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James 3:5b-12: Taming the Tongue (part 2)

This story came from a friend. My daughter starts middle school tomorrow. We've decorated her locker, bought new uniforms, even surprised her with a new backpack. But tonight just before bed, we did another pre-middle school task that is far more important than the others. I gave her a tube of toothpaste and asked her to squirt it out onto a plate. When she finished, I calmly asked her to put all the toothpaste back in the tube. She began exclaiming things like “But I can't!” “It won't be like it was before!” I quietly waited for her to finish and then said the following:

“You will remember this plate of toothpaste for the rest of your life. This toothpaste is to remind you of your words. Your words have the power of life or death. As you go into middle school, you are about to see just how much weight your words carry. You are going to have the opportunity to use your words to hurt, demean, slander and wound others. You are also going to have the opportunity to use your words to heal, encourage, inspire and love others. You will occasionally make the wrong choice; I can think of three times this week I have used my own words carelessly and caused harm. Just like this toothpaste, once the words leave your mouth, you can't take them back. Use your words carefully, Breonna. When others are misusing their words, guard your words. Make the choice every morning that life-giving words will come out of your mouth. Decide tonight that you are going to be a life-giver in middle school. Be known for your gentleness and compassion. Use your life to give life to a world that so desperately needs it. You will never, ever regret choosing kindness.”

A cartoon from leadership magazine shows a line of pews and the same sentence being passed from pew to pew. (Like the old game “telephone.”)

1st pew: My ear kind of hurts

2nd pew: The pastor has an earache

3rd pew: The pastor got a hearing aid

4th pew: The pastor is having trouble hearing

5th pew: The pastor got a double earring

6th pew: “An old lady with a cane is walking out and says: “That does it, I’m outta here! The pastor’s got a double earring.”

James spoke about the tongue in chapter 1, “If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless” (James 1:26-27 NLT). Here in chapter 3 James expands in his discussion about the tongue. Among the things this chapter reveals it is: The tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts (verse 5); it is a fire and a world of evil that defiles the whole person (verse 6); it is set on fire by hell (verse 6); and it is an uncontrollable evil and full of deadly poison (verse 7). Is it any wonder, then, that God declares that taming the tongue is impossible?

The Bible mentions many kinds of tongues:

•A flattering tongue (Psalm 5:9)

•A proud tongue (Psalm 12:3; 73:9)

•A lying tongue (Psalm 109:2; Prov. 6:17)

•A deceitful tongue (Psalm 120:2)

•A perverted tongue (Proverbs 10:31; 17:20)

•A soothing tongue (Proverbs 15:4)

•A healing tongue (Proverbs 12:18)

•A destructive tongue (Proverbs 17:4)

•A mischievous and wicked tongue (Psalm 10:7)

•A soft tongue (Proverbs 25:15)

•A backbiting tongue (Proverbs 25:23)

“In Psalm 64:3 the tongue is called ‘a sword.’ This sword has certainly damaged, bruised, wounded, and killed more people than all the swords in all the wars since history began. You've seen it many times. That newly married couple – so lovey-dovey for days and days on end. But one day the fellow lost his temper and slashed into the heart and affections of his wife with uncontrollable anger and with words he might regret forever. But it was said. The damage was done. How often we need to remember that old saying: We cannot call back the arrow we've shot into the air, the water under the bridge, or the spoken word.” –Leonard Ravenhill


Psalm 15:1-3, “Lord, who may abide in Your tabernacle? Who may dwell in Your holy hill? He who walks uprightly, and works righteousness, and speaks the truth in his heart; he who does not backbite with his tongue, nor does evil to his neighbor…”

Psalm 39:1 NLT, “I said to myself, “I will watch what I do and not sin in what I say. I will hold my tongue when the ungodly are around me.”

Proverbs 8:13 NLT, “All who fear the Lord will hate evil. Therefore, I hate pride and arrogance, corruption and perverse speech.”

Proverbs 10:20 MSG, “The speech of a good person is worth waiting for; the blabber of the wicked is worthless.

Proverbs 10:31 NLT, “The mouth of the godly person gives wise advice,

but the tongue that deceives will be cut off.”

Proverbs 12:18,19 NLT, “Some people make cutting remarks, but the words of the wise bring healing. Truthful words stand the test of time, but lies are soon exposed.”

Proverbs 15:4 NLT, “Gentle words are a tree of life; a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit.”

Proverbs 18:21 NLT, “The tongue can bring death or life; those who love to talk will reap the consequences.”

One of my brothers knew how to swear! One day his little boy Jim used some curse words (he was cussing). When Cliff scolding him for using that kind of language, my mom, who heard the whole thing said, “If you don’t want him to cuss, you better quit it yourself.” Watch your words, someone is listening!

How many times I have heard, especially in my young life (before I became a Christian), “Watch your mouth, don't talk that way! Watch your tongue, watch your language, potty-mouth, garbage mouth!”

Every once in a while, I realize that something I’ve been saying (maybe for years) is a lie. Not a mistake. Not a slight deviation from the truth, a lie! Now when I start to tell a story of some experience from my past, I have to stop and ask, “Did this really happen, or did I just imagine this or (God forbid) did I make it up?” I became a Christian when I was 25 years old, so I have a rather checkered past, so there are many stories that I cannot repeat and would best be forgotten.

Many times we have heard Judge Judy say: “Do you know how I can tell when a Teenager is lying? His/her lips are moving.”

In God’s word one of the most important of all subjects is the control of the tongue. This subject is well calculated to convince Christians to take the mask from hypocrites, to humble, and to edify all believers. And James emphasizes the dangers of the tongue more than any other New Testament writer (James 1:19. 26; 3:1-12; 4:11-12; 5:12). James, who wrote his epistle to correct some abuses in the early church, deals strongly this subject: and, in the following verses has given us a very graphic description of the tongue, that every one of us should take to heart!

Matthew 12:36-37, “But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”

Verse 5b: “See how great a forest a little fire kindles!”

Living in Southern California we see many fires that destroy forests, homes and in many cases cause death. A forest fire is an uncontrolled fire occurring in nature. Sometimes, the forest fire is so large that it takes a long time for the fire fighting crews to gain control over the situation. Forest fires usually begin with carelessness, something very small, like a campfire ember that blows in the wrong direction, a lit cigarette flicked casually out of a car window, or by children playing with matches. Sometimes it’s arson, or vandalism, started by someone who is either mentally ill, or just very angry at the world. But the result is still the same, a forest fire causing destruction and sometimes death.

“The damage the tongue can cause is like that caused by a forest fire. The picture of the forest fire is common in the Bible. It is the prayer of the Psalmist that God may make the wicked like chaff before the wind; and that his tempest may destroy them as fire consumes the forest and the flame sets the mountains ablaze (Psalms 83:13-14). Isaiah says ‘wickedness burns like a fire, it consumes briers and thorns; it kindles the thickets of the forest’ (Isaiah 9:18). Zechariah speaks of ‘a blazing pot in the midst of wood, like a flaming torch among sheaves’ (Zechariah 12:6). The picture was one the Jews of Palestine knew well. In the dry season the scanty grass and low-growing thorn bushes and scrub were as dry as tinder. If they were set on fire, the flames spread like a wave which there was no stopping. The picture of the tongue as a fire is also a common Jewish picture. ‘A worthless man plots evil, and his speech is like a scorching fire,’ says the writer of the Proverbs (Proverbs 16:27).” –Barclay

Verse 6a: “And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity.”

Fire was intended for the good of mankind; and, when it is under his control it serves him: but its very nature is to consume and destroy. The tongue was made for the Creator’s praise; but through the introduction of sin, that member, which was, and, if well used, yet is, the glory of man is become “an instrument of unrighteousness” and all iniquity.

Fire also, even the smallest spark, is capable of producing massive destruction, much of which cannot be repaired. It is the same with the tongue, one single motion of the tongue can cause immense damage, It may so irritate and inflame a people, as to change them instantly into a savage beast, or a devil: and, if the whole world should labor to remedy the evil, it would mock their endeavors.

“World” in the sense of the widespread power of evil. "proves itself a very world of mischief, because of the incalculable harm which it produces; it is utterly impossible to measure, in this life, the harm which grows out of the slander, the profanity, the falsehood, the blasphemy and the scandal of which it is capable.” –Woods

“The world of iniquity" is very expressive. Just as we say, "There is a world of wisdom in that statement"…It voices every evil feeling and every kind of sinful thought; it sets in motion and gives concreteness to every kind of sinful act.” –Roberts

“it curses, rails, teaches false doctrine and speaks evil of God and man…it entices, commands, terrifies and persuades to commit murder, adulteries, and every evil work.” –Macknight

Verse 6b: “The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell.”

…it is set on fire by hell.”

It's as if our tongues have a direct connection to hell itself. The fire which results from the tongue is comparable only to that which arises in hell But I believe that much more is being presented here:

“What is the real source of gossip, slander, blasphemy and other abuses of the tongue? Is such merely a weakness in man? Is it genetic? Are some people just born hotheads? James gets at the root of the problem. When we are exercising an unbridled tongue, we are doing the devil’s work. We aren’t merely displaying a character flaw, we are now actively promoting the agenda of hell. Unkind words, cutting comments are not simply cruel, but they are the language of hell. The man yelling at his wife isn’t merely being insensitive, he is being demonic. Compare with Paul’s comments concerning the factious individual (Titus 3:10-11). Carefully note that James believed that "hell" was a real place.” –Mark Dunagan

Verses 7-9: “For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and creature of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind. But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God.”

“But the tongue can no man tame - This does not mean that it is never brought under control, but that it is impossible effectually and certainly to subdue it. It would be possible to subdue and domesticate any kind of beasts, but this could not be done with the tongue.” –Barnes

“The tongue can bring cheer, consolation, encouragement, hope, love, and blessing. What a beautiful thing is the gracious tongue. In Proverbs 25:11, the writer says, ‘A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.’ Also, the tongue can be filled with praise to God in word and song. We are told in scripture to let the praise of God be continually in our mouths (Psa. 34:1). In Psalm 98:1, we are told to ‘sing unto the Lord a new song.’

The tongue can pray and intercede for others and for God’s purposes on earth. In the Lord’s Prayer we are taught to say, ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ (Matthew 6:10). Daniel prayed for Israel’s restoration for he knew it was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah. He prayed until he got an answer and primarily as a result of his prayer the seventy year captivity in Babylon was ended (Daniel 9:3-27).

The tongue can talk to God. This is no doubt the highest use of the mortal tongue. God walked and talked to Adam before the fall, he talked to Abraham and to the prophets. All through the Hebrew Bible we see this phrase, ‘va-yo-mer Elohim’ (and God said). The God we serve is unlike the idols commonly worshipped in the earth. He is a God who talks to his people, and they are able to talk to him.” –

“At amusement parks, the bumper-car ride is always popular. People enjoy driving recklessly for a few minutes, bumping deliberately but harmlessly into other people’s cars.

Some people have a bumper-car mentality in their relationships with others. Using blunt words, they deliberately bump into others’ feelings, which is anything but harmless.

Solomon wrote, “He who restrains his lips is wise” (Proverbs 10:19). But James said, “No man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8). He said that with the tongue we bless our God who created us, but we also curse those whom He has created (v.9). Lest we think that Christians do the blessing and non-Christians do the cursing, we need to remember that James was writing to Christians.

To tame our tongues, we need God’s help. In Romans 6:13, Paul said that we need to make a choice—to present the parts of our body “as instruments of righteousness to God,” not “as instruments of unrighteousness to sin.”

Today and every day, choose to present your body—including your unruly tongue—as a living sacrifice to God (Romans 12:2) to be used by Him as an instrument of blessing.

Lord, set a watch upon my lips,

My tongue control today;

Help me evaluate each thought

And guard each word I say. —Hess

To bridle your tongue, give God the reins of your heart.

–Our Daily Bread, October 3, 200

Quickie Poll:

1) I have trouble controlling my tongue: Never___, Seldom___, Sometimes___, Frequently___.

2) In an argument, I usually feel I was hurt most by: The issues involved___, The words that were said___.

3) Regarding gossip: Never guilty___, Seldom guilty___, Sometimes guilty___, Frequently guilty___.

4) Generally, I believe I talk: Too much___, Too little___, Just right___.

5) What faulty use of the tongue troubles me the most in other people (List three things).

6) Name one way I used my tongue constructively in the past week.

Unless otherwise noted, the New King James Version of the Bible was used. Also The New Living Translation (NLT); The New American Standard Bible (NASB); The Message (MSG); The New Century Version (NCV); The Amplified Bible (AMP); The King James Version (KJV), The New Life Version (NLV); English Standard Version (ESV); J.B. Phillips New Testament; Easy to Read Version (ERV); Common English bible (CEB); NET Bible (NET) and The Living Bible (TLB). Contemporary English Version (CEV).

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