James 3:1-12

James 3:1-12

Tongue in Check

Introduction:  When I was a kid and my mom took me to the doctor, the first thing he would say, no matter what the problem, was “Stick out your tongue!”  Then he would gag me with a little stick.  I believe Dr. James would say the same thing if we went to him concerning some problem with our spiritual health—stick out your tongue!  According to a recent study the average person speaks 18,000 words a day. That is the equivalent of 100 books of 600 pages each year.  In fact, the average person spends 13 years of his life talking, some considerably more.  Put that together with one of the hard sayings of Jesus found in Matt. 12:36: “I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken.  For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”

For the past two weeks we have been talking about how men are acquitted by God, or justified, which is the NT equivalent of being declared “not guilty.”  We have learned that a man is not acquitted by his deeds, by the religious rites and rituals he observes, or by his keeping of rules and regulations.  Rather he is acquitted on the basis of his faith in God and in His Son, Jesus Christ.  However, that faith must be more than an intellectual commitment and more than an emotional reaction—it must involve volitional response.  That is, it must be a real faith, a faith that stands up under tests like Abraham and Rahab faced, a faith that works.  But isn’t it interesting that our words, according to Jesus, are as important as our works in determining whether our faith is of such a nature that it will lead to acquittal.  You see, the tongue is an unfailing indicator of the heart.

I would like to do two things with the topic before us this morning.  First, I want us to examine what James offers by way of truths about the tongue—his analysis is penetrating and perceptive.  But then I want us to think through some truths for the tongue by way of application.  Let’s start by reading our text:

Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.

When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water

Truths about the tongue:

The tongue, the principal instrument of the Christian teacher, invites stricter judgment.  James is a vivid writer, but his organizational skills are somewhat suspect.  He quickly jumps from one subject to another and is almost impossible to outline.  At the beginning of chapter 3 it is not immediately apparent how his opening comment concerning teachers relates to the rest of the passage.  At first glance it looks as though he started to talk about Christian teaching and got sidetracked on the tongue.  I’m inclined to think, however, that his intent all along was to address the tongue, and his reference to teachers is the point of contact he uses to get his audience’s attention. 

You see, teaching was a very highly respected position in the first century church.  There were few books available, and few people knew how to read the few books there were.  There was no radio or 700 Club or tape ministries, so for most people the only way to learn was to sit under a Christian teacher.  The resulting influence and honor made teaching a coveted profession.

This concerns James because many were considering only the privilege of teaching and not the responsibility.  Teachers, he says, will be judged more strictly.  Why? Because while there are many ways a person can sin, there is only one way in which everyone sins—with his tongue.  And since the tongue is the chief instrument of the Christian teacher, the potential for abuse is immense.  Think of the damage that can be done by a teacher who is unprepared, or by one who teaches his own opinions or prejudices rather than God’s Word, or by one whose spiritual life is not up to par.  He is constantly pointing out other people’s shortcomings and constantly urging obedience to the things of God.  But if while he is doing this, he is not practicing the truth himself, the potential for hypocrisy is enormous, and a stricter judgment is applied.

This is a very sobering truth to me as a pastor. In fact, I confess to you that there are weeks when I want to skip the next passage in my series because I haven’t yet lived it out in my own life.  In fact, why don’t we just go on to chapter 4 right now.  Just kidding!  Instead what I try to do is to stop in the middle of my preparation, confess my own failure, and ask God to begin corrective action before I get up to speak.

Now surely James is not trying to discourage those legitimately called and gifted to teach but rather those who take up teaching primarily because of the power and prestige it offers.  

The tongue exerts an influence out of proportion to its size.  The three illustrations James uses could hardly be improved upon.  The bit that goes into the horse’s mouth is tiny by comparison to the horse’s size.  The contrast is even greater between the size of a rudder and the ship it directs.  And it is still greater between the spark and the resulting forest fire it starts.  So also, the tongue is but a small part of the body, but its influence is enormous.  That is why the Psalmist prays in Ps. 141:3:  “Set a guard over my mouth, 0 Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips.”   Just as a wise horseman will pay close attention to the condition of the bit, and a wise captain will make sure that his rudder is in top shape, and a wise woodsman will be sure his fire is completely out, so the wise person will keep close watch on his tongue.

The point seems to be that when the tongue is not restrained, small though it is, the rest of the body is likely to be uncontrolled and undisciplined also.  Now while the illustrations of the bit and the rudder are essentially neutral, i.e. the influence they exercise is not necessarily good or bad, just significant, the illustration of fire raises a moral point.

The tongue has tremendous destructive and corrupting power.  While fire can be either beneficial or harmful, here it is clearly harmful.  “Consider,” says James, “what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.”  I wish he’d quit beating around the bush and tell us how he really feels!  Wow!  This is serious stuff.  Have you ever said with a sense of pride regarding someone you told off, “I really burned him!”  Well, the burning was done with fire borrowed from hell.  Talk about spiritual warfare!  As far as I can tell James is speaking directly to believers here and alleging that hellfire is the source for some of our speech.  Consider some ways in which our tongues can be instruments of hell for destruction and corruption.

Lying is one obvious way.  The Ten Commandments absolutely forbid it and countless other passages of Scripture warn against it.  In Col. 3:9 Paul writes, “Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.”  Lying lips, says the Proverbs, are an abomination unto the Lord.  I heard about one little boy who got his contexts slightly mixed up in quoting that Scripture.  “Lying,” he said, “is an abomination to the Lord and a very present help in trouble!”  So it seems, at times, but it is not.

Some who wouldn’t think of telling a bald-faced lie think nothing of exaggerating the truth or telling only part of the truth in order to mislead.  But all deception is from the Deceiver and should be avoided.

Criticism is a second way in which our tongues destroy.  A young lady once said to John Wesley, “I think I know what my talent is.”  “Tell me,” Wesley asked.  “I think it is to speak my mind.”  Wesley responded, “I do not think God would mind if you buried that talent.”  Turn over one page to James 4:11: “Brothers, do not slander one another.  Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it.  When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it.  There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy.  But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?”

I believe the very worst kind of criticism is the cruel, cutting remark that is designed to belittle and humiliate the other person.  When we were very young, we learned a little poem that goes like this:  “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”  That’s the biggest lie ever spoken.  Words do hurt.  In fact, the wounds of sticks and stones heal pretty quickly; the wounds from some words never heal.  I wonder how many people sitting here this morning still feel pain because of words spoken years ago by teacher or a neighbor or even a parent.

Gossip is a third destructive use of the tongue.  The story is told of a young man during the Middle Ages who went to a monk, saying, “I’ve sinned by telling slanderous statements about someone.  What should I do now?”  The monk replied, “Put a feather on every doorstep in town.”  The young man did just that and returned to the monk wondering if there was anything else he should do.  Said the monk, “Go back and pick up all those feathers.”  The young man got the point immediately.

The Scriptures speak repeatedly against gossip.  Interestingly, when Paul addresses the subject of gossip, he focuses principally on women who don’t work and have too much time on their hands.  Listen to 1 Tim. 5:13, a passage discussing young widows: “They get into the habit of being idle and going about from house to house. And not only do they become idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying things they ought not to.”  But gossip is certainly not the exclusive province of women.  I have known men who could start a rumor or spread hearsay with the best of the female gender.[i]

Profanity, on the other hand, is a destructive use of the tongue which has often been considered a male phenomenon, and certainly men in general probably sin more in this way.  Unfortunately, this is one of the areas in which women have become “liberated”—to their own harm.  Some of them take pride in being able to turn the air blue with their filthy language.

There are two basic kinds of profanity—taking the Lord’s name in vain and cursing. Both are forbidden in Scripture.  The Third Commandment reads, “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.” B ut profanity is still wrong even if the name of God is not used.  Eph. 4:29 makes that clear: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”  I am especially concerned about our young people who because of peer pressure think cursing is macho.  It’s not macho; it’s stupid, ignorant, sinful, and usually reveals an inferiority complex.

The tongue, as we have seen, has tremendous destructive and corrupting power. 

The tongue is the only part of God’s creation that is untamable by man.  “All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue.  It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”  James is contrasting the tamable nature of the animal kingdom with the untamability of the human tongue.  The term “to tame” means literally “to subdue.”  God told Adam and Eve that they were to rule over the animal kingdom and subdue it.  By the way, the radical wing of the animal rights movement is a bizarre distortion of the divine order of things.  Certainly man’s authority over the animal world does not mean that animals are to be wasted nor does it give humans the right to be cruel to animals.  Rather our responsibility is godly stewardship.[ii]  But clearly the animal kingdom was designed to serve man’s needs.

When one looks at the history of man’s relationship with animals the truth of James’ observation is obvious—virtually every kind of animal is tamable, but the tongue is not.  Actually he doesn’t say the tongue is untamable; he says no man can tame it.  The clear implication, which we will pursue a little later, is that God can tame it.  But on your own you cannot, no matter how hard you try. 

The tongue, contrary to nature, is outrageously inconsistent.  “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.”  James then uses three illustrations from real life to explain that no such inconsistency exists in nature.  Fresh water doesn’t come from a salt spring.  Olives don’t come from a fig tree, and a grapevine doesn’t bear figs.  In nature everything produces after its kind.  Why then do we not see the inconsistency when we come here on Sunday morning and sing songs of praise and worship, and yet before we’re out of the parking lot we’re uttering a cutting remark to some member of our family?

I heard about a Christian man who drove up behind a car at a stoplight.  The car had a bumper sticker that read, “Honk if you love Jesus.”  So he honked.  The guy promptly stuck his head out the window and said, “Damn it.  Can’t you see the light’s red?”  And what makes cursing our fellow man particularly heinous, according to James, is that the one whom we pronounce damned has been made in God’s image!

So far this morning we have carefully traced James’ train of thought and have been treated to a very profound description of the incredible potential for good or evil, with emphasis upon the evil, that resides in each of our mouths.  The problem is obvious.  No one could read James and not understand him; and no one can understand him and not agree with him.  But what do we do about it?  Our goal here on Sunday mornings is not to send everyone home with a guilt trip.  Our goal is to see lives changed.  What are some practical things we can do once we’ve recognized ourselves in James 3?  I want to suggest five things, which I would call:

Truths for the tongue

The tongue cannot rise above the heart, so our focus must be on the inner man.  My point here is that any effort to tame the tongue cannot start with the tongue but must start 12 inches lower—with the heart.  The tongue is a barometer of one’s spiritual condition.  I want to go back to a passage of Scripture I quoted in my introduction this morning from Matt. 12.  In a blistering speech to the Pharisees, which includes the dire warning about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, Jesus says in verse 33: 

“Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit.  You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good?  For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.  The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.  But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of Judgment for every careless word they have spoken.  For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”

The key phrase is, “For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.”  Have you ever heard anyone say after a particularly nasty outburst, “Oh, I don’t know why I said that.  It really isn’t in me.”  Oh, yes it is.  It had to be in you or it couldn’t have come out of you.  Sarcastic words come from a cynical heart.  Profane words come from an impure heart.  Cutting words comes from an angry heart.  If your tongue shows evidence of being uncontrollable, I suggest that you need to focus on the inner man.  Biting your tongue will just result in bleeding, not healing.

However, as we saturate ourselves with God’s word, walk in obedience to Christ, keep short accounts with God, and develop spiritual disciplines, we will discover that our speech will follow suit.  My former professor, Stan Toussaint, once said, “The tongue is a slave of the heart, so make sure that your heart is a good master.”  

 The tongue is at times used best when allowed to rest.  Some people get into trouble by the sheer volume of their words.  How often we would be better off to simply listen rather than speak.  An ancient writer once said, “Let a fool hold his tongue and he will pass for a sage.”  Zeno, the ancient philosopher, put it this way: “We have two ears and one mouth, therefore, we should listen twice as much as we speak.”  But the exhortation to silence can be taken too far.  The Trappist monks are an order that practices perpetual silence, in addition to sleeping on plank beds and getting up at 2 A.M. every morning.  Some keep vows of silence for 40, 50 years or longer.  But are they really taming the tongue?  Putting something out of commission is not the same as taming it.

There are times, of course, when holding our tongue is a greater evil than speaking.  Like when a loved one needs to hear the three most important words in the English language.  I heard about a woman who said to her husband, “Speak those three words that make me walk on air.”  “O.k.,” he said, “Go hang yourself.” (walk on air, get it?)  Well, those aren’t the words I’m talking about.  And close behind “I love you” in importance are the words “I’m sorry.”  There are also times when we must speak to counteract great evil.  But the person who is constantly on a verbal warpath to change other people is probably one who needs to let his or her tongue rest.

The tongue can be a great instrument of encouragement and blessing, but effort and preparation are usually required.  James talks about the tongue blessing God and cursing man.  Those are not the only two options.  The tongue can also be a great instrument for blessing man,too.  Think of the great oratory that has flowed from the likes of Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King, Jr., the great poetry of Shakespeare and Robert Frost, or the great Bible teaching of R. C. Sproul or Chuck Swindoll.  We marvel at how they can take words and move thousands.

But the fact is that most of us cannot bless thousands with our tongues.  We can, however, bless a few.  We won’t, however, unless we make a conscious effort to do so.  A woman was taken to dinner one night by William E. Gladstone, the distinguished British statesman, and the following night by Benjamin Disraeli, his equally distinguished opponent.  Asked later what impression these two celebrated men had made on her, she replied thoughtfully: “When I left the dining room after sitting next to Mr. Gladstone, I thought he was the cleverest man in England.  But after sitting next to Mr. Disraeli, I thought I was the cleverest woman in England.”   You see, Disraeli had focused his attention on her, asked her questions about herself, and affirmed her.  That’s not beyond any of us.

I want to make a suggestion.  On your way to church on Sunday morning, instead of arguing in the car, why not urge each person in the family to plan to speak a word of encouragement to two people that morning.  Perhaps when you go pick up your child from Sunday School you could say to his teacher, “I just want you to know that I appreciate the fact that while I was enjoying my adult class, you were in here working with my child.  Thank you.”  Or, students, instead of standing in the cafeteria wondering why no one is coming up to speak to you, you could find someone else standing alone and go up and engage them in a conversation.  SeIf‑centeredness, laziness, and lack of forethought keep us from using our tongues as instruments of encouragement and blessing.

I think we have a tendency to think of certain people as “natural encouragers.”  They always seem to have the appropriate thing to say and they make us feel good being around them because they are so affirming.  And certainly there is a spiritual gift of encouragement that not everyone has received.  But those who don’t have it are not exempt from encouraging one another—we just need to work harder at it.

The tongue should be consciously yielded to the Holy Spirit.  Turn with me to a most interesting passage in Romans 6, beginning in verse 19:  “I put this in human terms because you are weak in your natural selves.  Just as you used to offer the parts of your body in slavery to impurity and to ever‑increasing wickedness, so now offer them in slavery to righteousness leading to holiness.”

I don’t know what part of your body may be most vulnerable to sin.  For the thief it is his hands.  For the glutton it is his stomach.  For the voyeur and the covetous it is his eyes.  For the immoral person it is the sexual organs.  For the liar, the profane, the boastful, the cynic, and the gossip, it is the tongue.  Paul’s challenge to offer that part of your body to righteousness suggests a specific prayer in the morning:  “Lord, you know how frequently I offer my eyes in slavery to materialism or my mind in slavery to impure thoughts or my tongue in slavery to cutting words.  Right now I want to offer that part of my body to you today to be an instrument of righteousness.”

It is very interesting to me that the tongue is the only part of the human body that is the subject of a specific supernatural gift of the Holy Spirit.  In fact, it is the subject of two—the gift of tongues and the gift of interpretation of tongues.  That must say something to us about the importance of consciously yielding our tongues to the Holy Spirit.  Interestingly, however, the Bible says far more about submitting our tongues to the Spirit in ordinary speech than it does about submitting our tongues to Him for supernatural speech.  In fact, there isn’t a single command to speak in tongues, but there are a host of commands to use our natural tongues in a Spirit‑filled way.  It is the very height of irony when a person praises God richly in a prayer language but cannot control his tongue in English.  It brings to mind Paul’s famous lament in I Cor. 13:1: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels (by which I’m inclined to think he meant the gift of tongues) but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.”

Part of that yielding to the Holy Spirit, however, may be to engage in an accountability relationship with another believer.  If you have a problem with your tongue it might be very wise to ask a close and godly friend to monitor your speech for you.  It would have to be someone willing to say, “I know you didn’t mean it, but that question you asked in class was biting and sarcastic.”  Or, “I think you said the right words to so‑and‑so, but your body language said something else.”  I had an elder back in Wichita who came to me one day and said, “Are you aware that every time Dick asks a question in your Bible Study, you fold your arms?”  I was dumfounded.  He went on, “I know he’s been a thorn in your flesh because you show it through your body language.”   Now every time I fold my arms in the classroom I automatically think of that conversation and ask myself, “Am I doing this because the person I’m talking to is a difficult person for me?”

Conclusion:  This morning we have looked at a universal problem and considered some practical solutions.  Allow me to close with an epitaph I found this week in my reading.  On a windswept hill in an English Country Churchyard stands a drab, gray slate tombstone.  The faint etchings read:

Beneath this stone, a lump of clay,  

Lies Arabella Young,       

Who, on the twenty‑fourth of May,  

Began to Hold Her Tongue.Would to God that we not make the mistake Arabella made and fail to keep our tongue in check until we have no choice.  Instead let us covenant to yield that particular instrument to God as an instrument of righteousness leading to holiness.

[i] Many have concluded that the TV is the most sinister invention in human history, but I wonder if it might be the telephone instead.  Many things are said over the telephone that would never be said in person.  There’s something about the anonymity of the phone, the fact that the other person can’t see us that gives us a false sense of invulnerability.  There’s been a lot in the news lately about these 900 numbers which young children sometimes get hold of.  One guy a couple of weeks ago got a phone bill for $40,000, if I remember correctly, which his son had run up calling a 900 number to hear some faceless woman talk dirty to him.  That same teenager would probably never have participated in such a conversation with a woman in person, but the phone provides a false sense of protection.  The same is true of the gossip who gets on the horn and calls everyone he or she knows to express a concern (usually for prayer, of course).

[ii] I may never have another good opportunity to say a word about the animal rights movement, so I’m going to take a moment here and address that strange new movement on the American political scene. This passage simply says that animals are tamable and have been tamed; it doesn’t say they ought to be tamed. There are many passages, however, right from the opening chapters of Genesis that indicate the animal world was created for mankind for his use, his pleasure, his food, his clothing, and his rule, just as was the plant kingdom.

The very notion of animal rights is unbiblical and a distortion of reality. Human beings are the only creatures who are made in God’s image (James points that out right here in verse 9) and the only creatures, therefore, who have rights.  Our focus should not be on the animals but rather on whether or not we human beings are being good stewards of the animal and plant worlds that God put under our jurisdiction.  As in every area of our lives God expects us to exercise godly stewardship.  Wasting animals is as sinful as wasting our talents or wasting money.  Cruelty to animals is a violation of the gentle spirit that God requires of His children and which His own Son demonstrated.  Can you even imagine Jesus killing a cat for fun or a fish for mere sport?  I cannot.

But this liberal gobbledygook about the evil of wearing leather or eating meat or sleeping on down pillows is just one more sign of the fact that our society has gone morally topsy-turvy.  When killing babies is viewed as every woman’s right but people will spend fortunes or even their lives to save spotted owls, snail darters and humped‑back whales, you know we’re in the Last Days.  

James 4:1-10