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The Untameable Tongue

James 3:1-12

by
Brett Rutherford

Reportedly, U.S. president Harry S. Truman was advised to fill his speech with offensive language. The one who gave this advice believed that cursing would make the president’s speeches seem stronger, and would assist him in making sure that each point of his argument was memorable. The advisor also hoped that the frequent use of offensive superlatives by the President would keep the attention of the listener who might otherwise not listen to Truman because of the President’s naturally weak voice. Unfortunately, Truman believed that the advice he was given was sound. He adopted the practice of swearing repeatedly throughout his public speeches.  President Truman adopted the practice of cursing in order to cover up a weakness. In his case it was to cover up his inability to speak strongly. It is safe to say that any misuse of the tongue like cursing, backbiting, lying, spreading rumour, or presenting false doctrine is done to cover up a weakness. In the first place, engaging in a misuse of the tongue is a sign of weakness because it shows that one lacks the courage to be different from the world. In the second place, it is a sign of weakness because it is evidence of an impure heart.

The one who curses has a weakness in his understanding of the English language; therefore, he is unable to express himself without resorting to filthy words. The one who engages in backbiting, lying and gossiping is attempting to shift the focus from their faults to those of another. Those who misuse their tongue to teach false doctrine do so out of their ignorance of Scripture. Their weakness is a lack of Bible study and a submissive spirit.

The tongue is certainly a powerful tool in helping one with a weak character to disguise those shortcomings, but the tongue is also a powerful tool to aid one in expressing his strengths. The tongue can be a powerful tool for good or a powerful weapon for those who are bent on evil. The tongue has the ability to determine the direction of our lives. It can make or break us.  The tongue is certainly an essential tool in carrying out our God given responsibilities.

Every disciple of Christ is obligated to aspire to teach. The writer of Hebrews reprimanded Jewish Christians who failed to grow to a point where they could be competent teachers. It is written in Hebrews 5:12, “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food.”  Teaching can certainly be accomplished by example and with the pen, but the most effective means of presenting the gospel of Christ is by speech. Even though every Christian is obligated to teach it is not a role that we should not engage in lightly. In James 3:12 the inspired disciple wrote, “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.”  In this verse it appears that James is discouraging Christians from engaging in an activity that is commanded of all who wish to serve the Lord faithfully. The writer is actually discouraging those to teach who do not do so with the proper spirit and understanding. For example, in II Peter 2:20-22 the apostle states that those Christians who return to the world would have been better off if they had never “known the way of righteousness.” Certainly, Peter is not encouraging certain people not to learn of the way of righteousness. Every man needs to become a Christian. Peter is merely saying that when one considers becoming a Christian he should not do it lightly and without commitment. It appears from these two texts that anyone who does not approach their service to God with the soberness and commitment that it deserves is going to be held accountable for their lack of dedication. In other words, James is not saying that all Christians should not aspire to teach, but that all Christians should be properly prepared when they instruct others in the way of the Lord.  It is better that one not teach if he has not completely prepared himself to do so. The same can be said of any obligation that God has given His children. For example, one can safely say that it is better not to partake of the Lord’s Supper if one is not focused on the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. Any action that God expects of us will be hollow and vain if our heart is not in it.

Having reminded Christians that presenting God’s word is a matter that should be approached with care and preparation James qualifies this statement by stating that one does not have to be sinlessly perfect in order to teach. In verse two the statement is made “For if we all stumble in many things. If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body.”  Even though it is not necessary for one to know every detail of God’s word in order to be a teacher it should be our objective to gain as much knowledge as we possibly can. In other words, we should strive for perfection in our knowledge of God’s will. In 2 Timothy 2:15 Paul wrote, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” By constant study we not only gain approval from God, but by applying the knowledge we gain, unlawful desires and temptations become easier to handle. Constant study and application will also decrease the potential of the teacher to make mistakes when he instructs others.

James reminded Christians that the tongue is an extension of the heart (James 3:9-12). The tongue expresses what is in one’s heart. Good and evil will not flow from the mouth of one who has a pure heart. If we have filled our heart with the word of God then what we say and do will be consistent with the will of our Lord. Paul made this point in Romans 10:8-10. He wrote, “But what does it say? ‘The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart’ (that is, the word of faith which we preach): that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.”  Jesus said, “Brood of vipers! How can you, being evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of evil treasure brings forth evil things. But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:34-37). If our heart is filled with evil it becomes extremely difficult to keep our tongue from accurately portraying what is in our heart. Many years ago there was a professor of physics at John Hopkins University by the name of Henry Augustus Rowland. Rowland was once called to testify as an expert witness at a trial. Rowland was put on the stand and was asked what his qualifications were that made him an expert witness in the case under consideration. Rowland, who was normally a very modest and quiet man surprised the audience when he replied, “I am the greatest living expert on the subject under discussion.” When a friend later asked Rowland why such a normally quiet and humble man had made such a boast Rowland responded by pointing out to his friend that under oath one cannot lie. Although Rowland gave the appearance of one who was filled with humility in his heart he was full of pride and arrogance. At the trial his loose tongue revealed his true character. Obviously, the key to controlling the tongue is submission to the will of God. We must fill our hearts with godliness not worldliness if we are to avoid hurting ourselves, and others, with a loose tongue.

In verses five through twelve of James chapter three the inspired disciple illustrates the power of the tongue to lead us, and others, into trouble or to safety. In verse three James compares the strength of the tongue to the power of a bridle, which is able to master a horse. It is incredible that a few straps of leather is all that is needed to control an animal that weighs between four hundred to five hundred kilograms. The horse has the ability to run at speeds of up to seventy-five kilometres an hour. These powerful beasts could easily crush the strongest man to death. However, men are able to control these beasts with a small device that weighs only a couple of kilograms.

The tongue is like the bridal. Although the tongue is a very small member it can cause the entire body to be placed in harms way. On the other hand, when the tongue is skilfully employed it can also prevent the body from suffering unnecessary injury. Untold wars and personal conflicts have been caused because someone was careless in the use of their tongue. Diplomats from every nation work around the clock skilfully using their tongues to avoid international crisis’. Unfortunately, all of their work can be undermined by a few careless words from a foolish politician. An entire country can be plummeted into war as a result of the misuse of the tongue.  

James also compares the tongue to a rudder (James 3:4). The rudder is a small device which determines the course of very large ships. Through the preaching of the gospel our tongue can be used to turn the tide against the prevalence of wickedness in the lives of others and set them on the strait and narrow course that leads to eternal life.  

The tongue is the primary tool used to tame the wicked and bring them into line with the will of God. Saul was a man who imprisoned and killed untold numbers of Christians. His tongue became his most powerful weapon in his pursuit to destroy the church of Christ. In Acts 9:1,2 it is recorded that “…Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.”  When this wicked man was tamed by the teaching of Ananias he became the greatest spokesman for the cause of Christ the world has ever known. I confidently assert that the number of people Saul converted to Christ with his tongue far exceeded the number of Christians who were killed by his wicked speech.

Finally, in verse six of James chapter three the inspired author demonstrates the powerful nature of the tongue to spread destruction or good at an incredible pace. He compares the tongue to a fire. Every fire starts with a very small spark but when it is fed with oxygen and fuel it can grow to a point where man is helpless to stop its destructive power. Rumours, lies, false teaching and other misuses of the tongue begin with one individual misspeaking. However, when others hear the rumour, lie or false doctrine and assist in the spreading these evil expressions of the tongue lives, families and reputations are laid ruin in an incredibly short period of time before anyone can stop their effects. Someone once said, “lies spread faster than truth.” On the other hand, the tongue used in the right manner to enthusiastically spread the gospel can also spread like fire.  The tongue is such a powerful weapon. It is vital that children of God learn to tame it and use it for the service of their Lord. Remember misuses of the tongue are evidence of a character flaw. Solomon wrote, “a gentle tongue is a tree of life; But perverseness therein is a breaking of the spirit” (Proverbs 15:4). 

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