At the Bible study tonight, we looked at James 3:1-12. James has been showing us the connection between faith and works, and our speech is another area where the connection between what we believe and how we live needs to be lived out. This passage in many Bibles is headed ‘taming the tongue’ (reminiscent of Sunday’s sermon on meekness, where we learnt about the ‘wild stallion tamed‘.) The passage is not difficult to understand – what is difficult is actually putting it into practice!

James uses examples to paint pictures of how the small body part known as the tongue has influence beyond its size. He talks about the bit used to direct a horse or the rudder used to steer a ship – both seemingly small things that ultimately exercise great control. In the same way, he says, the tongue is just a small part of the body, but makes great boasts. It’s like a spark that sets a whole forest on fire. His language is blunt and unequivocal: “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” (James 3:6) He goes on to compare it to ‘a restless evil, full of deadly poison.’ (James 3:7)

The poison comes, he says, when out of the same mouth come both praise and cursing. Our speech to and about God may be pious, but if we are not speaking well to and about men (made in God’s image), there is dissonance. Our lives are not integrated. This kind of disparity can’t continue: ‘my brothers and sisters, this should not be!’ (James 3:10)

We looked at why words are so important
(because they reflect who God is and the medium through which He has chosen to work – see Ps 33:4, 6; Ps 12:6, John 1:1, Genesis 1:1).

We looked also at how our speech often falls short of what God wants it to be (see Ps 55:21, Ps 64:2-4, Prov 12:18, Prov 18:8, Eccl 5:3, Matt 12:36-37).

We also looked at what our speech should be like: how we need to meditate on God’s word and pray that our words will be pleasing to Him (Ps 19:14), how we must hide His word in our hearts so that we do not sin against God (Ps 119:11), how we must live not on bread alone but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Matt 4:4) and how a gentle answer can turn away wrath (Prov 15:1). Jesus, in the parable of the wise and foolish builders, showed us that the difference between wisdom and folly really lies in whether we put His words into practice or not (Matt 7:24-26). James has had much to say about this already in James 1!

Words are powerful and can be used for good purposes or bad ones. We can use words thoughtlessly, unwisely, rashly, hastily, cruelly, unkindly, jokingly, tactlessly…. Sometimes it’s not just about the actual words we say but how we say them that matters! Quite often, we need to be quicker to listen than to speak and learn to think before we speak, for after all, words are only the overflow of the heart. They reveal what is within.

The real problem we face is not our words. Our words may well be the symptom; the disease is an unsurrendered heart (see Matt 12:33-37; Mark 7:20-23). Just as a leopard cannot change its spots, so the taming of the tongue is beyond our human strength (see Jer 13:24; James 3:8). We have to raise our white flag in surrender to God before ever we can hope to gain mastery over our speech, for we need to have the mind of Christ formed in us if we are to live the kind of life He calls us to.