Bridle Your Tongue (James 3:1-12)
We know all too well the power of words. By simply hearing the word of God, faith and allegiance to God can be created. By simply hearing what someone said about you, terrible hurt and pain can result. We know how powerful words are to us, but how often do we impartially judge how our words impact others? James said in 1:26, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.” In 3:1-12, James assumes we know we must bridle our tongue. Instead of simply telling us what is right and wrong, James helps us realize some things about our tongues to show us why it is so important to bridle our tongues. Notice this in verses 1-12.
1. Realize, Teachers Have a Stricter Judgment (3:1-2)
James begins teaching on the tongue in an unexpected way. He tells his readers that not many of them should become teachers since those who teach will be judged with a greater strictness. The reason for this is because of how teachers primarily carry out their duties. As James explains in verse 2, teaching is a dangerous business because teaching requires a lot of talking and it takes a perfect person to not stumble in what they say. Scripture teaches that talking is one of the most dangerous things a person can do. In James 1:26-27, James says whether or not we bridle our tongue is one of three tests which determine whether our religion has worth. In Isaiah 6, Isaiah says “woe is me” when he is before God’s throne because he is a man of “unclean lips.” In Isaiah 53, when God tries to impress on us how perfect his suffering servant is, God demonstrates this by saying his servant did not open his mouth in affliction and that there was no deceit in his mouth. When Jesus talked in Matthew 12 about the one thing that can justify or condemn us, he talked about our words. When Paul demonstrates in Romans 3 how we have all sinned, half of his examples refer to sins of the tongue.
Truly, those who decide to teach must proceed carefully because talking is a dangerous thing to do. Teachers need to reflect the heart and truth of God in their words. As Paul says in Ephesians 4:15, we need to speak the truth in love. Sadly, among most Christians, whether one is qualified to teach depends on whether or not a person is comfortable speaking in front of people. Extroverts who can speak with passion often end up taking precedence over those who do not have a great presence in speaking - even if they are harsh with those they disagree with or if the content of their teaching is poor. Energy and passion are great, but these do not make a teacher of God’s word. If we teach or want to teach, let’s ask a couple questions. Let’s not ask whether we can get people pumped up with a rousing speech. Let’s not simply ask whether we are good speakers. Let’s ask whether we are able to carefully study God’s word and speak it with clarity. Let’s ask whether we can silently listen to criticism. Let’s ask whether we can speak gently with those we disagree with. Let’s honestly ask ourselves what we truly love: God’s word, or standing in front of people?
2. Realize, Your Tongue Is Small, But Powerful (3:3-6)
Those who are able to avoid stumbling in what they say are able to bridle their whole body. This is because, as James helps us realize next, our tongues are small, but tremendously powerful. James uses three illustrations to demonstrate this to us. If we put a bit in a horses’s mouth, we can guide the horse’s entire body wherever we direct it. Even if there are strong winds blowing hard against a ship, the pilot is able to direct the whole ship wherever he wants because there is a very small rudder which determines where the ship goes. These small things - bits and rudders - allow us to harness tremendous power and make the whole horse and the whole ship actually useful. In fact, if we do not have control over the bit and rudder, the horse and the ship are useless to us. James shows us the point in verse 5. The tongue is a small member, but it boasts of great things. Show me a tongue that is under control, and I will show you an entire person who is under control.
What is so neat is how, just like the bit and the rudder, the power contained by our tongues can be used for good. Just think of how much good a “thank you” or a compliment can do for a relationship on the rocks. Think of how much good can come from asking a discouraged person how they are doing or from encouraging them in what they are doing. Think of how uplifting it is for someone to find out about a kind word we said about them to someone else. Think of how we can even motivate people to action with a few well-timed words.
And yet, think of how much damage is caused from a few ill-timed words. James’ third illustration is in verse 5. “How great a forrest is set ablaze by such a small fire!” It is so true. Those wild fires that blazed in Texas, Colorado, and California turned land, homes, and people into ash - and they all started so small. Often times, it was just a little campfire that was ignited by a little flame from a match. Our tongues are powerful aren’t they? They can not only be used to help, but they can be used to hurt. If our tongues are acting like a fire, the words we speak can be so small and so few, yet cause great damage. It only takes a spark. A criticism. An accusation. A word spoken behind the back. An angry response. It only takes a few seconds or a few words and before we realize it, our words have started a wildfire.
The sparks from our tongue hurt others so much. A person’s confidence can be destroyed. Someone’s reputation could be soiled. Relationships are ruptured. These sparks even hurt people we aren’t talking to or about. Parents, do you realize that your children will never forget the nagging and the critical words you say to or about your spouse? It undermines the whole foundation of their lives and of their confidence. Parents, do you realize that the words you speak about other family members and people outside the home will color how they see them forever? All the good things said - all the water - is forgotten in the blaze caused by the sparks our tongue sends flying.
Our words hurt us too. The ship without a pilot to control the rudder crashes into the rocks. The spark from a careless hand burns the hand that started it too. As James says in verse 6, “The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life and set on fire by hell.” How do you feel about people around you who are always talking about others or speaking with anger or being careless with their words? We avoid them. We do not trust them. We do not like them. It stains their whole body. No other member of our body wields so much influence over our lives and others’ lives. It matters what we do with our eyes, ears, nose, hands, and feet - but it does not matter as much as what we do with our tongues. What is your tongue like right now? A carefully guided rudder, or a carelessly lit flame?
3. Realize, Your Tongue Is an Untamable Evil (3:7-8)
As we consider this, we may wonder why our tongues cause so much hurt. James helps us realize why verses 7-8: our tongues are untamable, restless evils filled with deadly poison. It is pretty neat to think about all the animals mankind has been able to tame. From poisonous snakes to powerful lions and gigantic killer whales - man has been able to tame them all. No one has been able to tame the tongue. We should take James’ words in this text personally, but we will never be alone in our fight to tame the tongue. Think about it. No matter how much we work, we are never able to perfectly and consistently formulate words exactly as we want. The presidential candidates this year will spend months practicing for the debates; yet, no matter how much they practice, something will come out wrong.
Why? Our tongues are restless evils filled with deadly poison. It is helpful to realize this about our tongues. First, it is helpful because this reminds us to take the long view when we are working on our tongues. No man has ever tamed the tongue, so even though we should work very hard, we should not become overly discouraged if we see that we need a lot of work. Second, it is helpful because it reminds us to speak less. Somehow, owners of vicious dogs rarely think their dogs will hurt anyone. The moment they think that is the moment someone gets hurt. We like to think we have a smooth, quick-witted tongues. That only gets us in trouble. It is better to think of our tongues as restless evils full of poison. As James has already said in 1:19, “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak…”
4. Realize, Your Tongue Reveals Your Heart (3:9-12)
James helps us realize one more thing by pointing out the double-minded nature of our tongues. We use our tongues to bless our Lord and Father, and we use our tongues to curse people made in the likeness of God. James has talked about double-mindedness a lot in his letter. It is double-minded to ask God for something while doubting him. It is double-minded to hear the word and see our sin, but do nothing about it. It is double-minded to say we have faith and not show it by our works. Now James shows us how it is double-minded for blessing and curse to come from our mouths. A mouth that speaks blessing and curse should not even be able to exist. A spring cannot pour out both fresh and salt water.
Just like with other double-minded actions, this reveals what is really in our hearts. If we say we have faith but we do not have works, we do not really have faith. If we ask God to provide but we doubt him, we are not actually trusting him. And if we say and sing praise to God but we speak curses upon those people who are made in his likeness, we are not as impressed with our Lord and Father as we say we are. If a fig tree bears olives, we know it is not a fig tree. If a grapevine produces figs, we know to take a second look and realize that it is indeed a fig tree. Can we have that same impartial honesty with ourselves when it comes to our words?
James is piggy-backing nicely off of the words of his brother and Lord, Jesus. Luke 6:43–45, “For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” God identifies people the same way we identify trees. The fruit reveals all. In the eyes of our Lord, there is no such thing as a pure-hearted person who continues to spew out evil words.
It is at this point that Satan often tempts us to make excuses for the evil things we say.
- But, I’m a good person and I have a good heart. No. Not when we speak like that.
- But, I’m trying to help the person I’m talking to. If love motivates us, they will usually know.
- But, I’m trying to help the person I’m talking about. That may be true. But let’s ask ourselves, how helpful are we being? Are we truly saying what we are saying to or about someone because we love God and we love them? Or are we faking concern to make us feel better about ourselves or liven our conversation?
- But, I only talk bad about sinful people who deserve it. There may be the occasion from time to time when, for the good of the kingdom, we need to do as Paul occasionally did and warn about false teachers and evil people. Even then, we should not rest on that conversation or speak with hate or with a hope to harm them. Jesus taught us to love our enemies and pray for them.
- But, it’s all in the family. It is crushing when sinful words are spoken among family members. We need to take that seriously. Even when there is peace in a family, Satan doesn’t rest. I have often found a sad reasons explaining why families are at peace - they are united against the common enemy, which is most everyone outside their home. For some reason there is this unspoken rule that gossip and evil speaking is okay when is in the family or between spouses. This is not the wisdom that comes from above.
- But, it’s just the internet. Our words online matter. The way Christians have spoken online lately has been in some places encouraging, and in others - disappointing. I learned the power of words online in high school.
- Start with the heart. Identify it. Few people are honest enough to admit their hearts have evil in them because they see evil coming from their mouths. It does not do us any good to think others have evil hearts because of their words but then deny the same truth for ourselves. Let’s identify our hearts by our words and then purify our hearts. Let’s watch what we think about others. t is not okay to slander someone in our hearts but not with our mouths! Let’s put Jesus’ pure example in our minds to cleanse the evil with love.
- Think Big. Most of our problems with the tongue come from a lack of seeing our tongues as wielding tremendous influence. When we respect the size of our tongues, we will use them more properly.
- Realize how much damage our tongues can cause. A few sparks can kindle a fire and a few words can hurt someone terribly.
- Realize how much good our tongues can bring. A small glass of cold water on a hot day brings great refreshment, and a few well-chosen words can help someone tremendously. We can even gently teach someone with our words. God has always needed teachers, but Scripture shows how often they are lacking - either due to unwillingness or due to being poor examples. Let us use the tremendous power our tongues wield to spread the influence of God’s kingdom in the world.