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Taming the Tongue

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Tame the Tongue (James 3:1-18)

There is nothing more slippery or loose than the tongue.

John Calvin

On a windswept hill in an old English churchyard stands a slate tombstone. The elements almost have erased the inscription, but one barely can make out the epitaph:

Beneath This Stone, a Lump of Clay,

Lies Arabella Young,

Who, on the Twenty-fourth of May,

Began to Hold Her Tongue.

During that period, many tombstones bore statements of truth. What epitaph truthfully would state the case of our speech? Obviously, Arabella had difficulty taming her tongue.

James gave more attention to the dangers of the tongue than any other New Testament writer. He mentioned some aspect of speech in each chapter of his letter. James 2:14-26 pronounces judgment on separating faith and works. In no area is this more likely than in human speech. While Christians profess one thing with their speech, often they practice something quite different. Nothing is opened more by mistake than the mouth.

James's cautions about the tongue comprise one of the most vivid passages in the New Testament. He began with a warning about the tongue and the teacher (3:1-2). He continued with memorable illustrations of the tongue's disproportionate influence (3:3-5). Selecting from the various levels of creation, he compared the tongue to fire, stains, beasts, and poison (3:6-8). He marveled at the tongue's contradictory behavior, unlike anything else in nature (3:9-12). Finally, he contrasted speech that was controlled by worldly wisdom to speech controlled by heavenly wisdom (3:13-18). James warned: Don't let your tongue be your undoing.

The Tongue and the Teacher (3:1-2)

Jewish culture prized the office of teacher beyond our ability to convey. The word rabbi meant my great one. To fear the rabbi-teacher was equated with fear of God. The student who argued with his rabbi argued with the Shekinah, God's presence. "To speak with the teacher, to invite him to be the guest, to marry his daughter, Israel was taught to consider the highest honour. The young men were expected to count it their glory to carry the Rabbi's burdens, to bring his water, to load his ass.'" Many Israelites of means wanted to be rabbis. To be a teacher meant position, power, and prestige.

One easily can see that mixed motives propelled men to seek the office of teacher. For that reason James warned: "My brothers, do not crowd in to be teachers" (3:1, Moffatt). He prohibited the continuation of a danger that he had detected in the early church. The Jewish rabbi's prestige carried over to the Christian teacher. One must keep in mind the informal structure of the earliest churches. Paul indicated that the services were spontaneous affairs where anyone in the fellowship could stand and speak. At Corinth, virtually everyone had something to teach (1 Cor. 14:26). In such a situation, the seductive prestige of the teacher's office tempted many. James stated that not many of his readers should become teachers.

James gave an excellent reason for his warning: "You know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness" (3:1). James included himself in his warning. He, too, was a teacher. The final judgment will be more exacting for those who teach Christian truths.

John Calvin ascended a high pulpit in his Geneva church. He once stated that it would be better for him to fall and break his neck while climbing to the pulpit than to preach the truth without first applying it to his own life.

Everyone acknowledges the contradiction of preachers who do not practice what they preach. A doctor who neglects his health, an accountant who cannot balance his checkbook, or an attorney who is in trouble with the law contradict the things for which they stand. Likewise, Christian teachers who do not control their tongues contradict their teaching.

James did not imply that the tongue held the only possibility for sin. "We all stumble in many ways" (3:2, NASB). All people trip up spiritually many times and in various ways. James included himself as he stated sin's universal and repetitive character. I have seen a great deal of embarrassing stumbling. I have witnessed brides stumble at the wedding altar, student preachers stumble walking into the pulpit, and a funeral attendant stumble into a grave. I have watched wide receivers of my alma mater stumble on the twenty-yard line with no one between them and the goal line. The human race is a stumbling race—spiritually and physically. Yet, humans are nowhere more apt to stumble than in their speech.

When persons can control the tongue, they can do anything that the Christian faith demands. "If any one makes no mistakes in what he says he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body also" (3:2). If Christians tame their tongues, they can control any passion of their bodies. The word perfect implies a full-grown person as compared with a child. Such a Christian will not be sinless, but he/she will have reached ripe, spiritual maturity in controlled speech. James alone used the word bridle in the New Testament (3:2; also 1:26). The word suggests the tongue's energetic willfulness. To tame the tongue requires the same strength of determination as breaking a wild horse. Wise individuals often desire to do the most difficult task first, leaving the easier task for later. In Christian living, one is wiser to start with the tongue. Victory there would indicate mature self-control and self-discipline.

Small but Strong (3:3-5)

The tongue is a small piece of muscle covered with mucous membrane. Do not let its size mislead you. According to James, it is tiny but terrible. He gave three vivid illustrations of things that are small but strong: (1) The small bit controls the great power of the horse; (2) the small rudder controls the significant direction of the ship; and (3) the small brushfire can destroy the great forest.

"If we put bits into the mouths of horses that they may obey us, we guide their whole bodies" (3:3). By controlling the mouth, the rider controls not only the horse's head but the whole horse. This illustration particularly suited James's direction of thought. If people can control their tongues, they can control their whole bodies (3:2). If one can control the bit in a horse's mouth, he/she can control the entire horse. The power of a bit in the horse's mouth is, enormous. One of the largest horses ever recorded was a purebred Belgian stallion named Brooklyn Supreme. The horse weighed 3200 pounds and stood 19.2 hands tall. He died at age twenty on a farm in Callender, Iowa, more than thirty years ago. Yet this horse was useless without a two-pound metal bit. With such a bit, the versatility of these animals matches their enormous strength. In the same way, the control of the tongue commands the whole person.

Ships that are driven by rough winds and strong gales yield to the direction of the relatively small rudder. In verse 4, the emphasis rests on a small thing that decides great direction. James could not have imagined the size of modern ocean liners. Yet, even they are directed by comparatively small rudders. In the same way, the small muscle in the human mouth can change the direction of human history. Adolf Hitler recorded his Nazi philosophy in the book Mein Kampf. Someone has noted that for every word in that book, more than a hundred lives were lost in World War II. Words do change the direction of history.

"How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!" (3:5). James described the tongue's destructive capacity. In James's day, a tiny spark could set the desert scrub brush afire. In the same way, an unguarded word can cause a firestorm of damage. In February, 1983, a firestorm ravaged southwestern Australia. Winds built to gale force; and, within hours, flames raced along miles of coast. Within hours, a broad arc of rich farmland and a fragrant eucalyptus forest lay reduced to scorched earth. Seventy-five people died, and property damage totaled more than $2,500,000. James compared the tongue's destructive power to such a fire. A single word can char a person's reputation for life.

A Wheel on Fire (3:6)

A vehicle with its wheels on fire spells trouble. James wrote that the tongue "keeps the wheels of our existence red-hot" (3:6, NEB). In verse 6, James expanded his emphasis on the tongue as a fire. He restated his identification of the tongue with fire: "the tongue is a fire." But he went beyond that to identify the fire's nature and source. He further described the tongue as the inward incarnation of the outward world of sin. Even more, the tongue can spill a stain that defiles the whole body.

The tongue's fire continually is "setting on fire the cycle of nature" (3:6). In other words, the tongue sets on fire the entire complex of all human existence in each of life's varied relationships. This may refer to the human race as a whole or to individual lives. The verb tense would indicate that the tongue habitually, perpetually causes such human firestorms. Some have understood this to be a reference to the wooden chariot wheel of Roman times. When the wooden wheel lost its lubrication, it chaffed against the wooden axle. The result was a fire that moved from the hub of the wheel along the spokes to the outer circumference. The wheel blazed from the center to the rim. The tongue holds a strategic place at the center of every individual's life. What the tongue inflames at the center ultimately can touch every relationship.

What possibly could be the source of such a flaming evil? James clearly stated that the tongue is "set on fire by hell." The combustion from the flames of Gehenna sets the tongue on fire. The fact that the word Gehenna occurs only in verse 6 outside the Gospels underscores the terrible source of the tongue's inflammatory capacity. Literally nothing else in creation so relates to the flames of hell itself.

Thank God, the tongue also may be set on fire from heaven. At Pentecost, cloven tongues of fire rested over every believer in the upper room. That Pentecostal fire animated the apostles' tongues so that they could bear flaming witness to the Lord Jesus Christ and His resurrection. Today, Christ can control each tongue if each individual will give Him that control.

The Tameless Tongue (3:7-8)

The human race has tamed some creatures from every division of the animal kingdom. People can control created creatures but cannot conquer their tongues. God gave the human race power to subdue or domesticate the animal world. The creation story clearly states that God gave human beings this authority (Gen. 1:26,28-30). James stressed that this authority was established in the past and continues into the present: "For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by humankind" (3:7). Obviously, James did not mean that every single beast has been subdued. He used the traditional biblical division for the four types of animal life (Deut. 4:17-18). People have shown their ability to overpower and subdue some creatures from each division.

People have tamed beasts and birds. That is nothing new. Trained birds still fascinate observers; but, even in New Testament times, men trained birds to talk. Octavian, who later would become the Emperor Augustus, returned to Rome after he defeated Mark Anthony. He was given a raven trained to say: "Hail Caesar, victorious leader." People can control a bird's tongue and subdue it for their own purposes. Yet the human race never has been able to subdue its tongues.

People have tamed sea creatures. Do you remember Flipper? The famous porpoise starred in one of the most popular television series of the 1960's. He was fictional, but Tuffy was real. Tuffy served as a member of the United States Navy's program Sealab II, off the coast of San Diego during the summer of 1966. He carried the mail between the surface and the crew, 205 feet below. He transported tools and even served as a lifeguard when one of the crew pretended to be lost. Humankind has tamed the apparently untamable creatures of the sea. Yet, people never have learned to subdue their tongues.

James came to a stark, absolute conclusion: "No human being can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison" (3:8). The men who can control great beasts cannot control the small tongue. It is "an evil incapable of being quieted" (Williams). The word translated restless belonged only to James's vocabulary in the New Testament and suggested anything uncontrolled or unruly. He used it in reference to the instability of a "double-minded man" (1:8). In 3:8, he stated that such divided or wavering thinking led to unruly talking. He used the same expression to refer to the disorder which characterized a jealous, factious, divided church (3:16).

One might think that James gave a counsel of despair. Conceivably, one might argue that if the tongue is such a restless evil, why even try to tame it? Augustine, the great fourth-century Christian, provided the answer to such a complaint: "'He does not say that no one can tame the tongue, but no one of men; so that when it is tamed we confess that this is brought about by the pity, the help, the grace of God."

James saved the most striking warning for the last. The tongue is "full of deadly poison" (3:8). His warning sounds peculiarly apt. Just as poison usually exercises its death-dealing through the mouth, so the tongue acts in the mouth. One does not wish to have physical poison in one's mouth. Also, one should wish not to have spiritual poison—thoughtless words—in one's mouth. Would you eat poison? In Japan, some persons do. A favorite delicacy of the well-to-do in Japan is the unusual meal of "fugu," a small poisonous globefish or puffer fish. The fish carries a deadly poison which contains toxin up to 275 times more potent than potassium cyanide. The chefs who prepare this strange dish go through rigorous testing supervised by the government. In spite of all precautions, Japan admits that as many as two hundred persons have died in the last ten years from eating fugu. Most readers never would consider serving fugu at the dinner table. Yet, many meals are spiced with poisonous gossip about neighbors, business associates, and church members. Those who never would place physical poison in their mouths may spew verbal poison out from their mouths.

Consider for a moment the awesome power that James granted to the tongue. The tongue acts as a fire, stain, beast, and deadly poison. Wise people prevent fires, remove stains, cage dangerous beasts, and hide deadly poisons. Wise believers do the same with their words. If they do not, they will discover themselves to be the ultimate contradiction.

The Unparalleled Contradiction (3:9-12)

Someone has said that a person contains something of an ape and something of an angel. Nowhere does this contradiction appear more sharply than in one's speech. According to Jewish tradition, "the servant of R. Simeon b. Gamaliel... [was] sent into the market to buy first good and then bad food, [and] brought back tongue in either case." According to Plutarch, an Egyptian king told one Pittacus to cut out the best and worst meat of a sacrificial animal. In both instances, Pittacus cut out the tongue. Who could deny that the same tongue that takes the Lord's Supper on Sunday can contradict all Christ stands for on Monday?

James framed the incongruity with a characteristically concrete example: "With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God" (3:9). Blessing on Sunday and cursing on Monday are not new. Some use the tongue religiously one hour and profanely the next. The Jews customarily repeated the phrase, "Blessed be He," after every mention of the divine name. Indeed, devout Jews of every age and sex repeated a certain prayer three times a day. The prayer was called "The Eighteen Benedictions." Each benediction ended with the same repetition: "Blessed art Thou, O Lord." Up to fifty-four times per day, God would be blessed in this prayer. Evidently, early Christians carried over something of this practice in prayer. On the other hand, James discovered that the same believers were cursing people. He even may have had in mind the angry curse that was spoken in inner-church party strife. James did not hesitate to use the term we. Even the half brother of Christ and pastor of the Jerusalem church did not consider himself immune from this temptation.

Verse 9 stresses a strong motivation against cursing. When an individual is cursed, the image of God is cursed in that person. Even in their fallen state, people still retain that image, although the image is fractured and clouded. To curse any person is to curse God's image in that individual. This is equal to cursing God. Devout Jews would not step on the smallest piece of scrap paper on the street lest it have written on it God's name. How quickly many people today trample God's image in another person with curses! James cried out in anguish: "My brethren, this ought not to be so" (3:10). His expression indicated the fatal inconsistency in such speech. The emphasis rests on the contradiction that is involved.

In Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan wrote of Talkative: "He was a saint abroad and a devil at home." How many Christians speak with perfect courtesy to strangers and snap at their own families? How many teach God's Word on Sunday morning and tell the filthiest of stories on Monday? Proverbs 18:21 asserts: "Death and life are in the power of the tongue."

The tongue's contradiction appears literally nowhere else in nature. James was accustomed to the wells that flowed from the steep cliffs along the Jordan rift and the deep gulch through which the river flows. From some of the wells came fresh, clear, sparkling artesian water. From others may have come brackish, salty, noxious, bitter water. However, one thing never occurred: A person did not find fresh and bitter water coming from the same opening in the earth. What cannot come from the same opening in the ground can come from the same opening of the human body—the mouth. From it may flow almost at the same time bitter words and sweet words.

James concluded with an agricultural metaphor: Fig trees do not produce olives. Grapevines do not produce figs. Like produces' like. A heart filled with anger produces angry words. A life sweetened by love for Christ produces Christlike words. In apple orchards, for instance, growers take twigs and branches from superior trees and graft them into inferior trees. The new plant produces fruit with exactly the same characteristics of the parents. It is literally a chip off the old block. Fruit always shows a family resemblance. Likewise, the believer's words should reflect a family likeness. The Father's attitude should characterize His children's speech.

Words and Wisdom (3:13-18)

One might get the impression that James introduced a new, unrelated subject at this point. Actually, a person's words and wisdom have a direct relationship. The wisdom in the mind determines the kind of words in the mouth. James explained that divine wisdom always manifests its presence in practical Christian behavior (3:13). Certain identification marks always characterize worldly wisdom (3:14-16). In the same way, divine wisdom leaves its footprints in life (3:17-18). To consider what James wrote would be wise.

Practical Wisdom (3:13)

This section appeals for the reader's self-assessment: "Who is wise and understanding among you?" The word "wise" points to deep discernment of the underlying principles of life. The term "understanding" relates to the practical, daily application of great, general principles. Taken together, the two words are the equivalent of theoretical and practical wisdom. My paraphrase would be: Who among you really has the big picture and knows how to get things done? How can one identify divine wisdom when it is operating in such a context? James stated that such a man would be wise and perceptive. Rather than an abrasive, belligerent attitude, God's wisdom produces gentleness. Such a man's "good deeds are done in humility, which wisdom prompts" (Williams).

C. T. Sharp was the wisest man I have known. He was not an educated man. A semiretired rancher, he had been by turns a mortician, professional boxer, cattle-truck driver, and hotel pastry cook. He had served as a Baptist deacon. In his eighties, he had served for years as deacon chairman in a small, semirural Texas Baptist church. Yet due to a lake development project, the community of the church suddenly had exploded with newcomers. As the church grappled with more changes than it had seen in its century of existence, the wise old deacon demonstrated divine wisdom. In physical, financial, and fellowship decisions, he literally held the church together by his gentle wisdom. The primary mark of that wisdom was a humble gentleness when he spoke. Such men and women produce the aura of God's presence.

Worldly Wisdom (3:14-16)

The world operates by its own wisdom. This wisdom is evident wherever movers and shakers gather to shape world, national, and community policy. Unfortunately, worldly "wisdom" may spill over into the church. James gave a snapshot of worldly wisdom at work. See if you recognize its marks.

Worldly wisdom demonstrates "bitter jealousy." The phrase refers to an unholy zeal which refuses to be reconciled. Nothing open, conciliatory, or redemptive takes place. Added to that trait is "selfish ambition" which refers to a spirit of factious rivalry, a party spirit. Such an attitude delights in the malicious, petty triumphs of one side over another. That attitude characterized the church at Corinth. It divided the church into factions over three human preachers. A fourth faction disdained all human leadership and wanted to get back to Jesus (1 Cor. 1:12). James shamed such an attitude, especially in the church. Such a party spirit exulted in what ought to have been the church's shame. That attitude contradicted the kingdom law of love (2:8) and was "false to the truth" (3:14).

James stated that worldly wisdom "is earthly, unspiritual, devilish" (3:15). Such wisdom is terrestrial, not celestial. It may belong to the cutthroat tactics of some business and political situations, but not to God's people. It is animal, not spiritual. James's word translated "unspiritual" suggests the activity of brute beasts, not born-again believers. Indeed, it is demonic, not divine, for it raises the devil in the heart of the opposer and the opposed. Unleashed in the church or in the world, it produces chaos. It opens a Pandora's box of every evil thing. (See 3:16.)

The wisdom that the world values produces selfish ambition. A scene from Benito Mussolini's life reveals this kind of factious, destructive ambition. One of his biographers reported that as Mussolini paced his room, she asked him what was his greatest ambition in life. Mussolini replied: "'I am obsessed by one wild desire. It consumes my whole being. I want to make a mark on my era with my will. A mark like this...' With his fingernails he scratched a chair back from end to end. 'Like the claw of a lion!'" In the world or in the church, such selfish ambition demands that everything bend to its will, or else. It is worldly wisdom that will destroy a family, a church, or a fellowship in order to assert its own will. Such wisdom roots in hell.

Divine Wisdom (3:17-18)

God's wisdom acts differently. A single word characterizes heavenly wisdom as "pure" (3:17). In motive, word, deed, and attitude, God's wisdom works in purity. It is unmixed, unlaced with anything false or tainted. Nothing about it indicates a hidden agenda. It always can stand the light of day.

James continued to describe divine wisdom by presenting aspects of its purity. Just as droplets of water break down white light into the colors of the rainbow, James broke down the purity of wisdom into many colors. One color is peace. Such wisdom delights in and promotes peace. A second color is courtesy. Divine wisdom delights in gentleness. Grace ought to make people gracious. A compliant color in divine wisdom is openness to "reason" which seeks reconciliation. These qualities of God's kind of wisdom never will change. Human wisdom changes with every generation. What is "in" now will be "out" in the 1990's. God's wisdom remains the same. It sows seeds that later bear the fruit of peace.

Lessons for Life from James 3:1-18

Decide to tame the tongue for a definite period of time.—Try twenty-four hours as a beginning place. Measure each word before it is spoken. Place a guard by the mouth. Ask: Does this edify? If it does not, do not say it. See what this does to your speech over that period of time.

Measure your response in tense situations.—Do you display wisdom that is worldly, or wisdom that is divine? How do you tend to act or react when trouble arises at the office, in the church, or in the social circle? Do you demonstrate peace-making, or do you foster more divisions?

Are you reconciled to everyone in your circle?—Does a grudge exist that has not been settled? God's wisdom leads to a reconciling spirit. Perhaps the wisest thing would be to write a letter to a friend or a relative from whom you have been alienated. Seek to be reconciled. That is the wisdom which God displayed on the cross.

Personal Learning Activities

1. James stated that not many of his readers should become ___________. (Choose the correct answer from the list.)

□  (1) Pastors

□  (2) Teachers

□  (3) Deacons

□  (4) Missionaries

2. What three illustrations did James use to make his point that the tongue has power out of proportion to its size?

3. According to Dr. Gregory, our use of the tongue displays an unparalleled ____________.(Select the proper response from the list.)

□  (1) Blessing

□  (2) Creativity

□  (3) Contradiction

□  (4) Positive witness

4. James advised his readers to seek a practical, worldly wisdom that would help them to get along in life.

□  True   □  False

Answers:

1. (2); 2. A bit, a rudder, and a brushfire 3. (3); 4. False.

James: Faith Works!.

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