James 3:1-12 teaches that the tongue can be used for tremendous good or for tremendous evil. With it we can sing praises to God or we can curse men. James begins with a caution to those who aspire to use it to teach God’s word. Bible teachers will incur a stricter judgment than do non-teachers, because: (1) Bible teachers are dispensers of truth, (2) teaching affects many lives, and (3) teachers are expected to embody the truth they teach (Ezra 7:10). When leaders fail to live up to the standards they promote, many people write off both the teacher and the standard. And that is a serious thing. James is not promoting silence, but control.
Next, James turns to the teacher’s primary tool: the tongue (v. 2), broadening the scope of his comments to include all of us. The word “perfect” doesn’t refer to sinlessness, but to maturity. A good barometer of spiritual maturity is our ability to control our tongue. We talk when we should be silent, and we are silent when we should talk. If you can control your tongue, James says, you can keep your whole body in check.
The tongue is small but influential (v. 3-5a)—like a horse’s bit or a ship’s rudder. A small object can have disproportionate influence to its size. The tongue has awesome potential: it can bless or destroy. The tongue is necessary but evil (v. 5b-8). It is like an uncontrolled fire, an untamed animal, and a deadly poison. A huge fire can begin with just a small spark. The great Chicago fire of 1871 started when a lantern in a barn kindled a wisp of hay. Eventually it left 100,000 people homeless, destroyed 17,500 buildings, and sent 300 people into eternity. It has been noted that for every word in Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”), 125 lives were lost. Question: How do you tend to speak to your friends, your co-workers, your boyfriend/ girlfriend, your spouse? Are your words designed to edify or to destroy? To criticize or to praise and encourage? Were your conversations this past week selfish or selfless? Critical or encouraging? Words are powerful (Proverbs 18:21)!
The tongue is an untamed animal (v. 7-8). Although man can’t tame the tongue, God can. But we’ve got to submit that area of our lives to Him (Psalm 141:3; Ephesians 4:29). Before you say anything, ask yourself: (1) Is it wholesome?, (2) Does it edify?, (3) Is the timing appropriate?
James also compares the tongue to a deadly poison (v. 8b). A critical tongue has poisoned many a marriage, and ruined many a relationship. Gossip has poisoned many a workplace and divided many a church. Ask yourself two questions: (1) Does this person need to know this information in order to faithfully carry out their responsibilities? If not, keep quiet. (2) Do I know for a fact that this information is true? If not, keep quiet.
The tongue is beneficial, but inconsistent (v. 9-12). What you do with your tongue during the week is an indicator of what is going on in your heart (Mark 7:20-23). We will only see consistent victory over the tongue when there has been a fundamental change in the heart. You can’t do it by your self. Only Jesus Christ can effect that kind of change.
Application / Challenge
- Ask God to help you control your tongue. (Psalm 141:3)
- Commit yourself to using your tongue to edify, rather than to destroy. (Ephesinas 4:29). Before you speak, ask yourself: (1) Is it wholesome? (2) Does it edify? (3) Is the timing appropriate?
- Complete the study on the tongue found in this week’s ”Digging Deeper in Your Daily Quiet Time”.