More and more, young people realize the hurt and harm that our words can cause. They understand that words are powerful.
Have your words ever hurt anyone? Caused division? Wounded a friend? Hurt your spouse?
Have you ever escalated an argument? Been accused of delivering a low blow? Are you defensive, sad, or confused when they are upset?
Have you ever just thought, "Then I’m never going to talk again."?
James seeks to bring Christian believers to maturity.
With this in mind, James goes to his second point in his 1:19 outline: Be slow to speak.
He makes the case that the tongue is a loaded gun and none of us have the safety on. Then he gives a great insight that will help us be a bit less careless with our words.
James 3:1 Let not many of you become teachers, my brothers, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment.
James tells would-be teachers to be slow to speak because the truth matters to God.
So, whoever presumes to teach had better be sure to speak God’s word. So if you aspire to teach, of you do teach, be sure to study well, know God well, know well the gospel, and teach sound doctrine because those who teach will face greater scrutiny at the Bema judgment or the reward ceremony of the saints.
Now he turns to the rest of us.
James 3:2 For we all stumble in many ways. [Not just teachers, but all of us.] If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well.
Too many of us underestimate the power of our tongue.
James makes it seem like our tongue has a will of its own. This weird little tongue of yours has a destructive power way beyond its size. And we need to take it super serious,
James 3:3 Now if we put the bits into the horses' mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well. 4 Look at the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires.
One pull on the rein of a horse’s bit controls a horse; one turn of a little rudder controls a huge ship.
That’s a big boast for a tiny atom, or a little horse’s bit, or a small rudder.
James 3:5 So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things. See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire.
Our tongue, yours and mine, has incredible power to wound people and hurt feelings, damage relationships, start fights, spread strife, spark hostilities, and cause problems that far exceeds its size.
Not just powerful bruisers, but even petite little girls all wield the destructive force of the tongue.
James 3:5… See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity [a whole world of evil orbits in the tiny confines of your mouth. And it can ruin your lives]; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell.
Some disagree. "My words are fine. I don’t lie. I don’t cuss."
Yet, you miss the bigger point.
It’s not just about the f-bomb. The tongue is A-bomb. Look at what he said:
1) The tongue is a fire.
2) The tongue is a world of iniquity. And we all have one of A-bombs in our mouth.
3) The tongue is a small part of our body yet defiles our whole body.
4) The tongue sets on fire the course of our life.
5) It is set on fire by hell.
James wants us to mature in our faith and live wisely in Christ. Here is an area of our lives where we are all too careless, foolish and hurtful. All of us. You and me and Paul and even James—we all stumble in this in many ways.
Some brag. Some criticize. Some lie. Some cuss. Some gossip about others. Some can only talk about themselves. Yet we’re blind to how bad, how often we do.
“This is how I talk.” “What, you can’t take a joke?” “It’s not gossip.” “The truth hurts.” “I’m not judging.” “He deserved it.” “I could have been nicer, but I’m glad I said it.”
We’re quick to speak and to justify any poison that comes out.
Yet wisdom understands the power of our words and the response that our words ignite. Wisdom understands how harmfully our words can affect others, hurt them, upset them, worry them, and enflame their flesh to sin.
But before you think, okay, I need to control my tongue, understand his next point—the tongue is something you and I have no real or lasting power over.
James 3:7 For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race. 8 But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison.
We can tame dogs, lions, killer whales; but nobody can tame the tongue.
I.e., YOU cannot tame YOUR tongue.
Granted, you can bite your tongue on occasion, but you cannot bring your tongue into full submission to your will.
You know how you can’t hear good news, until you first accept the bad news? Here’s the bad news. Your mouth is worse than you think. Now, don’t defend it. We all say things that hurt people, even if we don’t mean to. But you’re still loved by God and fully understood. You’re still righteous in Christ.
And you still use the tongue for great good…
James 3:9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; 10 from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be this way.
James is not tsk-tsking us, wanting us to despair, or saying, “Now that you know that it is wrong to be quick to speak, to say mean or careless words, just stop it. Be super self-conscious. Work harder at it.”
No, the tongue is full of poison. Poised to strike. And no one can tame the tongue…
So, these things ought not to be this way and yet they are! So, what can we do?
James alludes to this in Vs 11-12. He brings us to the source of our words.
James 3:11 Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Nor can salt water produce fresh.
By nature, one fruit tree cannot produce two kinds of fruit. If someone has apples and pears; they’re from two different trees, different sources. So, if the tongue can praise God and curse people, it is fed by two different sources.
What he's saying is, Your words are either directed by the flesh or the spirit—by sin or by Christ.
Since you trust Jesus to reconcile you with God, you’ve been born again. You have a new heart which is righteous. You’ve been given a new SOURCE of life and speech that is connected to Christ and alive to God. Good news.
But we’re all still straddled with our selfish sin nature, and it’s quick to speak.
Here’s why we cannot tame the tongue.
And God doesn’t expect you to.
Yet in you dwells the Lord who has all control, who tames storms and casts out demons.
You cannot tame your flesh or control your tongue, but He can. He has the power to subdue our tongue, to heal our hurts, to forgive others.
And in you is a new nature, a heart that wants to love and bless others.
James is not giving us rules for good behavior. Now, as to your speech, learn to bite your tongue. Say five nice things every day. When you’re upset, say only gosh or golly. And be super self-conscious to never say the wrong thing.
The solution is not to berate ourselves. Not to strive harder.
But draw close to Jesus. Learn from Jesus how to be slow with the sarcasm. Slow to defend yourself. Slow to blame. Slow to argue. Learn from Jesus how to be led by the Spirit.
Galatians 5:22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
The apostle Paul spoke similarly,
1 Corinthians 12:3 Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking aby the Spirit of God says, “Jesus is accursed”; and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.
We need to be wise with our tongues, we need to walk close to Jesus.
Consider the source that feeds your words. When your words are fueled by the flesh, call on the Lord. You’re hurting. You feel attacked. Or you’re just being careless—it happens. Turn to Him in the moment.
The tongue is something you can never tame, the flesh is something you have no power over. Yet within you dwells the One who has all power. As long as you walk by the Spirit, you have His power to control the unruly tongue.
So, where does this leave us? Trusting Jesus! More than the solution, He’s the whole point.
Our goal is to keep our hearts in fellowship with Christ!
You are a child of God, you’re righteous in Christ, holy to God and loved. You don’t have to be right. You don’t have to defend yourself.
Loving words come from our hearts being rooted in Abba’s love. Merciful words come from knowing God’s mercy in our lives. Righteous words come from our righteousness in Christ. This isn’t about striving to speak in a way that we are not. James calls to know who are are, and to be in relationship with Christ, to allow our words to be led by Christ as we speak with others.