It’s strange how someone can say something totally innocuous and that can stick with you for decades. Like, I remember someone once told me when I was a kid that they didn’t like a movie that I liked and I still remember that years later. But, by the same token, I can still remember my childhood pastor’s exact intonation and cadence with which he used to virtually sing certain bible verses from the pulpit. Our words don’t seem all that important until we consider how fundamentally our lives are shaped by the words that we speak.

James 3:1-12

(English Standard Version)


Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2 For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. 3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. 4 Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.
How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. 7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.

James was not being hyperbolic when he said that “if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body” (v. 3). The tongue is not inconsequential. It is small, but it boasts great evil. The smallest turn of a phrase can destroy lifelong friendships. The tongue is the most destructive muscle in the human body. With it, we curse people who are made in God’s likeness. But with the same tongue, we turn around and sing amazing worship songs, lift truly sincere and penitent prayers, and point our brothers and sisters toward Christ in mutual confession. In this way, the tongue functions as a bit or a rudder that steers our lives. Imagine if all of us were as kind of people behind closed doors as we present ourselves as when we go out in public. Wouldn’t the world be such a nicer place? If we can get this right, the rest of our lives will follow suit.

We all understand why our words might be a source of evil and sin in a Christian’s life. We can use them to lie, deceive, and slander. It is possible to do all kinds of evil just with your tongue. But what might not be as obvious to us is why, of all things, James would single out the tongue. Why not bring up adultery or drunkenness like Paul does in 1 Tim 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9? Or, since James was steeped in the Old Testament, why didn’t he just instruct us to “ love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deut 6:5) like Jesus did (who was probably his big brother, by the way)? So why single out the tongue? It almost sounds like James and Jesus are giving two different answers here. Why is this?

When we lack integrity, the result is a world of unrighteousness. James says that “the tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.” The picture here is that of a flaming whirlwind spewing fire this way and that until the entire forest is consumed. Jesus’ brother goes on to say in Chapter 5 “But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation” (5:12). What James is talking about here is not just a matter of uttering the words “I promise” or “I swear.” He is calling us to a certain cohesion between what we profess to believe and the way we act behind closed doors. Do you profess one thing, but then act another way? That’s double-mindedness. It is the same principle as the fact that when you say “yes,” then your “yes” should be taken at face value for what it is. Don’t be the kind of person who says they will do one thing, but then doesn’t deliver. 

Since we all stumble in various ways, we can’t attain this kind of integrity. Instead of seeking the wisdom that is from above, we doubt and use our tongues to curse those who are made in God’s likeness. James 1:18 says “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” When God made us, his Word was perfect, and everything that he brought forth from his Word, was very good. It is by the same power that he brought forth the people that James was writing to so that they would be a firstfruits, or an indicator of a greater harvest yet to come. So don’t treat your brothers and sisters like they were brought forth by the words of gas station graffiti. Rather, “let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls”

Jesus says in Matthew 12:33 

“Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” 

“By your words you will be justified.” What does this mean? 

We are justified by grace through faith, and generally speaking, we use our tongues to profess our faith (I suppose right now I’m using my fingers, but you get the point). Here’s why that’s important:

Can you imagine if Abel, after giving the better offering, turned around and killed Cain? Or what if Noah believed God’s foretelling of the flood, but decided to put off building the ark for a few more years? Would Abraham have believed God if he slept in the next morning instead of heading off for the promised land? “May it never be!” (Rom 6:2) “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17).

In James chapter one, James teaches us what it means to tame the tongue by contrasting two different ways that we can use our tongues. We can either use our tongues to 

  • ask God for wisdom
  • doubt Him

“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. 6 But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; 8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways” (James 1:5-8).

James singles out the tongue because it is with the tongue that we bless God. Namely, we bless him by acknowledging that he is our lord and submitting to him for the rest of our lives in repentance and faith. But, the challenge for us is living in a way that is consistent with what we say we believe. This is why those of us who teach are held to a higher standard. When we proclaim certain truths, it then becomes incumbent upon us to live in light of the truth that we have just proclaimed. If we say we believe in God, why don’t we act like it? But as it is, we all stumble in various ways. If I could just get my speech to line up with my actions, I would be a perfect individual.

When we use our tongues to judge others, we should do so in a merciful way, just as we have been shown mercy. James 2:12 says “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. 13 For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” This means that we should recognize that we are sinners who have been shown mercy and should not hold other people to a standard that we have not attained. We have all broken God’s law, so when someone wrongs us, we should be merciful because God has shown mercy to us.

We must not judge our neighbor with unjust and partial weights and measures. When we say to the rich man “You sit here in a good place,” and then say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet” we are judging and making distinctions with a total disregard for the fact that Christ came to save the weak and the poor (James 2:3). We should not determine one believer to be more or less honorable on the basis of race, socio-economic status, appearance, or family background. All of us are beggars at the foot of the King, crying out for mercy lest we perish in the way. “Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”

In light of this, we ought to live in accordance with the meekness of wisdom. Meekness means that you recognize that you are nothing without God and everything you have is a gift. James 4:13 says “Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— 14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” Do not think that you can get right with God tomorrow. Your life may be demanded of you this very day. Instead, show your good conduct in the meekness of wisdom.

James was illustrating how our lives are so thoroughly tainted by sin that we cannot even speak without contradicting ourselves. He makes several illustrations to make his point. He compares it to a horse’s bit and points out how it can be placed in a horse’s mouth that will steer the whole beast. Then he speaks about how a small rudder can steer a large ship. In the same way, the tongue directs the rest of the body. Those who worship false gods will find themselves acting more and more like the false gods that they emulate. We who worship Christ will be conformed to his likeness. Those who worship folly will be directed towards folly. The tongue is small, but it boasts great things! (v. 5)

He draws a distinction, though. While a ship and a horse can be tamed, the tongue cannot. So he gives another illustration. The tongue is like a raging fire that consumes the entire course of life set on fire by hell itself. What is so amazing is that the tongue is being used to both bless God and curse those made in God’s likeness. It has a great capacity for good and a great capacity for evil, which makes it especially prone to duplicity and hypocrisy.

Nobody can tame the tongue. None is wise or understanding among us. All of our good deeds are as filthy rags. Jesus Christ alone is the one who can give us the wisdom that is from above. If we look at our track records, we will only see how we all have lives filled with hypocrisy and double standards. But if we look to Christ, we have hope. He had mercy on us not by lowering the standard, but by meeting the standard for us, and by giving us his righteousness by dying on the cross and bearing the wrath of God in our stead. When we used our tongues to mock him, he looked down on that group of slanderous hypocrites and said “Father, forgive them” Luke 23:34.

All of us are guilty of speaking out of both sides of our mouths and trying to produce fresh and saltwater from the same spring. Out of the same mouth comes blessing and cursing. (Jas 3:10-11) So, we need a mediator who always tells the truth and always keeps his promises. James 1 promises us that God will give wisdom generously to all who ask in faith without doubting. So if you seek him today you will find him to be a good unchanging and perfect mediator who can guide you and your tongue in the way everlasting. We cannot tame the tongue, but Jesus can. He never doubted, but instead looked into the perfect of mirror of God’s law and fulfilled it. By faith, He can be our Wisdom and he can tame our tongues by giving us his righteousness. Has Christ tamed your tongue?