Taming the Tongue

August 12, 2018

All professional baseball players begin as terrible players with big dreams. What I mean is when they begin playing baseball as children, they don’t have a clue. They start with T-ball and then move into little league. What every player learns is that the dream of being a professional player involves fine print realities. The dream often does not include the hours of practicing different skills and techniques. There is no avoiding it.

Christians are those who have entered into eternal living with Christ in his kingdom, giving their complete allegiance to Jesus Christ as their Lord and King. Sometimes the dream of being in heaven blinds us to the fine print of living life with Christ. In the book of James we read about the fine print of life with Christ and James writes about the significance of our tongue. This morning I want to point out that followers of Jesus discipline their tongue for kingdom goodness.


This matter of the tongue is important in the book of James. In 1:19 he writes, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” In 1:26 we read, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person's religion is worthless.” According to James, the tongue reveals the credibility of our Christian profession.

One more thought before we look at v.1-8: James was writing in an oral culture. To be sure, the culture was slowly shifting towards writing, but your average person was not reading books, etc. In light of this I am thinking that if James were writing his letter today, he might include many other forms of communication that involve words. But the tongue represents the basic way all of us communicate. I’m saying this so that no one will think they are off the hook if they write instead of speak.

In v.1-8 we see how powerful the tongue is. James compares the power of the tongue to a small bit that is used to control powerful horses. When a bit is put into a horse’s mouth the rider can control the entire horse. Likewise, large ships can be controlled with small rudders. Well, James points out that the human tongue is pretty small compared to one’s entire body. And yet in many ways, the tongue accomplishes far more than what we can accomplish with our bodies.

In v.1 James cautions believers from becoming teachers in the church. He’s not opposed to believers becoming teachers in the church, but he cautions us because of the power of the tongue. The tongue does not just communicate ideas and thoughts in a vacuum with a robotic voice. With our tongue we communicate words in such a way as to convey shades of meaning and feeling. We can actually say one thing and show that we mean the opposite by the way we say the words. Teaching is generally a good use of the tongue, but because the tongue is prone to stumble, teachers incur a stricter judgment. After all, in Mt.12:36-37, Jesus says, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” And, of course, there is a much darker side to the way all of us use our tongues.

In v.2 James points out that we are all sinners, stumbling in many ways. And in many of the ways we stumble, our tongue is involved. Whether we are defending ourselves, deceiving someone, or expressing anger, we are using our tongue. So powerful is the tongue that James tells us that if a person was able to not stumble in what he says, that person would be pretty much perfect.

The other day Angie and I were talking about what it might have been like to live with Jesus. Jesus never stumbled in what he said. Can you imagine the look on Jesus’ face when Mary and Joseph had a disagreement? There’s Jesus, sadly shaking his head. I imagine there may have been a lot of whispering going on in that household!

In v.5 James likens the power of the tongue to a small fire that sets an entire forest on fire. We are all seeing the incredible destruction that is taking place out west because of forest fires. In v.6 James tells us that the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. Our tongues stain our whole bodies. Our tongue sets on fire the course of life. We all know how true this is. One sentence from the president can send the stock market tumbling. Passionate speakers can stir up a crowd to engage in violence and destruction. Moms and dads can cause great damage to their children by constant criticism and unkind words that are yelled or said with disdain. Husbands and wives are deeply hurt by words said with contempt. In fact with our tongues we even condemn people to hell. Even Christians do this and no Christian has been given the prerogative of such judgment. That belongs to God alone. And so James makes it very clear that when we use our tongues in these ways we are showing that our tongue has been set on fire by hell. Speaking of hell it is interesting to call to mind the exchange between Jesus and Peter when Peter told the Lord that he would surely not be killed. “This shall never happen to you,” he said. And what did Jesus say, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man." Wow! Peter’s words had come from the pit of hell.

So powerful is the tongue that it is untamable. In v.7 James points out how amazing it is that humans are able to tame all sorts of wild and dangerous animals. But in v.8 he says, “No human being can tame the tongue because it is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” It is uncanny how the tongue asserts itself at just the wrong time. How many news reporters and celebrities have lost jobs, gotten into serious trouble because they said the wrong thing at the wrong moment? They may have gone for years without slipping up, but with just the right prompting their inner thoughts are exposed in surprising ways. Only it’s not all that surprising.

And maybe you are thinking, “Wait, I’m not like that. My tongue is not filled with deadly poison. Well, maybe not, but I would dare say that there is more poison in your tongue and my tongue than we are aware of.


James makes it clear that no human can tame the tongue. However, on the Day of Pentecost some 2,000 years ago, a miracle took place when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the believers in Jerusalem. It was a miracle involving speaking. What we are unable to do in and of ourselves, God is very able to do through the indwelling Holy Spirit.

In v.9-10 James points out an inconsistency in the use of our tongues. One moment we bless God. “We bless you Lord for this food we are about to eat.” The next moment in conversation around the dinner table we are cursing someone made in the image of God. By the way, to curse someone made in God’s image is to curse God. This is more apt to occur in our homes around the people we are most comfortable with. At church we are careful. At home with family or friends we sort of let it all hang out. And we don’t feel that bad about it. It’s just the way we’ve learned to talk. But James is bothered by it. He doesn’t understand how blessing and cursing can come out of the same mouth. If you drink from a drinking fountain, you don’t drink fresh water and salt water at the same time. It is either fresh or salt. But what if a fresh water fountain were somehow polluted with salt water? Which taste would be the stronger? It would all taste like salt water.

Our conversation may be good in many ways, but people remember the bad. You can sing the hymns at church and pray like Peter, but people will remember something else. “She’s got a mouth on her.” “Have you ever heard how he talks when he gets angry?”

Again in v.12 James points out that a fig tree does not bear olives. Nor does a grapevine produce figs. Here we go back to the source from which things come. It is in the nature of fig trees to produce figs. In a tense discussion with the Pharisees, Jesus said to them in Mt.12, “You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil.” Do you see the point? The condition of the heart is key to the words that flow from our mouths.

You and I cannot tame our tongues. However we can pay attention to our hearts by cultivating clean, pure hearts. In Jms.3:13-18 he goes on to talk about our hearts. In v.14, he mentions that people have jealousy and selfish ambition in their hearts which produce disorder and vile practices. And then in v.17-18, he writes about the wisdom of God. “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”

When we come to faith in Jesus Christ and surrender our allegiance to him, the Holy Spirit comes to indwell our lives. He begins a complete renovation of our hearts. He will seek to replace worldly, old creation wisdom, with new creation wisdom from God. But he will not do this apart from our cooperation. We must set our minds on things above. As Christians, our words do not need to be driven by anger and resentments, our need to be right and to control others. As we consider the way of Jesus and fill our hearts and minds with him, we will become more sensitive to how we use our tongue. We will be quick to apologize when we say things that are not in keeping with Jesus. If you cannot hold your peace in certain kinds of conversations or situations, then you might be better served to withhold yourself from those conversations and situations. If your tongue runs away with you then you had better look into your heart to see why your tongue is so prone to run away. What’s going on in your heart?

As ambassadors for Jesus in this world, our conversation is important. We represent Jesus and his kingdom. When Jesus came revealing the kingdom of God he served people in many ways, ultimately giving his life. He revealed the goodness of the kingdom. We must do the same. Peter tells us to give a reason for the hope that is in us with gentleness and respect. Paul tells us to, “put away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from our mouth.” He tells us to, “let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts,” to “Let the word of Christ dwell in us richly,” and to “Let our speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that we may know how we ought to answer each person.”

When you have a leaky roof it is often difficult to find the source of the leak. But you can’t stop the leak until you find the source. All of us have said things we wish we could take back. And this has probably happened more than once in our lives. Our goal as followers of Jesus is to use our tongue to build others up and accomplish kingdom goodness in this world. But we struggle. If we are going to discipline our tongue we need to find the source of the problem. Fortunately we know the source of the problem. It is our heart. So as followers of Christ, let us cultivate godliness in our heart so that we may discipline our tongue for kingdom goodness. Amen