James 3:1-12 - Taming the Tongue
We cannot tame our tongue, as James says that is impossible. But God can.
This is the eleventh of an 18-part devotional series. Sign-up here to have these devotionals sent straight to your inbox.
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.
How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.
Words can have devastating effects on relationships. A married couple may be happy for years, even decades, and get into an argument that eventually leads to divorce. What put the couple on that path? Words!
During the past political season our televisions, online videos, and places where we read the news were filled with words from the various campaigns. Many of these words were vile attacks (often unsupported) against their opponents. As James says, “And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness.”
What should a Christian, especially a Christian involved in politics, do? Recognize James’ warning and solution.
James tells us that the only person who can tame his tongue “is a perfect man.” Are you perfectly able to “bridle” your whole body? Neither am I. James affirms as much by stating, “No human being can tame the tongue” So, what is the solution?
James does not provide the answer in this passage that we are considering but the answer is found throughout the scriptures.
We cannot tame our tongue, as James says that is impossible. But God can. James’ analogy of a horse and a bridle gives us a great clue to where he is going with his thoughts. If you try to put the “bridle” in your own mouth to guide your words, you will fail. It would be like a horse putting its own bridle in and expecting to go in the right direction.
No, the bridle is put in by God when we are born again. The Holy Spirit is who guides us.
Just like a horse, we can resist his directions. However, a Christian is called to be filled by the Holy Spirit. Sanctification is the process of being made more like Jesus, the only perfect person. This is an act of cooperation between us and the Holy Spirit. Just as riding and guiding a horse is an act of cooperation between the horse and rider.
Jesus said not to worry about what we are to say to others because the Holy Spirit will guide us in what to say in our time of need (Matthew 10:19–20). It is when we do not trust in God but rely on our own self that James’ warning in this passage comes to fruition.
Paul teaches in Romans 12 that we are to live at peace with everyone echoing Jesus’ word found in Mark 9:50. Paul adds to this in Romans 14 by teaching us, “So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” This can only be done when we trust the Holy Spirit to guide our words.
In the beginning of James’ next chapter (a focus of a future devotional), James warns us against arguing. There are many passages that provide the same teaching (Proverbs 15:1, Proverbs 15:18, Proverbs 17:14, Romans 12:18, Romans 14:1-23, 2 Timothy 2:14, 2 Timothy 2:23, Titus 3:9-11). How do we avoid quarrels? If we allow the Holy Spirit to “bridle” our tongue, he will guide us away from this danger.
James began his letter teaching us to “be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” Let each of us pray to the Holy Spirit to “bridle” us in such a way that we are known by others as good listeners and gentle people.
Rev. Thomas Eddy is the Associate Director for State Capitols Ministry.