James 1:22 – But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. (NKJV)
There are few things that have more influence or cause us more regret than our MOUTH… that little thing between your teeth that does indeed at times seem to be utterly untameable.
A few rare souls exist that don’t fight the constant battle of tongue but they are few and far between, or they are liars and self-deceived. There is always room for tongue improvement no matter how mature or self controlled we are. We can always be kinder. We can always be wiser in what we say. We can always hold our tongue just a little more. We can always choose better words. We can always say something more edifying, more blessing, more effective.
But… most of us are not at the point where we are simply fine-tuning and improving our “tongue” (our words, our language, our communication). Most of us are still WAY BACK near square one where we are cleaning up our language from foul or crude words; we are trying to learn not to gossip; we are working hard not to be so abrasive… and the list goes on:
- Mumbling discontentment
- Veiled criticism
- Open criticism
Those are things we need to QUIT. Then, there is the matter of the things we don’t say that we should be saying:
See what I mean? The tongue is a HUGE issue, a monumental, pervasive part of our life; something that affects every moment of our waking hours.
Don’t Get in a Hurry to Teach
Typical of James, he has very practical and blunt advice about the Christian mouth. Let’s take a look:
Jas 3:1: My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment. (NKJV)
In context, James warns us that few should become teachers. What is the primary tool of the teacher? The mouth. Every word a teacher utters, using their tongue to influence and guide others, will be judged. Teachers will be held accountable for what they say. In a broader application, there are other reasons. Not all are gifted as public teachers (we are all private teachers in some manner to our family and friends). The temptation of wanting to be “up front” can result in pride and the desire for recognition. If a teacher is not willing to do the hard work of preparation and diligently learn God’s Word, they can misguide hearers no matter how good their intentions may be. James specifically warns against many becoming teachers because they have to be very diligent about controlling their tongue not only while teaching but in their daily life as well.
The Key to Perfection
Jas 3:2: For 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. (NKJV)
Of course we know that no man can truly be perfect in this sin-cursed world. This bit of rhetoric is used to emphasis both the importance of controlling the tongue, and the difficulty. James is saying something like “we fail in a lot of ways but all of our other failures combined aren’t equal to how much our tongue gets us in trouble. You’d be perfect if you could keep that thing under control”.
From a practical perspective, if we could perfectly control our words, how much trouble would it save us? How many mistakes would be avoided? How many regrets would not be realized? How many more opportunities for blessing would be utilized instead of missed? In that sense, James does not exaggerate… if we could control our tongue, it would seem like our life is pretty much perfect compared to what it actually is now.
Imagine in heaven, all of us will say only the right thing. Really… stop and think about that. No words to regret, no embarrassing miscues, no angry outbursts we wish we could take back, no gossip, no lies, no false teaching, no misunderstandings. I would say one of the greatest gifts of heaven will be that our tongues will no longer be sin-cursed and we won’t have to feel the sting anymore of knowing that once again we just said something we shouldn’t have said.
The Power of the Tongue
Jas 3:3-6: Indeed, we put bits in horses’ mouths that they may obey us, and we turn their whole body. Look also at ships: although they are so large and are driven by fierce winds, they are turned by a very small rudder wherever the pilot desires. Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things. See how great a forest a little fire kindles! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell. (NKJV)
Next, James gives us perfectly clear analogies about how powerful our tongue is. It is a tiny part that moves and controls big things. A spark that lights an entire forest on fire. A tiny rudder that steers a huge ship. A little metal bar in the mouth of big powerful horse controlling their every movement. It is the tiny hole in a dam that causes the whole structure to burst. It is the single atom that sets off a nuclear chain reaction.
The message is clear: do not underestimate the power of your tongue or it’s affect not only on you but those around you. Look at the extreme language (and nothing in the Bible is an accident): the tongue is a FIRE, a world of inquity (evil). The tongue defiles the WHOLE body, set on fire by hell and able to destroy our entire life. James could hardly use stronger descriptions so it is to our benefit to sit up and really take notice.
Preach It Brother!
Jas 3:7-9: For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and creature of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind. But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God. (NKJV)
James continues with extreme descriptions meant to really get our attention. Man can tame the wildest beast, the most ferocious animal… yet can’t keep his tongue still. The tongue is an out-of-control evil! You won’t hear that proclaimed in today’s “feel good, positive thinking, successful life, ear tickling” sermonettes. Imagine America’s Most Popular Pastor preaching this:
“All you people, listen up! Your tongue is an evil, uncontrollable monster! Your mouth is full of poison! You bless people one minute then tear them down the next! You should not be doing that. Get that wicked tongue under control and it will solve most of your other problems!”
James would not be invited back for a second sermon and yet who can deny that all humans have been guilty of this very thing? Truth be known, most people are guilty of it on a regular basis. God didn’t have the writers of the Bible exaggerate unjustly so they could make a point. What James is saying is dead-on Truth and the spiritually mature have no difficulty in understanding and agreeing with his every word. The tongue is absolutely a primary cause of difficulties and failures as we walk through our daily life.
Note: of course what proceeds from the mouth starts in the heart, but that’s a whole other message. Matt 15:18
No, we will rarely hear James words loudly proclaimed today. Yet this sweeping truth should dictate regular lessons and admonition about our tongue. Think about it. If the tongue is such a pervasive issue and struggle, can we give the topic a few minutes of consideration every couple of years and really hope to make progress? No friends. I would say that being alert, praying for God’s help, and constantly evaluating the words that proceed from our mouth would be a priority every day. After all, if you can control your tongue, you can be “perfect”.
Jas 3:10-12: Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring send forth fresh water and bitter from the same opening? Can a fig tree, my brethren, bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Thus no spring yields both salt water and fresh. (NKJV)
James concludes saying in essence “don’t kid yourself”. You cannot bless and curse with the same tongue and feel right about it. You can’t pretend your life is on the right track. That’s like having clean water and dirty water come out of the same faucet. No water source can be both fresh and salty. If it has salt at all, it’s all salty. In other words, you cannot compartmentalize your tongue and say “well it’s mostly good”. If it’s not all good, it’s no good. Don’t kid yourself. You’ve still got work to do.
One of my favorite sayings is “when you squeeze a lemon, you get lemon juice.” This means what is truly inside someone cannot be concealed especially when the pressures of life are applied. James presents the same idea… whatever you are, you are. You can’t be an apple tree and produce grapes. You can’t be a milk weed and produce cherries. If your tongue is spewing out gossip, unkindness, lies and anger don’t pretend that a few words of kindness a moment later changes the essence of who you are.
It’s a zero sum game when it comes to the tongue: you either are, or you aren’t. You can’t bless and curse out of the same mouth. You can’t pray and gossip out of the same mouth. You can’t teach and lie out of the same mouth. You can’t get clean water out of a sewage spout. Well, you can… but you shouldn’t.
We will not be perfect until we shed this sin-cursed body and meet Jesus face to face. God doesn’t require perfection… His only Son filled in the gap for us. But God does expect us to be WORKING TOWARDS PERFECTION, not in an effort to merit God’s approval or salvation but from a response of gratitude and love, wanting to be more like Jesus every day as we prepare to live for all eternity with Him. Oh yeah, and taming your tongue also makes you a lot nicer person to be around too.
I love James. He just gets right to the point doesn’t he?