Taming the Tongue

We’re going through James at Gages Lake Bible Church in a series we’re calling Authentic Faith. Currently we’re in the middle of chapter three, which gives perhaps the most specific, biting description of the tongue in all of Scripture and perhaps all of literature. It begins with a warning, in James 3:1-2 about the importance for spiritual leaders to master their speech, that this is a key sign of spiritual maturity.

But how? Well in the next ten verses, James offers us a three revealing insights about our speech. It’s interesting. We often look at these verses in James singularly, cherry-picking them and applying them. In some ways, we read James and then go home and beat ourselves up and say, “Yeah, I need to do clean up my speech.” But then we go and do the same things and wonder why we don’t change. But if you study James 3 in context you find a much richer prescription for real life change when it comes to the tongue.

I’d like to just discuss the three truths James reveals about the tongue and how the gospel provides the only cure.

1) You’re Tongue is Powerful. James disabuses us of the notion that words don’t matter. They do matter. The tongue is a “small member that boasts of great things” (James 3:5). It is compared to the bit in a horse’s mouth (James 3:3), the rudder of a ship (James 3:4), and the spark that lights a fire  (James 3:5).

The tongue has great power. Words matter. We instinctively know this. Look at the sweep of history. Much of it has been shaped by words, for good or ill. Consider World War II. While the words of Hitler motivated the slaughter of millions of innocent Jews, the words of Winston Churchill inspired a nation to resist their enemies, against all odds. And on a personal level we see the power of words. We can cut deep wounds in those we love or we can lift them up with encouragement.

This is where we must see that God purposely designed the tongue to have power. James is not merely telling us we shouldn’t speak. He’s saying that it is a rare and mature person who skillfully knows how to bridle the tongue and harness it for good. A rudder doesn’t work well when it is not moving at all. It was designed to steer and to guide the ship somewhere. A spark can light a fire for good: in a combustible engine, for a campfire, in a stove to warm or cook. A bit controls the horse, not letting it go where it wants to, but moving it where the rider wishes.

Spiritual maturity is not shutting up. It’s the wisdom and skill to know when to speak, when not to speak, and what to say.

2) You’re Tongue Was Poisoned. But, alas, the tongue tends toward evil. There is something inherently wrong, James tells us, with our tongues. And he uses interesting language to describe it. He says it is “full of deadly poison” (James 3:8), it is a “restless evil” (James 3:8), a “world of unrighteousness” (James 3:6), it stains the whole body (James 3:6), and it is set on fire by Hell (James 3:6).

All of this imagery takes us back to the Garden. It was in the Garden where a serpent injected it’s deadly poison into the human race. And how did he motivate Eve? Through cunning words. This is what James is telling us. He’s saying that God created our tongues to be powerful, to motivate. Mainly our tongues were created to express worship and glory to God. They were meant to build up and to create, to encourage, to lift, to be constructive. But something happened. Something dreadful happened. And as hard as we try, we see that the human tongue continues, in every generation, to produce evil, evil that comes straight from Hell. Our tongues have been poisoned. They have been corrupted. What should give life now gives death.

3) Our Tongues are Purchased This is where the gospel is so evident in James and yet we usually miss it. James says first that our tongues have power, then they are full of deadly poison, and then James tells us that the tongue is so out of control, so full of poison, so powerful that “no man can tame it” (James 3:8). In this, James again brings us back to Genesis. He reminds us of the Creation mandate. Every creature can be subdued by man and has (James 3:7), except the human tongue. This is what sets humans apart from animals. We have language. We speak. But in this, it was touched by sin.

This reminds us that a tongue problem is not really a tongue problem, but a heart problem. Jesus said that out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks (Luke 6:45). No man can tame the tongue, because the tongue is a reflection of a corrupted heart, a dead and depraved and sinful heart. A speech problem, a problem controlling yourself is not simply a personality flaw or a product of your environment or your culture. It’s an issue of the heart.

But, in this, there is hope. You see, Jesus came to give you a new heart (Ezekiel 36:26). What humans need is not a ten-step exercise on controlling their speech. They need new hearts. This is why the gospel is the only cure for a poisoned tongue. No man can tame the tongue. Only Jesus can tame the tongue. He did this by defeating the curse of sin that kept the tongue in bondage to a corrupt heart.

What does this say to the Christian? Well James chastises believers who speak with forked tongues, who praise God on Sunday and curse their neighbor on Monday. But it’s not a speech problem. It’s a heart problem. And the sign of spiritual maturity, that you’ve submitted to the Spirit’s work in you, is that your mouth gradually produces more fresh water than brackish, that the fruit of your life is more sour than sweet. Christians who excuse bad words, gossip, slander, etc don’t have a speech problem. They have a submission problem, a heart problem. The gospel has more work to do in them.

When we say something we shouldn’t say, we should not use the flimsy excuse, “I don’t know where that came from.” Actually we do. It came from our sinful hearts. But it is by admitting our sin that we discover fresh supplies of God’s provision of grace.