Controlling the Tongue (James 3:1-12)

With this sermon series, our friend Chris Wiles has resourced all the churches involved by making study notes available – involving both the text of Scripture and illustrative materials as well. So today’s devotional draws directly from his writing.

It’s easy to say that “sticks and stones may break our bones, but words can never hurt us,” but our experience tells another story altogether. In fact, we can easily see that much of our social division stems from the way we speak to—and about—one another. According to political scientist Thomas U. Berger, “we live in an age of apology and recrimination,” and this is verifiably true even if we only look at our social media accounts (!). Words have power. Positive words offer encouragement, but negative words can impact and shape our futures—as well as the world around us.

James tells us three things about the power of speech:

  1. Words have power (3:1-5)

James 3:1 – Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. 2 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.

James 3:3 – When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. 4 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. 5 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.

So important is speech, according to James, that not everyone should aspire to being “teachers”—and yes, the word here refers to Christian leaders and pastors (verse 1). James cautions that people in such positions “will be judged with greater strictness,” a teaching common in ancient literature and affirmed by Jesus Himself (Mark 12:38-40). In verse 2 James continues this same thought. The phrase “we all stumble in many ways” echoed similar sentiments in Greco-Roman literature, which also encouraged teachers to remain silent to avoid the possibility of wrongdoing.

James then offers three distinct illustrations that emphasize how something so small as the tongue could have powerful, large-scale effects:

  • A bit in a horse’s mouth (verse 3)
  • A rudder on a large ship (verse 4)
  • A small fire that sets ablaze a forest (verse 5)

James will expand on this final metaphor in the next section. His larger point here is that words have tremendous power, and the impact of our words cannot be underestimated.

  1. Words can hurt (3:6-8)

James 3:6 – 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.

7 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

Secondly, James observes that speech can have a destructive effect. Jewish readers would have been greatly familiar with the image connecting tongues to fire (verse 6), for similar imagery is found in Jewish literature both inside and outside the Bible.

The destructive nature of human words is made worse by the fact that—unlike everything else in creation—no one can hope to control the tongue (verses 7-8). James is emphasizing that human speech is wild and destructive, and controlling it is preferable to the effects of seeing it “burn” out of control.

  1. Words reveal a lack of integrity (3:9-12)

James 3:9 – 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.

Finally, James reveals man’s divided character. We cannot use words to “bless” God and then “curse” men (verse 9). Why not? James emphasizes that because human beings are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26), to curse men is to disrespect the character of God. In verse 10, James states his central point: that God’s people should not have the kind of divided character that would produce blessing and cursing from the same mouth.

James then offers three word pictures to emphasize the point—all posed as questions to which James expects an emphatic “no:”

  • “Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water?” (verse 11)
  • “Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives…?” (verse 12a)
  • “[Can] a grapevine produce figs?” (verse 12b)

James answers his own initial question in verse 12c—No, such things are impossible. James’ point is clear: just as it is unnatural for a fresh spring to produce two kinds of water, or for plants to produce different kinds of fruit, so it is unnatural for Christ’s followers to produce both blessing and curses.

So let us be introspectively thoughtful about our lives and our communication. There are enough fires out there already, we don’t need to be adding to them.

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About Randy Buchman

I live in Western Maryland, and among my too many pursuits and hobbies, I regularly feed multiple hungry blogs. I played college baseball, coached championship cross country teams at Williamsport (MD) High School, and have been a sportswriter for various publications and online venues. My main profession is as the lead pastor of a church in Hagerstown called Tri-State Fellowship. And I'm active in Civil War history and work/serve at Antietam National Battlefield with the Antietam Battlefield Guides organization. Occasionally I sleep.

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