than a snake’s, because it can destroy in many different ways. The deceptive character of poison is that it works secretly and slowly, then it kills.
How many times has some malicious person injected a bit of poison into a conversation, hoping it would spread enough to finally stab the person they wanted to hurt? They love money. What you say can poison your friends, poison your family and poison your church. James is asking you, “Would you release hungry lions or agitated snakes loose in this gym?” Hopefully you’d say, “No!” But a poisonous tongue accomplishes the same results. One godly woman said it best–whenever she heard gossip or slander of any kind, she doesn’t go to the phone, but she goes to the throne in prayer.
#4 Your talking has the POTENCY to be DUPLICITOUS Verses 9 to 12 Human experience and Nature
James next characterizes the tongue as ready to compromise–to be duplicitous, treacherous and two-faced. The tongue is not just wild like an animal, but clever and subtly deceptive. It is hypocritical, eagerly willing to deceive in order to achieve its own evil advantage. James explains this two ways in verses 9 to 12.
First You know the Tongue is Treacherous through Human EXPERIENCE
James 3:9, “With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God.” Will you admit that this is you? One moment you are singing praise in church, and responding to God’s Word proclaimed with, “AMEN!” Yet not an hour later, your child misbehaves, someone says something, a driver cuts you off on the road, the line is too long at the restaurant, Chic Fil A still isn’t open on Sunday–and you speak harsh words, you curse people made in God’s image. The tongue is treacherous.
Every believer should use his tongue to bless our Lord and Father. What does that mean? John Piper says, “When God blesses men, they are helped, strengthened and made better off than they were before. But when men bless God, He is not helped or strengthened or made better off. Rather man’s blessing God is an expression of praising thankfulness.”
It is right and good for you and me to express our gratitude and admiration to God–to bless God. But with that same mouth, we must not curse men who are like God. The tense “have been made” indicates that the divine likeness imparted to men and women at creation has not been totally obliterated by the fall into sin. The treachery of the tongue is we bless God and curse men with the same mouth. Yet even that rude sales guy and that loud lady at the store retain the likeness of God. Now God’s image in man is massively marred by the fall and some work harder at being wicked—but men continue to be like God in many ways.
“The likeness of God” is chiefly that people are personal, rational and moral beings. Beyond all of God’s creatures, people possess the attributes of reason, will and conscience. Only people have the ability to know and serve God, and only people have the capacity to be conformed to God’s moral and spiritual likeness–your dog doesn’t. Therefore, to curse a man is to insult the God whose likeness man still bears.
James says it is not right to glorify God and curse people with the same mouth. This is tragically inconsistent and hypocritical. Verse 10a, “from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing.” Yet every single one of us has been guilty of that hypocrisy to some extent–like Peter who confessed that Christ is the Son of the Living God, yet later Peter began to curse and swear, “I don’t know the man.” Verse 10b adds a strong negative in Greek, “My brethren, these things ought not to be this way.”
No genuine Christian will contradict his witness or mar his profession of faith by the regular use of unwholesome ungodly words–swearing, slander, gossip, and harsh talk. James says there is no place in a Christian’s life for duplicitous speech. And finally James adds three illustrations from nature that demonstrate the sinfulness of cursing.
Second You know the Tongue is Treacherous through NATURE
How often do we “bless God” in our praying and singing, then “curse men” in our anger and impatience? James explains this two-faced, sinful speaking using three straightforward, simple illustrations. These are so direct, so simple–James doesn’t expand on them or explain them. But he simply concludes his test on the tongue with these three illustrations/exhortations.
ONE Verse 11, “Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water?”
The obvious answer is no. The same spring or fountain does not issue two vastly different kinds of water. It is impossible for a fountain to produce both fresh water and salt water, and it is inequitable for a biblical tongue (godly talk) to speak both blessing and cursing. Colossians 4:6, “Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person.”
TWO Verse 12b, “Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs?”
The obvious and expected answer is no. Such a thing is utterly contrary to nature and cannot happen. Therefore our speech, which comes from a brand new, born again heart should not have mixed talk. There should not be Spirit-filled speech and flesh-filled speech. Our fountain should be Christ, His Word, His will, His return, our home in Heaven, our fellowship in Him. A hateful heart cannot produce loving words. An unrighteous heart cannot produce righteous words. “A good tree cannot produce bad fruit,” Jesus explained in Matthew 7:18, 20, “nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. . . So then, you will know them by their fruits.” Finally, James concludes with . . .
THREE Verse 12c, “Nor can salt water produce fresh.”
The apparent answer is no. This is also clearly impossible, and no rational person would think twice about believing anything to the contrary. Your mouth should not be salty and fresh. So now James draws no stated conclusion from these three illustrations from nature. The examples so obviously condemn people’s inconsistency that no application is needed. Read Ephesians 4:29 aloud with me, “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.”
A When your speaking is inconsistent, it exposes a problem of your HEART
Matthew 12:34b, “For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart.” When you sin with your mouth–confess, repent and ask for help to overcome. Ask the Lord to help you deal with your errant heart, wrong thinking, and evil motives–see life and relationships through the lens of His Word and allow your Scripture-driven heart to drive what you will say and not say.
B If you are not filled with the Spirit, then your talk is the FLESH
When you are not living in the Spirit, then you are living by the flesh.
FLESH Proverbs 17:20, “He who has a crooked mind finds no good, and he who is perverted in his language falls into evil.”
SPIRIT Proverbs 18:21a, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” Proverbs 25:11, “Like apples of gold in settings of silver is a word spoken in right circumstances.” Ephesians 5:18, being filled with the Spirit is living every moment dependent upon the Lord and intentionally walking in obedience to His Word, seeking to exalt Christ in all things.
The results of being filled are described in Ephesians 5:19 to 21. Being filled changes the way you talk–you will speak to others in truth. You will sing in your heart, you will give thanks in everything, even express humility toward one another. You can’t control your tongue, but you can depend on the Spirit who will change your everyday speech.
C Every genuine Christian must determine to set a GUARD over their mouth
Psalm 141:3, “Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips.” Practically guarding your mouth means listen more than you talk, guard your conversations, your words, ask questions before answering. It means not answering immediately–wait and think and pray without ceasing saying, “Let’s not have the argument and talk after we’ve calmed down,” not allowing a lot of your thoughts to be expressed—ever.
Practice speaking words you know please the Lord, and saying those words more—like, “I am thankful, I love you, how can I help you, I appreciate you” and more. Students, guarding your mouth may also mean answering others in sentences and not grunts, avoid trapping your parents in their contradictions, changing your friend group because they won’t stop talking about others.
D The only way to speak like a Christian is to be born again by CHRIST
The Christian life is Christ in you and Christ through you. The only way you will ever begin to see your speech change in an eternal way, in a way that brings joy to others, a way that builds others, a way that is pleasant–is to realize the bad news is God is angry with you because you have sinned against Him. But the good news is God punished His own Son Christ for your sin.
If you embrace Christ with your life, your sin can be punished on the cross and His righteousness can cover you, so you can live with Christ now and forever. Cry out to Jesus Christ to give you a new heart, to turn from sin in repentance and depend on Him by faith, and you’ll find yourself talking in a whole new way. Let’s pray.
Pray about your tongue, your conversations, your talking, in every way pray about it unceasingly. There is a constant tension in the book of James between what is and what ought to be. At one point James says, “This is how it will be if you are a true believer,” and at another point he says, “That is also how it ought to be if you are a true believer.” Because we have been made righteous by Jesus Christ, we ought to speak righteously, according to His will and by His power.