It can be really hard to control what you say. Saying the wrong thing (or even the right thing) at the wrong time can be all it takes to damage relationships or get into trouble. Maybe you suffer from foot-in-mouth disorder, where it feels like you can never say the right thing! For those of us who constantly struggle with keeping our tongue in check, God has given us the book of James. This New Testament epistle is full of practical and thought-provoking wisdom for every stage of a Christian’s walk.

To aid our study of taming the tongue, the gray boxes will have background info from the Oxford Bible Commentary.

It is useful to note that James’ discourse about the tongue begins with a brief address to teachers. Because teaching is a primarily verbal act (especially in that day), it makes sense that they would be the recipient of teaching about the dangers of misleading speech. However, James 3:1-12 is a useful guide for anyone with a tongue (or keyboard).

3:1-2

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.

The leading role of ‘teachers’ (didaskaloi) is part of a Jewish-Christian background. The writer (‘we’) belongs to this class (v. 1) but he warns that ‘not many… should become teachers’ because of their special responsibility in view of God’s coming judgement (Luke 12:48). Although the whole letter is an admonition to become ‘perfect’, the writer himself confesses to ‘many mistakes’ (v. 2) showing his realistic and honest anthropology.

Maybe a pastor or leader from the church has hurt you in some way. All it takes is a snarky comment, judgmental remark, or malicious opinion to feel completely rejected. The uncontrolled tongue has pushed many away from the faith, and leaders are in the unique position of bearing that responsibility. These two verses are a harsh reminder for leaders and a gentle reminder for the rest of us, because we are all human.

3:3

When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal.

The Tongue like a Horse’s Bit: The controlling power of the tongue over the whole person is illustrated by this example (see also Prov 10:19, Eccl 5:1, Ps 32:9).

This first example of a bit in the horse’s mouth brings to mind how unnatural self-control can feel. Horses aren’t born with bits in their mouths, so they had to be added for the purpose of obedience. At first, you might even feel that controlling the tongue feels unnatural and unnecessary, but we must also remember that, as followers of Christ, we must be obedient.

3:4-5a

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.

The Tongue Like a Ship’s Rudder: As with the previous example there are many parallels not only in Greek but also in Jewish Hellenistic literature (especially in Philosophy). Probably both illustrations had already become proverbial.

Ships carry a lot of momentum and force. Without a mechanism to steer, any sailors and cargo onboard would quickly become lost or wrecked. Our tongue is a small part of us that has the potential to steer us into trouble or blessing.

3:5b-6

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.

The Tongue as a Fire: Fire in scrub and brushwood is a common phenomenon in Palestine. ‘World of iniquity’ (v. 6) forms a Semitic construction (Luke 16:9, 11; 18:6). Outside the words of Jesus only here is the term gehenna for ‘hell’ used. At its source is the Hinnom (Aramaic, gehenna) Valley, cursed by Jeremiah (7:31-4).

This verse is interesting because, up to this point, the tongue was a neutral thing, with potential for good or bad. Here, James calls attention to the tongue’s destructive nature. No doubt, you can think of forest fires on the news (or in your own backyard) that have ravaged entire states or countrysides. All it took was a single spark to bring ruin on the people and wildlife who lived in the area. Have you ever said something that set “the whole course of [your] life on fire”?

3:7-10a

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.

The Untamed Tongue: The writer expresses a deep anthropological skepticism: wild beasts can be tamed, but not the human tongue (vv. 7-8). It is full of death-dealing poison (Ps 139:4). The criticism of blessing God but cursing man has many Old Testament and Jewish parallels, but Jesus’ admonition seems especially close (Luke 6:28, see also Rom 12:14). The connection between the belief in man being created in the image of God and the prohibition of cursing man is part of the Jewish ethical tradition (Luke 6:27-28).

James highlights the irony of humanity practicing dominion over the creatures of the earth (Gen 1:28) but not over ourselves. When we use our tongues to both praise and curse, we are caught in the tension of being saved but not fully transformed – our spirit may be changed but our bodies are still stuck in this fallen world.

3:10b-12

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.

No Double Talk: This is an important consequence of the concept of integrity contrasted with ‘double-mindedness’ (1:8). The image of plants producing appropriate fruit (v. 12a) is common in Stoicism, but a very near parallel can be found in the words of Jesus (Matt 7:16, Luke 6:44). The last sentence (v. 12b) formulates a condensation of the first image of salt and sweet water springs (v. 11) so common side by side on the edges of the Jordan rift valley.

Perhaps you are good at justifying your harsh words; James adamantly states that you cannot be satisfied both praising and cursing. When you follow Christ, you must be fully committed, allowing yourself to be changed from the inside out.

What about you? Do you struggle with controlling your tongue? Share your experience in the comments below!

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