Special thanks to my dad, Michael Hite, who teaches James and from whose material I drew most of this article. :)
It’s no secret: women love to talk. In fact, one survey reports that women, on average, speak 20,000 words per day, while men only speak 7,000. Unfortunately, the more words we use, the more chances we have to use them unwisely. How do we distinguish wise use of the tongue from unwise? There’s no better place in God’s Word to look than the book of James.
I’ll give you a little background before we start. James’ letter itself never specifies directly which James wrote it, but based on historical context and references in other New Testament books we can assume pretty safely that it was James the brother of Jesus, who was a prominent church leader in his day. His audience is “the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad” (1:1). In other words, the Jews outside of Palestine. Go ahead and read the whole book through for me when you get the chance (it’s only five chapters long). That way you can get the full context. Bottom line, James is talking about practical Christian living—wisely using our faith to make God’s works happen. Today I’m just going to focus on James 3:1-12. Let’s take a look.
Teachers must be careful to use their tongues wisely (1-2). James says, “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment.” “Teacher” doesn’t mean “pulpit minister”, “Bible class teacher”, or “Christian college professor.” If you’re a Christian, you should be teaching the Word of God to others. Of course, then, James isn’t telling us not to teach, but rather to be careful about how and why we teach. Being in a teaching position leaves us particularly vulnerable to the traps of the tongue. Teaching gives us more opportunity to boast unrighteously about our Bible knowledge, and perhaps even more dangerously, it makes it more tempting to teach the Word inaccurately. How often do we knowingly take a verse out of context just because it sounds like it would prove our point? We must be careful to teach the Word for what it is, not for what we want it to be at the moment. This careful teaching is a mark of the “perfect” teacher. Just as in verse 4, the word “perfect” does not mean “flawless” or “sinless”—it means “complete” or “mature”. Mature, accurate teaching will help us to grow in our faith while simultaneously helping others to do the same.
The wise Christian recognizes the influence of the tongue (3-5). James uses three metaphors to convey this idea of the tongue’s power. The first two metaphors involve direction: first, a bridle in a horse’s mouth, and second, a ship’s rudder. Remember, these aren’t just poetic license—God inspired every word of the Bible, right down to which metaphor His authors chose to use. I seriously doubt it’s a coincidence that God chose directional metaphors. We aren’t hermits - we live in a word full of people, and we interact with them daily through our tongues. Naturally, then, our tongues and the way we use them have more influence than anything else over the direction of our lives. For the final metaphor, James switches from a basically neutral to a negative connotation, using the image of a forest fire. The nature of the tongue is to destroy, so we have to learn to control it. Which leads me to the next point.
The wise Christian recognizes the evil of the tongue (6-8). James continues his fire metaphor in verse 6, saying “the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity.” He goes on to say that it “defiles the entire body… and is set on fire by hell”. The tongue can be a HUGE stumbling block!! Think of all the sins that stem from speech: lying, gossip, cursing, blasphemy, quarreling, just to name a few. The tongue is wild and ferocious, like an animal, as seen by the comparison in verse 7. James even goes so far as to say “no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison”. The word “restless” brings with it some powerful imagery. Have you ever been to the zoo and seen a leopard stalking back and forth in its cage? That’s restless. If it has any opportunity to get out and wreak its havoc, it will.
But hold on a second… no one can tame the tongue? Then what hope do we have? No MAN ALONE can tame the tongue, but we know that all things are possible with God (Matthew 19:26). We have to rely on God to help us control the evil impulses of our tongues.
The wise Christian uses the tongue consistently (9-12). Nothing can ruin a reputation like the tongue can. It doesn’t take very long to forget a kind word, but a harsh word can haunt somebody for the rest of her life. James rebukes the fact that “from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way”. How can we praise God and then turn around to slander a sister in Christ? It doesn’t work that way, ladies. Again, James uses metaphors to convey his point: first, a fountain, and second, a tree. These metaphors reveal the underlying principle: whatever’s in your heart is what’s going to come out of your mouth. If a fountain spews out impure water, then its water source must not be pure. If a tree produces olives, no matter how you slice it, it’s an olive tree. If our speech is impure, then our hearts must not be pure either. If our hearts are 100% pure, our speech will be as well.
Are we ever going to use our tongues in a 100% holy way 24/7? No. We’ll never be flawless or sinless. However, if we’re not striving for perfection, we’re never going to grow in Christ. We don’t want to settle for “mostly holy”… we’ll just stagnate. Let’s strive every day to use our tongues wisely and glorify God in doing so.