Taming the Tongue
1. Recognize the Context: Previous Context-James 3:1-6
In chapter 3, James transitions back to a more extended section on speech ethics (1:19, 26). He begins with a warning. Most people should avoid the aspiration of teaching Scripture. The reason is that teachers will be judged more strictly. Since people will account for their "careless" words (Matt. 12:36-37), it stands to reason those who teach have a greater responsibility. Teachers can mislead and distort the gospel message and lead many astray.
Verse 2 provides further clarification of verse 1. Everyone stumbles in many ways, or to say it in another way, everyone sins (2:10). James says if someone never sins, they are perfect. Therefore, they would be able to keep themselves in check, including their tongue. But this is not the case.
In verses 3-4, James provides two examples of small objects with significant impact. Although small in size, a horse bit and a ship rudder function to steer and direct. James makes the application to the tongue. Although the tongue is small, it can cause a person to make great boasts. The contrast is evident, and the point is clear. Pride can easily flow from our words.
James moves to another comparison for the tongue, the destruction a small spark can cause in a great forest. The tongue also is dangerous, with the ability to destroy and corrupt. The destructive nature of the tongue is from hell and leads a person in that direction.
2. Read the Scripture: James 3:1-6
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. 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.
3. Reflect on the Scripture: James continues his argument concerning the tongue with a reference to the created order. He acknowledges humans have subdued (tamed) the creation as God instructed in Genesis 1:28. However, no human being can tame the tongue.
In verse 8, James warns of the tongue’s dangers. He says it’s a restless evil, meaning it’s dangerously unstable. The tongue is also like poison. Psalm 140:3, using synonymous parallelism, makes the same point--“They (evil people) make their tongues as sharp as a serpent’s; the poison of vipers is on their lips.”
Next, James contrasts the speech habits of a person who praises God and then curses a fellow human, who has been created in God’s likeness (Gen 1:26-28). This inconsistency is unacceptable- “My brothers and sisters, this should not be.”
James then provides two analogies from nature to illustrate the absurdity of such a contradiction in speech. The first involves two distinct types of water bodies-salted and fresh. The second includes two distinct agricultural products-figs and olives. His point is clear-neither entity can produce both things. In the same way, the tongue should not produce both blessing and cursing.
4. Relate to life:
Now it's time to get specific and respond today. Remember, it is important to be a doer of God’s Word, not merely a hearer or reader (James 1:22-25). Here are some practical ways to actively respond to God’s Word. Consider these or create other ways you can apply the message.
Today, prayerfully consider your words over the past week. Are you praising God in one breath and speaking against your neighbor in the next breathe?
Today, prayerfully reflect on the images James uses for the two types of contradictory speech.
To do: (work produced by faith with the Holy Spirit’s help) Given the prayer suggestions above, how do you need to respond today? Think about your attitudes, actions, and words. Think about your family, friends, church community, and co-workers. If you haven't already-spend the next week keeping a word journal. Throughout the day or at the end of the day, write down your words and conversations. Prayerfully reflect on your tone and attitude used to deliver the words. Is there another conversation you need to have?
Find an accountability partner to help you reflect on your words and conversations.
To study: (Always make sure to read the immediate context of the given passages).