The Expository Files

Speech Patrol

James 3:1-12

My reading habits have drastically changed over the last several months. Where Reader's Digest and the sports section once cluttered our coffee table, a new monthly magazine now sits: New Baby. I found this quote in an article a few weeks back. "You spend the first two years of your child's life teaching them to talk and the next sixteen trying to get them to be quiet!"

Tongue trouble is, in fact, a lifelong struggle. You never reach the age or level of maturity where you have completely conquered it, for "no man can tame the tongue" (vs.8). Anyone who thinks otherwise dangerously underestimates its power and potential. Solomon said that death and life are in its hand (Prov. 18:21) and that the one who guards his mouth is able to keep his whole soul from trouble (21:23).

The first twelve verses of chapter three make up James' sermon on the tongue. This section first appears to be a lesson for teachers; let not many of you be "masters" (KJV), for few can master the tongue. But the applications reach to include anyone who speaks.

"The tongue is a small part of the body" (vs. 5). When you think about all of the organs and muscles that make up your body, the tongue seems rather small and insignificant. "Yet it boasts of great things." The two examples that James uses, the horse's bit and the ship's rudder, indicate that a little can do a lot. Even children can guide the direction of a horse when they have control of its mouth; for a little bit goes a long way. And a captain can steer a massive ship through the winds and waves of a storm by using a small rudder. He can overcome the elements and the odds against him by controlling that little device. As Wordsworth observes, "we rule irrational animals with a bit, how much more ought we to be able to govern ourselves." If you can't, James says your religion is worthless (1:26).

"The tongue is a fire" (vs. 6). Gossip sometimes begins innocently, even accidentally. But all it takes is one careless match, one slip of the tongue, and a whole community of people can be brought down. What's worse, it doesn't take long for a flickering flame to become a raging inferno. And have you ever tried to put one out? You might be able to correct the matter with the people you told. But how will you ever track down the people they told, and the people they told... It's almost impossible to take a home destroyed by fire and put it back together. What about taking back the words you used to burn someone else? You can apologize and make it right, but your mouth has already spoken out of that which fills your heart.

"The tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body" (vs. 6). Don't believe the old adage about sticks and stones. Words will harm you. In a matter of seconds, they can crumble reputations that took years to build. They have the power to separate intimate friends, destroy influence, and bring about any man's demise. And if somehow you escape this life unscathed by your words, don't count on the Lord letting them slip by. Jesus said that "every careless word that men shall speak, they shall render account for it in the day of judgment" (Matt. 12:36). The trouble with the tongue is not just that we use it to hurt one another. It's that we end up hurting ourselves even more. The inevitable result of all lying, gossiping, slandering, and cursing is death by our own poison.

"The tongue is a restless evil" (vs. 6). The word restless denotes instability, a result of blessings and cursings coming for the same mouth. Nature will not allow a fountain to bring forth fresh and bitter water or a fig tree to produce olives. Neither will it allow those made in the image of God to use their tongues for both good and evil. Such inconsistency is a self-destructive sin. But the one who does not stumble in what he says is "a perfect man" (3:2). He is complete, lacking nothing, attaining his true purpose. And he has probably bitten a hole through his bottom lip.

David referred to his mouth as the "door of my lips" (Psalm 141:3). More often that not, it needs to be shut.

 By Bubba Garner
From Expository Files 9.6; June 2002