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James 3:1-12: The Trouble with the Tongue Print E-mail
Sunday, 19 April 2009

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The words we speak are powerful.  In discussions of free speech, people often talk about a person shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater.  Why is this example used?  Because it shows the power of a single word.  Think about the example for a moment.  What is wrong with the word ‘fire.’  Nothing, we use is it all the time.  What is wrong with speaking, or even yelling, in a crowded place?  Nothing, we do this all the time as well.  Yet, when you put the two together, a powerful thing happens.  People panic and order can become impossible to maintain.  People have actually been killed in such situations.  One little word spoken at the wrong time in the wrong place can have terrible consequences.

James is addressing the power of the tongue in our passage this morning.  Although his argument is lengthy and applies to us all, he begins with a simple, somewhat particular, imperative.  Look at verse 1.  James tells us that not many should be teachers.  Why does he give this command?  He goes on: for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.  The reason why we should approach teaching with caution is because teachers will face a more strict judgment.  Yet still, what is James talking about?  He will proceed from this warning of judgment to speak of our difficulties with the tongue.  His connection is the fact that teachers are called to use their tongues even more than others.  I want to come back to this warning, but before I do, we need to look more closely at what James is saying to us about our trouble with the tongue.  So let me walk us through his argument.

First, he tells us that the tongue controls much (v. 2-5a).

James begins by introducing us to the problem of the tongue in verse 2.  He admits that our sins are various and notes our particular difficultly of controlling the tongue.  If a person is able to control the tongue, then they could control the whole body.  We must not be fooled by its size.  Even though it is small in comparison to the rest of the body, it still controls much.  In order to drive this point home, James goes on to give us two illustrations.  Look at verses 3-4.  First, James compares the controlling power of the tongue to a bit in a horse’s mouth.  A bit may be small but a rider can control a horse by using it.  Second, James uses the illustration of a ship’s rudder.  Even though ships are large and are driven by strong winds, they are still controlled by a small rudder.  The ship’s pilot simply steers the rudder and the whole ship is controlled.  James is telling us that even though the tongue is small, if we can control it then we would be able to control our whole bodies.  Just like a rider controls a horse or a pilot controls a ship, if we could control the tongue, then we could control the rest of our bodies.  Thus, we should probably say it this way: he who can control the tongue can control much.  Not only is the tongue itself powerful (as James will say more about), but he calls the one who can control it a perfect man, wielding much power as well.  Yes, it is small, but as James says: it boasts of great things.  

Second, he tells us that the tongue corrupts much (v.5b-6).

James introduces another comparison in verses 5b-6.  Look at those with me.  Here James describes for us the destructive nature of the tongue.  Not only is it powerful, it is a world of unrighteousness.  There are so many ways that the tongue can destroy.  It can destroy through lies and gossip.  It can destroy through malice and anger.  It can destroy through embarrassment thinly veiled as humor.  It may be small, but it only takes a small spark to destroy a whole forest.  It would only take one match to destroy our entire Church building.  People have been killed by fires that were started with one small spark.  Just as we have to respect the power and destructive nature of fire, so James warns us about the power of the tongue.  It is a fire he says that spreads through our whole life and is itself set on fire by hell.  These are strong words indeed.  Is James simply exaggerating?  Well, if you have ever been on the receiving end of destructive words, then you know that what he is saying is true.  I said it earlier in this series, but the old idea that ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’ is simply not true.  Words hurt.  They break and bruise us.  And sometimes they do this without the person speaking them even knowing what they are doing, which just adds to their destructive power.  James wants us to know just how much the tongue can corrupt and destroy.

Third, he tells us that the tongue resists much (v. 7-8).

James has already alluded to this idea, but he makes it even more clear in verses 7-8.  Look at those with me.  James is probably referring to the fact that God placed man over all animals in the creation account in Genesis.  We were given dominion over all the earth.  Yet, even so, we cannot tame the tongue.  It is ironic that we have dominion over so much and cannot control our very own members.  The interesting thing to note about verse 8 is the absolute terms that James uses: no human being can tame the tongue.  If left to ourselves, we cannot control the tongue.  It is  so powerful and so destructive and so elusive to our control, that no man can completely tame it in this life.  So what are we supposed to do with the tongue?  James is giving us a difficult paradox in this passage.  One of my commentators notes: “James’s theme is that we must tame the tongue but cannot do so.”#  So what do we do with this paradox?  If verse 8 tells us that we cannot tame the tongue, then why all this discussion about it?  I will return to these questions in just a minute.  Before, we do, let’s look at the final point of James’ argument.

Fourth, he tells us that the tongue reveals much (v. 9-12).

James has repeatedly condemned the double-minded man (see 1:8).  In verses 9-10a we see that the tongue can be a problem for the double-minded man as well.  Look at those with me.  James has criticized the man who prays but without faith, who hears the word but does not do the word, the one who claims to be religious but does not hold his tongue, and the one who says he has faith but does not have works.  Here the problem is with the tongue.  The double-minded man will utter both praise to God and slander to man, who is made in God’s image (again, note the irony).  He will use his mouth for both blessings and curses.  James goes on to say that this is not right.  Look at verses 10b-12.  How can blessings and curses come from the same mouth?  It is as if oranges started growing on an apple tree or salt water started flowing from a spring.  James wants us to see the obvious problem with such a situation.  As we saw in the passage we read to begin our service, Jesus taught that whatever comes out of a man’s mouth will reveal his heart (see Matthew 12:34).  Thus, how can the same heart produce praise for God and slander for our fellow man?  James tells us that this should not be.

So James tells in verse 10b that it is wrong for us to misuse our tongue.  Yet, he has already told us in verse 8 that man cannot tame the tongue.  Do you see the paradox here?  What are we supposed to do with this passage?  How are we to apply it to our lives?

First, before we deal with the paradox, we do need to remind ourselves of the caution that James gives us for being teachers.  We need to understand the weightiness of such a task and only proceed in it if God has indeed called us to it.  I should note, James does us warn us in this way so that nobody will ever serve as teachers.  No, we need teachers and God equips and calls people to serve us in this way.  Yet, no teacher ever needs to approach their task lightly.  Handling the Word of God, whether in a small group Bible study or behind a pulpit, is a serious task.  We must always exercise reverence in this task.  Likewise, since this warning is given for teachers, let me encourage you this morning to be in prayer for those who teach you the Word.  I covet your prayers as a teacher of the Word and I would venture to guess that all of our teachers here would say the same.  Be committed to praying for them.

Second, I believe this text calls us to labor to tame the tongue.  James implies throughout the passage that the tongue should be tamed and tells us this explicitly in verse 10.  Yet, again, how are we supposed to go about this if no human being can tame the tongue?  In order to answer this question and attempt to deal with this paradox, let me make two comments.  First, the Lord consistently calls us to do things that we cannot do.  Read the sermon on the mount and Jesus’ call for us to be perfect.  We are told to love as Christ loved, serve as Christ served, pray without ceasing, never worry, and rejoice always.  Are all of these just sentimental ideas?  No, I think they are real commands that show us our great need for a Savior.  And not just a Savior who will pay for our sins, but a Savior who will actually free us from the power of sin.  This is what we so desperately need.  And this is exactly what Jesus Christ came to do.  He did not just pay for our sins, but as the hymn we sang earlier says: “He breaks the power of cancelled sin, he sets the prisoner free.”#  What is our only hope of taming the tongue?  The power of Jesus Christ at work in our hearts and minds through the Holy Spirit. 

Thus, second, we must look to Christ to tame the tongue.  Based upon what Jesus taught us, we need new hearts to tame the tongue.  We need renewed minds that are not consumed with pride and self-preservation, which so often lead to the sins of the tongue, but are rather filled with a longing to glorify God in all that we say and do.  Will we ever completely tame the tongue on this earth?  No, we will never be perfect in this way.  Yet, one of my commentators says it this way: “James does, indeed, suggest that the ultimate taming of the tongue is impossible.  Should this lead us to abandon all efforts to bring our speech under control?  Of course not.  The realization that perfection is unattainable should not dampen in the least our enthusiasm to become as good at it as possible.  We may never reach the point where the tongue is perfectly controlled; but we can surely advance a long way in using our speech to glorify God.”#  James will go on to tell us that if we humble ourselves before the Lord then He will lift us up (4:10).  Thus, let us come before the Lord in great humility this morning acknowledging the fact that we cannot control the tongue by ourselves.  Let’s ask Him for mercy and grace and power to tame the tongue in our lives so that everything that comes from our mouth will bring honor and glory to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

~ William Marshall ~

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