Sticks and stones may break my bones but words may break my heart. You may have been taught that “words can never hurt me”, but words may actually hurt a lot more than sticks and stones. A broken leg takes six to eight weeks to heal, but a broken heart usually takes much longer. This is because our words speak what is in our heart. For this reason, James instructs us to tame our tongue. How can we tame our tongue so that we use it for the glory of God and the good of others? Let us consider:
- The Fire from Below: An Untamed Tongue (1-12). When James writes about the tongue, he is using it to represent the words that we speak. The words that we speak reveal the condition of our heart. Jesus said, “By your words you shall be justified and by your words you shall be condemned” (Matt 12:37). This is because “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person” (Matt 15:18-20). James writes that the tongue is deadly and begins with a warning to those who teach. Since those who teach work with their words, it is important to speak carefully knowing “we who teach will be judged with greater judgment” (1).
- Small, yet Lethal (1-8). The tongue is a small member of the body but it has a very large influence. James uses a few examples to prove his point. First, humans use a small bridle to control large horses. Second, we use a small rudder to control large ships. Third, a small spark can ignite a large wildfire. These small items have an enormous influence for good or bad. Likewise, the tongue is a small member of the body yet it can control the entire body. With such a considerable influence over the body, the tongue presents a problem. James writes that “no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (8). The tongue has a great influence over the body because it speaks what is in the heart. The “heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (Jer 17:9).
- Hypocritical (9-12). An untamed tongue is not consistent with a righteous life. James says we use our tongue to “bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God” (9). James says, “my brothers, these things ought not to be so” (10) because the cursing reveals the hollowness of the blessing. Christians cannot use their tongue to genuinely bless God and curse man (10). The Spirit of God tames the tongue. It cannot bless and curse. James provides a few examples: 1) a freshwater spring cannot pour forth fresh and salt water (11), 2) a salt pond that cannot yield fresh water (12), 3) a fig tree that cannot produce olives (12), 4) a grapevine that cannot produce figs (12). We must rid ourselves of this hypocrisy and that is only found through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.
- The Wisdom from Above: A Tamed Tongue (13-18). James wrote in verse 8, “no human being can tame the tongue.” We cannot tame our tongue because—as we learned earlier—the mouth simply speaks/relays what is in the heart. Only God can tame the tongue because only God can change the heart. When we are born again we receive a new heart and this results in righteousness that produces peace (18).
- The Meekness of Wisdom (13-15). James asks, “who is wise and understanding among you?” The wise person recognizes that “the Lord gives wisdom” (Prov 2:6) and true wisdom results in good conduct (13). The wise show their wisdom in their meekness. Meekness is not weakness, but—as Douglas Moo noted—“involves a healthy understanding of our own unworthiness before God and a corresponding humility and lack of pride in our dealings with our fellowmen.” The wise do not have “bitter jealousy and selfish ambition…[or]…boast and be false to the truth” (14). This is not the wisdom from above but is “earthly, unspiritual, demonic” (15). If we are fighting one another and speaking badly of one another we are performing the “works of the flesh” (Gal 5:19) and those “who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal 5:21).
- The Purity of Wisdom (16-18). The purity of wisdom is demonstrated in the peace it brings. The wisdom from above does not produce “jealousy and selfish ambition” because those things lead to “disorder and every vile practice” (16). The wisdom from above is pure (17). God is love and is incapable of evil and His wisdom is perfectly/spiritually pure. Consider how James describes this wisdom. He says it is “peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (17). The wisdom from God results in peace among God’s people. This is how we can know if we are walking according to God’s wisdom: “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, and with diligence to preserve the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph 4:2-3). God’s wisdom results in “a harvest of righteousness” (18).
Take time this week to examine yourself and the words you use. Do you use your tongue for the glory of God and the good of others? Do you use your words to lift people up or tear people down? Do you tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Do your words praise God or yourself? Our words reveal our heart. Let Christ rule your tongue and tame it for His glory and for the good of others.