Words are immensely powerful. We know this, and yet we so often struggle to tame our tongues. Whether it’s the temptation to say something nasty during a marital clash, the failure to hold our tongues when we know we shouldn’t contribute to the workplace gossip, or the inability to keep control and not enter into a rage of cussing – everyone struggles with taming the tongue to some degree or another.
Knowing the importance of taming the tongue is not enough. Thankfully the Bible not only tells why we should control our tongues but also how to do it. When asking, “What does the Bible say about taming the tongue?” perhaps there’s no better place to turn than James 3:1-12.
The Bible Says Controlling the Tongue Is Directly Related to Controlling Our Actions (James 3:1-3)
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.”
James 3:1 seems out of place. It seems like a random warning to teachers followed up by unrelated instructions regarding taming the tongue. But why does James open by warning that pastors/teachers will be judged more strictly? I believe he puts this warning at the beginning of this section about taming the tongue for two reasons.
1. Because teachers will use more words. Why will teachers be judged more strictly? Because everyone will be judged upon what they say, and teachers will be saying a lot. The teacher’s words will have more potential for influence than the average Christian’s words. We all will be judged for leading people into sin, and since the teacher will be leading people with words, they will be judged more strictly due to the volume of listeners they have compared to regular congregants.
Bible teachers/pastors are commissioned to speak about the most holy and important things known to man. If we mishandle God’s truth and teach it in such a way that we help lead people astray rather than to the Lord, we will be judged for this. Therefore only qualified men should be commissioned to teach, which is certainly why God has given specific guidelines for those who are considering the pastorate (1 Timothy 3:1-7).
2. Because teachers’ actions will be judged, and our words affect our actions. James 3:1 is not a verse that diminishes the judgment God will bring on all believers. Teachers, therefore, are not called to a higher level of Christ-likeness than non-teaching Christians. Everyone is called to the same standard. Teachers, however, should be a better example of Christ than the average Christian. They should hold to the standards given to all Christians better than most Christians. They are not held to a different standard but they should be those who hold that standard with greater “strictness.” Teachers should be those Christians who are further along the sanctification process (1 Timothy 3:6) so their actions reflect Christ more than most believers actions would.
James’ warning to those considering becoming teachers (James 3:1) is sandwiched between James 2:26, “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead” and James 3:2-3,“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.”
The emphasis throughout the book of James is that faith without works is dead. So why is James now taking these twelve verses to talk about taming the tongue? Because taming the tongue is directly related to taming the body (James 3:2). What we say influences what we do. And if we can control out tongues this is a sign that we will be able to control our bodies as well (James 3:3).
The Bible Says the Untamed Tongue Is Very Dangerous (James 3:4-6)
As seen through this warning to teachers, the tongue is so powerful because with our words we influence ourselves and other people. James 3:4-6 explains:
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.”
Real wars always start with wars of words. Divorces always come after hurtful words. Trust is broken through gossip. A problem is often turned into a crisis in our minds through excessive complaining. Though small, it is crucial that we learn to tame our tongues, otherwise our “entire course of life” will be on fire.
The Bible Says No Human Can Tame the Tongue in Their Own Power (James 3:7-8)
So we’ve outlined why it’s important to tame the tongue. But what solutions are there to taming the tongue. Sometimes before identifying the real solution, we have to define what the cure is not. James 3:7-8 states:
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.”
No matter how diligent we become in guarding our words, no matter how many tricks and techniques we employ on our tongues, and no matter how accountable we try to become to another human in the hopes of learning to hold our tongues, the Bible explains that in our human strength taming the tongue is impossible. We’ve learned to master every beast on the planet, but the tongue has yet to be tamed by mankind. Jesus said in Luke 6:43-45,
For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, 44 for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. 45 The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.”
Since the heart is the real source of our problems when it comes to both our words and deeds, Jesus is telling us that we must receive a new heart from him if we hope to get different results (Ezekiel 36:26-27)
The Bible Says When We Become a New Creation, Our Tongues Can Be Tamed (James 3:9-12)
In James 3:11-12, James seems to echo the message of Christ when he states:
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.”
The point he is making is that the only way to tame our tongues is by becoming a new creation in Christ. Only when we receive the power of the Holy Spirit will we have a chance to tame the tongue. What’s also important to note, however, is the warning in James 3:9-10,
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.”
James is not naive and he stays in line with the whole of Scripture. Although we are completely justified and made totally pure through Christ, we are still in the process of sanctification (James 3:2). There is a war between the old nature and new nature. This is not an excuse to sin, it is simply a point of reality to recognize so we can take seriously the need to constantly be filled with the Spirit and put forth effort to live from the new man Christ has created us to be.
The Bible says our tongues should not be used for good and evil, but only for good. To tame our tongues, we must now consistently seek to live from Christ.