1. Someone observed that the most dangerous creature on the earth lives in a den guarded by teeth. It’s called the tongue!
2. Learning to control that creature is one of our most basic and practical tasks. In fact, Dietrich Bonhoeffer pointed out that every Christian has the continual ministry of “holding one’s tongue.”
3. James, the Lord’s brother, in the most practical of N.T. letters, agreed. In each of its five chapters he brings up this task.
a. 1:26 – If anyone does not bridle his tongue, his religion is vain.
b. 2:12 – Speak and act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty.
c. 4:11 – Don’t assume the judge’s place by speaking evil against one another.
d. 5:9, 12 – Control the impulse to grumble or swear.
4. But James’ great text on our faith and our words – and the New Testament’s most extended treatment of this theme – is James 3:1-12.
5. What Tongue Control Is About
a. The manner in which James approaches this theme offers us an opportunity to clarify what we mean by “tongue control.”
i. He is not in this passage seeking to plunge his readers into long periods of silence (Col. 4:6).
ii. Neither is he trying to discourage efforts to teach (Matt. 28:19, 20; 2 Tim. 2:2; Heb. 5:13), nor is he excusing us from listening to teaching that we really need to hear (2 Tim. 4:2).
iii. What he wants to do is:
(1) To urge us to teach from pure motives.
(2) To remind us that responsibility requires preparation.
(3) And, to call our attention to how serious what we say can be.
b. This task is about respecting the fact that the tongue, though a small member of the body, has such a huge influence on the entire course of a life. James uses three vivid illustrations to make the point.
i. What the tongue utters impacts a life in the same way a small bit can control the strength of a large, strong horse (v. 3).
ii. Its influence is like the rudder which, though hardly noticed, can steer a mighty ship even in the midst of a terrible storm (v. 4).
iii. The tongue has potential like the tiny flame which can set off a raging inferno (v. 5).
6. Why This Task Is So Important
a. That puts us in a position to understand why James gives preeminence to keeping a tight rein on the tongue. The fact is that the tongue can be “a world of unrighteousness” (v. 6), or “the very world of iniquity.”
i. As “a fire,” it can defile a person’s entire being with the spirit of hell and set the whole course of his life on fire (v. 6).
ii. As “a restless evil,” it may break loose and attack at any moment, ruining relationships and endangering souls (v. 8).
iii. Being “full of deadly poison,” it strikes to inflict the venom of misinformation and misunderstanding and mistreatment along the paths of life we travel every day (v. 8).
b. In the scriptures, the kinds of speech which unleash the world of unrighteousness into our lives fall into three broad categories.
i. There are the kinds of words which spring from an irreverent spirit toward God – things like lying, insincerity, foolish talk about holy things, or talk against his work or his will.
ii. There is the class of speech which express a disregard for the person of others – words that belittle in disrespect or attack in anger; words that diminish through gossip or destroy through slander; words that sow discord and sever relationships.
iii. There is also the kind of talk grows out of corruption in one’s own heart – speech that takes the form of filthy terms, crude joking that can make something dirty out of anything, or the sarcasm and littleness and criticism that conveys our own arrogance or anger into the community around us.
7. How We May Move Toward Tongue Control
a. Start with humble good intentions.
i. We’ll need the Lord’s help and patience with ourselves, but we must aim to bridle the tongue.
ii. James says that one who never stumbles in what he says is a perfect man (v. 2), and that “no human being can tame the tongue” (v. 8).
iii. But what he writes makes it clear that he expects our attitude to be like the singer who prayed: “Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips!” (Psalm 141:3).
b. Take care of the source of your words.
i. Matthew 12:34, 35
ii. The tongue can only relay what is in the person’s mind; the mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart. .
iii. If we will be more selective about what goes into our mind, or what goes on in our mind, we won’t have to worry about what comes out our mouth!
c. Listen before – and more than – you talk.
i. James 1:19
ii. Someone put it this way: “To save face, keep the lower half shut.”
iii. Remember, the principle is not silence, it’s understanding.
(1) The point is to know that other person’s heart, and to make sure that what you say helps him.
(2) What James is calling for is thoughtfulness.
(3) In “The Wizard of Oz” Dorothy asks the Scarecrow how he is able to speak without a brain. He answers, “I don’t know, but some people without brains do an awful lot of talking.”
d. Test your words before you say them.
i. This is the work of bridling the tongue. It is how a person with good intentions who thinks goes about trying to be responsible in what he says.
ii. It’s obvious what some of the questions will have to be:
(1) Are my words absolutely true?
(2) Am I being gracious in what I’m about to say?
(3) Is my speech needed for building others up.
(4) Are my words carefully chosen?
(5) Am I willing to give account for my words?
e. Aim for consistency.
i. James offers three vivid illustrations of the necessity of consistency between what we say we are and what we say: a spring, a tree, and a vine (v. 11).
ii. He insists that the same consistency should be found in our words: blessing and cursing should not come out of the same mouth (v. 10).
iii. What I say to and about other people should fit with what I say to and about God.
f. Use your ability to speak for good.
i. Every one of the illustrations James has used to remind us of the power and influence of the tongue has a positive side to it , too.
ii. The scriptures often call upon us to use the gift of speech to be a blessing to the people around us.
(1) Prov. 15:23 – “...a word in due season, how good is it!” (NASB)
(2) Prov. 16:24 – “Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.”
(3) Prov. 25:11 – “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.”
iii. Ephesians 4:29
iv. Everywhere around us there are people needing to hear talk like that.
v. One man who had helped a congregation grow explained his success this way: “I just try to put in a good word for the Lord every day.” What keeps us from doing that?
1. John Oxenham put tongue control in the right light when he wrote:
“I spoke a word,
And no one heard;
I wrote a word,
And no one cared
Or seemed to heed;
But after half a score of years
It blossomed in a fragrant deed.
Preachers and teachers all are we,
Sowers of seed unconsciously.
Our hearers are beyond our ken;
Yet all we give may come again
With usury of joy or pain.
We never know
To what one little word may grow.
See to it, then, that all your seeds
Be such as bring forth noble deeds.”
2. We serve a God who operates that way.
a. He has used words to make his great heart known to us.
b. He has put within “the word of the gospel” the power to save us and to transform the way we speak and act.
c. The “seed of the kingdom” can yield a hundredfold good things if we will take it into a good and honest heart and hold it fast.