The Weight of Our Words
In his epistle, the Apostle James made the observation that “if any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body” (James 3:2). James was the half-brother of our Lord Jesus, and leader of the Jerusalem church. It must have been interesting for him to grow up having Jesus as an older brother. Certainly, James would have learned Gospel truths from the teachings that were being circulated in the Early Church, but Jesus was and is the Son of God. He would have been the perfect role model, the very example of someone who could bridle his tongue. Having been raised together, there must have been things the Lord did or shared that James pondered for the rest of his life.
The importance of controlling one’s tongue seems to be a lesson James learned not just from teachings, but from growing up with the Lord. It is apparent that this was a lesson he highly valued; advice concerning it is woven throughout his letter. Controlling our tongues, or having godly speech, is something we should value also. God designed our tongues to be a blessing, and we want all aspects of our lives to glorify Him. James brought out in his letter that the tongue is powerful and not easily tamed, but if we will follow his advice, we will find that with God it is possible.
The importance of speech
In chapter 1 James advised, “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak . . .” (verse 19). While growing up, James might have heard an adage with a similar message taught by the rabbis of his day. It stated that everyone is given two ears, but only one tongue, and while the ears are open and visible, the tongue is guarded behind a wall of teeth. The implication, that one should listen twice as much as he speaks, is good advice for our day as well.
He pointed out that if a person represents piety, or as we would say today, professes Christianity, and does not control his speech, his religion is empty and worthless.
When it comes to the Lord and His Word, we want to be swift to hear. There are many similarities between the Sermon on the Mount and James’ epistle, and this is one of them. In His sermon, Jesus taught, “Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock” (Matthew 7:24). James echoed this sentiment in his letter saying, “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves” (verse 22).
When interacting with others, we want to be slow to speak. Continuing in chapter 1, James said, “If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man's religion is vain” (verse 26). Throughout his letter, James was direct and practical in his approach. Here, he pointed out that if a person represents piety, or as we would say today, professes Christianity, and does not control his speech, his religion is empty and worthless.
In chapter 2, James charged, “So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty” (verse 12). This was an admonishment that a person’s words or profession of faith should be backed by his or her actions.
James’ “Discourse on the Tongue”
Within the first two chapters, James established the importance of words and speech, and that the tongue should be governed. In the third chapter, he began what has been referred to as the “Discourse on the Tongue.” Using three illustrations, he demonstrated the power of the tongue.
A bit is a piece of metal that is placed in a horse’s mouth and attached to a bridle or headgear. It weighs less than one pound, yet is used to control a very powerful animal that often weighs more than a thousand pounds.
In the first illustration, James compared the tongue to a horse’s bit. He said, “Behold, we put bits in the horses’ mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body” (verse 3). A bit is a piece of metal that is placed in a horse’s mouth and attached to a bridle or headgear. It weighs less than one pound, yet is used to control a very powerful animal that often weighs more than a thousand pounds. Once, while in Romania, I saw a horse wearing a yoke and being used to haul timber. It was a big horse, capable of doing tremendous work, and probably dangerous in some situations, but it was controlled by the small bit in its mouth.
For his second illustration, James compared the tongue to the helm of a large ship. He said, “Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth” (verse 4). Some ocean-going vessels carry thousands of people and others carry millions of tons of cargo. In comparison to a cargo ship, a rudder is very small. Yet even when a ship is thought to be unsinkable, if it is steered wrong, everything can be lost.
These two illustrations demonstrate the potential for words to have a devastating effect or to be a tremendous blessing. James went on in his third illustration to compare the tongue to a fire. He said in verse 5, “Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth!” A small fire can be useful for light or for warmth, as in the case of a campfire. However, a fire can also get out of control and cause immense destruction. We witnessed that in Oregon a couple of years ago when a teenage boy set off some firecrackers in the Eagle Creek Canyon. By the time the resulting fire was contained, over fifty thousand acres of land had been consumed. The devastation can still be seen when driving through the Columbia River Gorge.
James continued this illustration in verse 6 saying, “And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell.” This reminds me of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 where over three hundred people lost their lives and thousands of buildings were destroyed. It is thought that the fire began when a cow kicked over a lantern in a barn. An incident that was seemingly so small—and in this case an accident—quickly grew because it found a conducive environment of dry straw and wood.
When gossip finds a conducive environment, it spreads like a fire. We must be careful with our words!
Gossip is like that. When gossip finds a conducive environment, it spreads like a fire. We must be careful with our words! We do not want to be that accommodating environment. Proverbs 26:20 informs us, “Where no wood is, there the fire goeth out: so where there is no talebearer, the strife ceaseth.” If the people of Chicago could have removed structures from the fire’s path, they might have been able to contain it sooner. In fact, that is what they tried to do, but the wind shifted and sent the fire in a different direction. Those people could do nothing about that, but you and I are not helpless. We have the ability to curtail gossip simply by not listening to it in the first place, or at the very least by not passing it on.
James identified the source of ungodly speech when he said the tongue “is set on fire of hell.” The devil is very good at taking something that seems insignificant, fanning it a little, and getting a good fire going. We don’t want to give him the opportunity to do that. The writer of Proverbs said, “Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise: and he that shutteth his lips is esteemed a man of understanding” (Proverbs 17:28). Every one of us would like to be considered wise, and in most cases, we can achieve this by remaining silent.
Taming the tongue
Following the three illustrations on the power of the tongue, James continued his discourse with, “Every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind” (James 3:7). A while ago, my wife and I experienced the truth of this verse when we went to Zambia for an annual camp meeting. We arrived a day early, so were invited to go with a group to the Chaminuka Game Reserve. While there, we had the opportunity to walk a couple of cheetahs. Everyone in our group was a little nervous, especially when we were given instructions like, “Stay behind the animal so it doesn’t think you are challenging it,” and, “Don’t let it sense fear in you.” I was thankful that these animals had been “tamed of mankind.”
It is amazing that man has been able to tame such wild animals, and this makes the next statement by James even more remarkable. He said, “But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison” (verse 8). This is because the tongue expresses what is in the heart. The Lord summed it up this way: “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh” (Luke 6:45).
James agreed that a righteous heart does not bring forth both good and evil speech. He said, “Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be. Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter? Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? either a vine, figs? so can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh” (verses 9-12).
It is true that man cannot tame the tongue, but God can, because He is able to change the heart.
From the time a person is born, sin is in the heart, and therefore what proceeds from the tongue is evil. The prophet Jeremiah said, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). Thankfully, God knows it! It is true that man cannot tame the tongue, but God can, because He is able to change the heart.
God wants our speech to be a blessing. James brought this out by asking and answering the question, “Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? let him shew out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom” (verse 13). He then warned, “But if ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth. This wisdom descendeth not from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish. For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work” (verses 14-16). He was expressing that sheer determination and the wisdom of this world are not enough to tame the tongue.
Jesus told the spiritually blind Pharisees they needed to “cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also” (Matthew 23:26). When we have the precious Blood of Jesus applied to our hearts, not only does it cleanse our hearts from sin, but also our speech. When I received salvation on January 4, 1984, I realized in an instant of time that God had delivered me from several habits that had gripped my life, such as alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs. However, it was a few days before I noticed that another habit was missing. This was one that had caused me embarrassment and shame at times. It was the habit of using profanity—the bad language, cursing, and swearing that used to come out of my mouth were gone. When God saved me, He took all of that out of my heart, and so it no longer came out in my speech.
Just as James had identified the source of an evil tongue, he identified the source of godly speech. He said, “But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace” (verses 17-18). When we surrender our lives to God, He changes us from the inside out, cleansing our speech as well.
Maintaining godly speech
After we are saved, we must allow that wisdom that is from above to continue to work in our hearts and our lives. We must determine not to be drawn back into the very things God has delivered us from. The devil will try to kindle a little fire, but if we will resist him and yield ourselves to God, He will help us. Paul admonished the church at Ephesus concerning this saying, “Neither give place to the devil,” and then offering practical advice. He said, “Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers” (Ephesians 4:27, 29). We can encourage ourselves and others by sharing the testimonies of what God has done in our lives. Paul also said to speak “to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:19). We can gather together with thankful attitudes to worship God, and also spend time at the altar praising Him. If we will do these things, the goodness of God will well up within our hearts and pour forth through our speech.
The tongue is powerful and not easily tamed. However, if we will surrender our lives to God and daily yield to His will, we can be assured that what proceeds from our mouths will glorify Him and bless others.