Reading Time: 24 minutes

Faith at work: Is your tongue tamed?

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

facebook twitter instagram

Topic Scripture: James 3:1-12

What is the most hateful or hurtful thing anyone has said to you? How long ago did they say it? Why do the words still hurt? Has anyone hurt you more than with their words?

I was in elementary school, probably the second or third grade. For some reason I cannot remember, I was angry with my parents. It was raining outside, a common occurrence in Houston. Friends of my parents were at our house for some reason. I wanted to punish my parents, so I went outside and stood in the rain. I have no idea why this seemed a good idea, but it did. My father went outside to find me. For the first and only time in my life, he spoke a hateful word to me: “Son, are you stupid? Don’t you have enough sense to come in out of the rain?” I knew then and know now that he didn’t mean his words. I know that he was simply embarrassed before his friends. He never said such a thing to me again. But though his words were spoken more than thirty-five years ago, I can still remember how deeply they hurt.

Now think about words you wish you could take back. A statement made in anger, or pain, or deception. Have you made greater, more hurtful mistakes than with your words?

Our secular materialism measures success and failure in quantifiable ways. Words are a means to our ends. “White lies” are acceptable and common. Say whatever you must to get ahead. I worked as a graphic artist while completing my master’s degree at the seminary. One day, one of my customers showed me his “lie book,” a little green spiral-bound book he kept in his shirt pocket. He explained proudly that whenever he lied to one of his clients, he wrote it down so he could remember it for the next time he saw the person. I wondered how many of his words to me were in that book.

You may not be keeping a book recording your lies, but the people you know are. And the Judge of the universe is. Despite the conventional wisdom of our materialistic culture, you do not control your life until you control your tongue. Your words matter, more than you can measure. You cannot unring a bell or a soul. So let’s learn how and why to make our words holy this week.

We’ll look at what James says, then find ways to apply his words to our own.

Verse 1: “Become not many teachers, my brothers, knowing that we will receive greater judgment.”

Become shows that we grow into the ministry of teaching the word of God; this is not just a position, but a ministry. Become not could be rendered, “stop becoming many teachers,” a clear complaint that many were attempting to teach what they did not yet understand (Robertson 39). Not is placed at the beginning of the verse for emphasis (Martin 107). Probably some not qualified by natural ability or spiritual gift coveted this office and ministry (Burdick 186).

Teachers means those who teach the word of God. In the Jewish context, it pointed to rabbis, those who had studied the law and its application to life and now taught others (Rienecker 385). The “teacher” in Christian context also transmitted to the faith community the growing Christian tradition: “the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Tim 2:2; Moo 149).

This was a significant position of spiritual leadership (Ephesians 4:11), counting in its number Paul and Barnabas (Ac 13:1). In the early church, the office carried high status and responsibility: “Whosoever then comes and teaches you all these things aforesaid, receive him. But if the teacher himself be perverted and teach another doctrine to destroy these things, do not listen to him, but if his teaching be for the increase of righteousness and knowledge of the Lord, receive him as the Lord” (Didache 11:1-2).

Knowing is a common Pauline word used to denote a piece of agreed traditional teaching, suggesting that the heavy responsibility associated with teaching was known already to James’ readers (Martin 108). We is in the first person because James is himself a teacher of God’s word, and thus includes himself in those who are accountable for their calling.

Greater judgment in that teachers know the word and will of God and so are accountable for their knowledge. The phrase means that teachers will receive the “greater sentence” (Robertson 39) or that they are exposed to the greater danger of judgment (Moo 149-50). Adamson (139-40) speculates that this may be because God expects more of those who teach his word, or because the damage done to others by our sins is greater. The OT denounces evil speech against God (Numbers 21:5) and man (Psalm 49:20) more often than any other offense (Adamson 176). And Jesus was plain; “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:48).

The problem of unfit teachers was acute in the early church, as the following references make clear (Martin 108):

  • “There were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them–bringing swift destruction on themselves” (2 Peter 2:1).
  • “If anyone teaches false doctrines and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, he is conceited and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words (1 Timothy 6:3-4).
  • “The time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths” (2 Timothy 4:3-4).

Verse 2: “For in many ways we all stumble. If anyone does not stumble in word, this is a mature man, able to bridle also the whole body.”

For explains the previous statement. Many may indicate that teachers particularly stumble (Adamson 140), but the phrase more likely refers to all people.

We all includes us all (1 John 1:8, 10), even James the Just. Here James probably transitions from concern only about teachers to a larger discussion involving us all (Moo (148). Stumble in the present tense indicates continued action and even lifestyle. The word points to mistakes, sins, defeats, failures; in this context it may point to inadvertent sin (Moo 150-1).

If anyone does not stumble uses syntax which indicates that this proposition could be true in fact (Martin 109). In word or “in tongue” connects verse 2 with verse 1, since the principal tools of teachers are their tongues. Mature is teleios, complete and entire, a person who fulfills his God-given purpose. Only when we do not “stumble in word” is this true.

Able to bridle the whole body shows that our “bodies” or “lives” are led and determined by our words. Whole body used repeatedly in the text shows that James has in mind not only our personal lives but also the “body of Christ,” the larger congregation meeting in public assembly (Martin 104), for “an unrestrained teacher can adversely affect the entire community of faith” (Martin 110). Our moral actions are in view, not just our physical attributes (cf. Johnson 257).

Verse 3: “Behold, we put the bits in the mouths of the horses, for them to obey us, and their whole body we turn about.”

Bits in the mouths of horses echoes Sophocles (fifth century BC): “I know that spirited horses are broken by the use of a small bit” (Antigone 477, in Moo 152).

Their whole body we turn about connects the horse to us (v. 2)–the mouth leads the body and the life. Thus James has in mind both our physical movement and moral actions (Johnson 256-7). Horses and ships (v. 4) are “the sum total of what men steered in those days” (Davids, in Martin 104).

Verse 4: “Behold also the ships being so great, and by hard winds being driven, directed by a very little rudder, where the impulse of the one steering purposes.”

Ships being so great were not uncommon in James’s day; the ship on which Paul went to Malta carried 276 persons (Acts 27:37; Robertson 40-1).

Hard winds being driven points to harsh and strong, gale force or even hurricanes. James makes the contrast clear between the force of the huge storm and the power of the tiny rudder. Ships in the ancient world had no recourse in storms except the guidance of the captain–no storm warning systems or mechanical means of turning and saving the ship. They were “driven” or “buffeted” in such winds (Johnson 257). In a harsh storm, the rudder was the only hope for the passengers.

The rudder was an oar with a broad blade, placed at the side of the stern; larger ships had two, both controlled by the same steersman (Rienecker 386). It is an even clearer metaphor for the mouth of a church leader, as the rudder steers a large ship on which many are present. Martin (105) cites Lucian’s amazement at the size of the Isis, a vessel capable of holding 1,000 passengers plus cargo. Aristotle commented on the contrast between the small size of a rudder, turned by one man, and the “huge mass” of the ship it controls (Quaestiones Mechanica 5, in Moo 154). Impulse is either the “touch” or the “decision” of the steersman (Rienecker 386-7).

The analogy is clear: guiding desire (the steersman), means of control (rudder), and that which is controlled (the ship; Johnson 258). All relate to the tongue, as ancient moralists often noted. Philo referenced a charioteer and helmsman in this regard, and Plutarch used the imagery of a runaway ship and a fire to illustrate the destructive and uncontrollable nature of the tongue (Moo 154). The descriptions are so graphic that they indicate James’ personal observation of that which he now discusses (Oesterley 451).

Verse 5: “So also the tongue is a little member, and boasts great things. Behold, how little a fire kindles how great a forest.”

The tongue is here taken by James to stand for the use to which it is put by sinful humans. It was typical for Hebrew thought to associate a body part with the sin committed by it, so that Isaiah could lament about the “unclean lips” which he and his people tragically possessed (Isaiah 6:5).

Little is micron, “micro.” Boasts is part of a phrase which indicates not an empty boast, but a justified, though haughty, sense of importance (Rienecker 387).

How little a fire points to the fact that forest fires then, as now, are often caused by tiny sparks (Robertson 42). In that very dry climate, brush fires are even more common a danger than in our setting (Martin 106). Jewish tradition consistently likens the tongue to a flame or fire (Psalm 10:7; 39:1-3; 83:14; 120:2-4; Proverbs 16:27; 26:21; Is 30:27; Martin 113; Moo 156). Forest relates to the brush which covered Palestinian hills and which, in their dry climate, could easily burst into flame (Moo 155).

Verse 6: “And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity; so the tongue is set among our members, spotting all the body, and inflaming the course of nature, and being inflamed by Gehenna.”

The tongue is a fire, a common biblical analogy: “A scoundrel plots evil, and his speech is like a scorching fire” (Proverbs 16:27); “Like a madman shooting firebrands or deadly arrows is a man who deceives his neighbor and says, ‘I was only joking!’ Without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down. As charcoal to embers and as wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife” (Proverbs 26:18-21).

Course of nature could point to the cycle of life, or all that time brings to birth (Rienecker 387). J. B. Phillips translates, “all that is included in nature”; at the end of an extended excursus, Adamson renders the phrase awkwardly, “the successions of our generations which run like wheels” (164).

Gehenna was the trash heap outside Jerusalem, used often as a picture for the place of punishment to which the wicked are destined. Jesus spoke of the “fire of hell” (Matthew 5:22). Gehenna was regarded as the location of cosmic evil attributed to Satan, so that James indicates that the devil lies behind the poison emitted by an ungodly tongue (Martin 116). Only Jesus (11 times) and James use the word in the NT (Moo 160).

Verse 7: “For every nature both of beasts and of birds, of both reptiles and of sea animals, is tamed and has been tamed by the human species.”

Beasts is used in the NT only of undomesticated animals (Adamson 145) which must be tamed by the human species. Such work is part of our Genesis commission to “rule” over God’s creation (Genesis 1:26).

Verse 8: “But the tongue no one of mankind is able to tame; an unrestrainable evil, full of poison, death-dealing.”

No one of mankind, with no exceptions. This is one sin we all commit. Unrestrainable could also be rendered “restless” (NIV); it is the same word translated “unstable” in 1:8 (Moo 162). Unrestrainable evil could be rendered a “monster of evil” (Adamson 144).

Full of poison points to the deadly asp or a venomous snake; James may recall the serpent in Eden. Psalm 140:3 warns, “They [evil men] make their tongues as sharp as a serpent’s; the poison of vipers is on their lips.”

Verse 9: “By this we bless God and Father, and by this we curse men having been made in the image of God.”

We bless God and Father points to the typical Jewish prayers of blessing. The Eighteen Benedictions contained liturgical formulas to be recited daily. Each concludes each of its parts with the blessing of God: “Blessed art Thou, O God.” The rabbis often used the phrase, “the Holy One, blessed is he” (Martin 118). The phrase indicates that James may intend a worship setting as his context. The syntax indicates present tense, continuing action occurring at that time.

We curse men is also in the present tense, indicating an ongoing problem for his readers and their churches (Martin 118). Curses are typical in the OT (Genesis 9:25; 49:7; Judges 5:23; 9:20; Proverbs 11:26; 24:24; 26:2; Ecclesiastes 7:21; Martin 119). James’ point is not to prohibit all such curses, for some indict ungodly behavior; rather, he contrasts them with blessings made in the same worship service. His readers are blessing God and cursing his creation at the same time.

Verse 10: “Out of the same mouth comes forth blessing and cursing. It is not fitting, my brothers, these things to be.”

It is not fitting is the strongest possible Greek, with the indignant sense of “It’s not right!” (Adamson 146-7), “this should not be” (NIV), or “these things ought not to be this way” (NASB).

Verse 11: “Does a fountain out of the same hole send forth the sweet and the bitter?”

The syntax expects the negative. Fountains in dry Palestine are vital to the survival of the people.

The same hole send forth the sweet and the bitter points to a rare but natural phenomenon. Different streams could mix together in a confluence to form a pool of water which is unfit for human use (Martin 120). When this happens, the spring is useless. Fresh water does not transform salty; salt water corrupts fresh. Send forth points to an Artesian well, water under pressure. It is typically the best water, as opposed to the flush pump wells which bring brackish, still water to the surface.

Verse 12. My brothers, is a fig tree able to produce olives, or a vine figs? So neither can a fountain produce salt water and sweet.

Fountain produce points to that which comes naturally forth from a fountain, that which “gushes forth” (Rienecker 388). Vine is the grape vine. Olives, figs, and grapes are especially prevalent in Palestine, and would be known to James and his scattered readers (Rienecker 388).

Applications

Why must James emphasize the destructiveness of the tongue (v. 5)?

A New York Times article reported that 91% of Americans say they regularly don’t tell the truth (are the other 9% lying on the survey?). 20% admit they can’t get through a day without conscious, premeditated “white lies.”

Raise your hand if you’ve never lied. Be careful–don’t lie. The psalmist lamented, “Help, Lord, for the godly are no more; the faithful have vanished from among men. Everyone lies to his neighbor; their flattering lips speak with deception” (Psalm 12:1-2).

The Bible says, “Even from birth the wicked go astray; from the womb they are wayward and speak lies” (Psalm 58:3). Why are spoken sins so common?

Spiritual vs. secular: words outside the church don’t matter, only those spoken in a “spiritual” context. Re: Sunday vs. Monday speech.

Words have their own life. When Jacob stole Esau’s first-born blessing from Isaac, there was nothing the father could do to take his words back: “I have made him lord over you and have made all his relatives his servants, and I have sustained him with grain and new wine” (Genesis 27:37).

Satan uses words to attack the unity of God’s people and movement. The first sin in human history was a lie told by the serpent in the Garden. Paul warned Titus, “There are many rebellious people, mere talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision group. They must be silenced, because they are ruining whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach–and that for the sake of dishonest gain” (Titus 1:10-11).

We live in a post-modern culture, where there are no absolutes and all ethics are relative and subjective. But words destroy us just as much today as in the Garden of Eden.

What words does God condemn?

  • Lies: “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16).
  • False appearances: “They take delight in lies. With their mouths they bless, but in their hearts they curse” (Psalm 62:4).
  • Withholding the truth: “If a person sins because he does not speak up when he hears a public charge to testify regarding something he has seen or learned about, he will be held responsible” (Leviticus 5:1). The sin of silence is as real as the sin of speech.
  • Slander (Webster: “the utterance in the presence of another person of a false statement or statements, damaging to a third person’s character or reputation”) and gossip: “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice” (Ephesians 4:31); “Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward all men” (Titus. 3:1-2); “rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind” (1 Peter 2:1).

In a Peanuts cartoon, Charlie Brown says to Linus, “We’re supposed to write home to our parents and tell them what a great time we’re having here at camp.” Linus answers, “Even if we’re not? Isn’t that a lie?” Charlie Brown explains, “Well, it’s sort of a white lie.” To which Linus asks, “Lies come in colors?” No, they do not.

Why are spoken sins so wrong?

God says they are wrong. Listen to Psalm 101.7: “No one who practices deceit will dwell in my house; no one who speaks falsely will stand in my presence.” And listen to Ephesians 5.25: “Each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor.”

Spoken sins offend the character of God. Jesus is truth (John 14.6). The Bible calls our Lord “a faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he” (Deuteronomy 32.4). Thus lying runs counter to his very nature.

Listen to Proverbs 6.16-19: “There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies and a man who stirs up dissension among brothers.” See how God feels about deceit?

Spoken sins sacrifice trust. Do you remember the last time someone lied to you—perhaps a national politician or leader, or a personal relationship? Have you been able to trust them since?

Spoken sins destroy people. Once a lie has been told about someone, it can never be taken back.

The rabbis used to tell about a man who repeated gossip and slander about his rabbi. Finally he came to him and apologized, and asked what he could do to make things right. The rabbi gave him a bag filled with feathers, and told him to empty it into the wind at the top of a nearby hill. He did, and brought back the empty bag. Then the rabbi told him to go back and pick up all the feathers, which by now had blown across the town and the countryside. Of course he could not. The man then understood the damage he had caused. Do we?

In short, spoken sins destroy. Never underestimate their power or the damage they can do.

Who do you think said these words: “The broad mass of a nation will more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one. . . . If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it to be the truth”? It was Adolf Hitler. And six million Jews died from his lies.

Why do we sin with our words? They compensate for our own failures. We have some sense of the way things should be, of life as God intended it. But we know that we are not living this way, that we have sinned, fallen, failed. So we compensate. We create a false self, an “idealized self,” the person we wish we were. And we spend the rest of our lives trying to live up to this person. But no one can do it for very long. So, when we fall short of the perfectionism which drives us, we deceive ourselves and others. We lie.

Cain lied to cover up his murder. David lied about Bathsheba to cover up his sin. Any sin they committed, or you commit, I can commit. There is no sin we cannot commit. If they lied to compensate for their own failures, so can I. So can you.

We want to hurt those who hurt us. If someone lies to us, we lie to them. To hurt those who hurt us. We lie to get revenge. We repeat half-truths and rumors, we gossip and slander, to hurt people we think we have a right to hurt. After all, they did it to us, right? Saul was convinced David was a threat to him, so he became a threat to David. He lied about him to his son, his family, his nation. If he lied to hurt his enemy, so can I. So can you.

We want to get ahead. We lie to get the account, to close the deal. To impress the girl or the boy. To please our parents. To further our own agenda. Ananias and Sapphira lied about the money they brought to the church, so they could keep some of it for themselves. If they lied to get ahead, so can I. So can you.

We are tempted by Satan himself. Jesus called him “the father of lies” (John 8.44). He helps us along, encouraging us to be less than honest with God, others, and ourselves.

What will God do to punish our sinful words?

Silence them: “Whoever slanders his neighbor in secret, him will I put to silence; whoever has haughty eyes and a proud heart, him will I not endure” (Psalm 101:5).

Expose them: “There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs” (Luke 12:2-3).

Hold us accountable for them: “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10).

How do we get control of our tongues?

Expect to be tempted. Satan’s strategies still work, because human nature doesn’t change.

Speak to people, not about them: “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you” (Matthew 18:15).

Say only that which is to God’s glory and our good: “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things” (Philippians 4:8).

Live with consistent integrity. Be the same person when you talk to someone as when you talk about them. Be the same in private as in public. Be one person, always. Will Rogers once advised, “So live that you would not be ashamed to sell the family parrot to the town gossip.” That’s good advice.

When you sin with speech, confront the issue as soon as possible. Don’t let the malignancy grow. Confess your sin to God. Admit it to those you’ve hurt. This will hurt you, and make it far harder to sin in the same way again.

Don’t listen to the sins of others. Know that if someone will lie about me to you, they’ll probably lie about you to me. Be the one who stops the cycle of lies and rumors and gossip.

Last, stay close to God. Jesus always told the truth. In fact, he was the Truth. Ask his Spirit to fill and control you, to stay right with him as the source of your life. Then all which comes from your heart and lips will be right.

Conclusion

“The ageless question ‘What is Man?’ permits many answers, some frivolous (as Dr. Samuel Johnson discovered when he quoted an ancient philosopher’s definition as a ‘two-legged animal without feathers’ and his rival had a cock plucked bare), some facetious (like Johnson’s own attempt: an animal that cooks its food), some serious. Among the most thoughtful is the description of Man as a speaking animal (homo loquens). Among the species, Man stands alone in commanding the power to use words to communicate ideas, to express personality, and to enter into dialogue. The power of the tongue is a distinctive feature of our race and carries with it all manner of effects, good and ill alike” (Martin 122).

The writer of Proverbs was wise enough to pray, “Keep falsehood and lies far from me” (Proverbs 30:8). Are we that wise today?

Our church in Midland helped a number of villages in the north of Mexico. Their greatest need was always for clean water. The people would typically dig their water well at the lowest spot in the village, because it was easier. But when it rained, refuse from the stables and the houses flowed into the well, contaminating the water.

We learned to drill wells at the highest spot in the village, above every place else, if we wanted the water from those wells to be pure.