1 I said, “I will guard my ways, Lest I sin with my tongue; I will restrain my mouth with a muzzle, while the wicked are before me.” 2 I was mute with silence, I held my peace even from good; And my sorrow was stirred up. 3 My heart was hot within me; While I was musing, the fire burned. Then I spoke with my tongue… (Psalm 39:1–3, NKJV).”
Measuring our words with heavenly wisdom guided by God’s truth will keep us from sinning with our tongues (Jas. 3:1-18). The irreverent words and ungodly deeds of the wicked can influence us to speak rashly. Even Moses fell before this temptation when Israel strove against God: “They angered Him also at the waters of strife, So that it went ill with Moses on account of them; Because they rebelled against His Spirit, So that he spoke rashly with his lips” (Ps. 106:32-33). James said to be “slow to speak, slow to wrath” as a hedge against unrighteousness (James 1:19-20). Doing this does not mean we are unaffected when confronted by wicked people. Sorrow stirred within David, and his heart was enflamed as he meditated on the evil before him. Like Jeremiah, God’s truth burned within David, and he would speak (Jer. 20:9; Ps. 39:3). But he measured his response with prayerful words of praise and prayer (Ps. 39:3-13). Instead of being provoked to sin with your tongue when evil people press upon you, hold your peace until you can respond with words of truth and the meekness of wisdom that honors God and pursues peace (James 3:2, 8-13, 18; Heb. 12:14).
5 Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things. See how great a forest a little fire kindles! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. 6 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. (James 3:5–6, NKJV)
Here, James drills down into the destructive power of the tongue. Great good results from using good words (note the preaching of the gospel that forever changed the world, Matt. 28:19-20). But, the tongue given to evil is a fierce fire that engulfs a person and his world. Note the traits of the fiery, sinful tongue. 1) Its realm is iniquity. It operates in a system of injustice and unrighteousness. 2) It defiles the whole person. Food does not defile a person, but the words formed in the heart and communicated by the tongue do (Matt. 15:11, 18). When spoken, evil words stain one’s soul, and soil one’s reputation and influence for good. Everything becomes defiled through its scorched earth policy (Prov. 26:18-21). 3) It eventually destroys one’s entire life. We set our course in life in no small measure by the way we use our words. When left unchecked, the destructive tongue leaves in its wake a lifetime of misery. 4) Hell is at the heart of the fiery tongue. Whether its fire is gossip, flattery, profanity, or false teaching, hell is the source and accelerant of the sinful use of the tongue. Wicked words race through this world like a forest fire. Extinguish their devilish destruction by using just and pure words of truth and peace (Jas. 3:17-18).
My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment. (James 3:1, NKJV)
James sets his context for mature control over the tongue (Jas. 3:2-5). The teacher of God’s word will be judged for the teaching he does and the words he uses in that work. Every responsibility one has will be judged; James is not singling out teachers expect to emphasize that teaching comes with judgment – an incentive to be mature in the use and control of our tongues. 1) God will judge what a teacher teaches. We must teach the revealed word of God, not opinions, and the will of men (1 Cor. 2:1-5; Acts 20:20-27). Teachers must be careful to speak God’s word (2 Tim. 4:2; Gal. 1:8-9). Teach truth, not error. 2) God will judge how a teacher teaches. Paul explained this to Timothy: “And a servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition” (2 Tim. 2:24-25). Coupled with “rightly dividing the word of truth,” Timothy would know how to teach effectively. 3) God will judge why a teacher teaches. Paul continued, “if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth” (2 Tim. 2:25). We teach the gospel to save souls, not to commend ourselves before men (1 Cor. 1:23-24; Col. 1:28; Matt. 23:6-8). As teachers, may our tongues speak words that honor God and accomplish His will in the hearts and lives of men. Be careful teachers; judgment is coming.
4 Look also at ships: although they are so large and are driven by fierce winds, they are turned by a very small rudder wherever the pilot desires. 5 Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things. See how great a forest a little fire kindles! (James 3:4–5, NKJV)
Words are powerful. A fellow-Christian recently reminded me that one way God made us in His image is in our ability to communicate, to use words. God’s word is powerful, and so are our words. Small rudders maneuver great ships at the helmsman’s desire. A spark can engulf a forest in flames. Learning to control our tongues is about learning to control our hearts. Pride promotes the lust for power over others, and words are often the vehicle used to exert that power. “There is a generation—oh, how lofty are their eyes! And their eyelids are lifted up. There is a generation whose teeth are like swords, and whose fangs are like knives, to devour the poor from off the earth, and the needy from among men” (Prov. 30:13-14). Our words have great power and potential for both good and evil (Eph. 4:29-32). Pride prompts the destructive use of words (like gossip, profanity, and strife, Jas. 3:14-16). Just as surely as pride is the spark that kindles much self-seeking strife, humble purity of heart helps steer our words and our lives toward peaceful shores (Jas. 3:17-18).
2 For we all stumble in many things. If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body. 3 Indeed, we put bits in horses’ mouths that they may obey us, and we turn their whole body. (James 3:2–3, NKJV)
The mighty steed obeys the bridle and bit. It is impressive to see such a powerful animal controlled and steered by such a small object. But, one must be skilled in using the bridle and bit to prevent the horse from stumbling (or even running wild). “Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things” (Jas. 3:5). The analogy calls on us to control our words and thereby direct our conduct so that we do not stumble. Self-control (heart control) is at the core of tongue control (Matt. 12:34-35). Controlling our words requires controlling our emotions. In the heat of the moment, our words can come from anger, bitterness, spite, etc. and cause us to stumble into more sin (in addition to the sinful attitudes the words express). Sometimes the best thing we can say is nothing at all (Prov. 29:11). We can avoid allowing our tongue to steer us into trouble and stumbling by refusing to be hasty with our words (Prov. 29:20). By controlling our emotions, we will have time to think before we speak. That alone can keep us out of trouble. Therein lies a mark of maturity (the “perfect,” complete person). Remember, “let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (Jas. 1:19, ESV).
Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit. (Proverbs 18:21, NKJV)
The tongue is very powerful. With it we can bless God and curse men – almost at the same time (although it ought not be so, Jas. 3:9-10). Solomon assures us we will reap what we sow concerning the words we speak. Since this is true of the spoken word, it is also true of the words we speak online. Posting on websites and social media gives us no license to be rude, crude, unkind, profane and hurtful to others. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms are too frequently launching pads for hateful assaults, bitter criticisms, and malicious attacks. Words can cut deeper than a knife, often maiming or killing a person’s good reputation, a friendship, a marriage, or even a life. So, be careful what you post on social media. Our words reveals our hearts, and God is the great heart-knower to whom we all are accountable (Matt. 12:34-35; Acts 1:24; Heb. 4:13). Monitor your words online – what you post will be there for a very long time. Will your words bear the fruit of death or life?
He who has a deceitful heart finds no good, and he who has a perverse tongue falls into evil. (Proverbs 17:20, NKJV)
The heart and the tongue are connected. Jesus said, “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things” (Matthew 12:35). In today’s verse, the deceitful heart (“crooked heart,” ESV) finds nothing good in others. Truly, “to those who are defiled and unbelieving nothing is pure” (Titus 1:15). Comparisons, complaints and disputes pour out of the mouth of the person whose heart is crooked and deceitful. As God’s children we are to “do all things without complaining and disputing” (Philippians 2:14). One way to see good in others instead of falling into contentiousness is to adorn our hearts with honesty, truth and love (Ephesians 4:25, 15). Unrestrained hearts unleash verbal grenades that maim and kill relationships and souls. We must constantly remember that tongue control begins with heart control (James 3:2, 8).
8 Scoffers set a city aflame, but wise men turn away wrath. 9 If a wise man contends with a foolish man, whether the fool rages or laughs, there is no peace. (Proverbs 29:8–9, NKJV)
We know it is possible to “win the battle but lose the war.” That is the predictable outcome when we are driven by pride to “get in the last word” of a dispute. Instead of calmly choosing words that edify and seek a godly solution to the matter, yielding to the temptation to rip into the person who has hurt us only fans the flames of wrath and malice (Ephesians 4:29-32). Tongue control results from heart control, and the wise person discerns when contending becomes fodder for the fool (Proverbs 26:4). “A man of understanding will hold his peace” at such times (Proverbs 11:12). When tempted by the passion of anger to remove restraint and “burn down the house” (so to speak), be wise and turn away from wrath. Rule over the impulse of wrath (Genesis 4:6-7). “Be angry, and do not sin. Meditate within your heart on your bed, and be still” (Psalm 4:4). The victory of faith lasts into eternity, but there is no peace in the fleeting satisfaction of the fool’s rage.
If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one’s religion is useless. (James 1:26, NKJV)
This warning from the inspiration’s pen is penetrating, straightforward and universal in application. It strikes at the very heart of self-righteousness and the hypocrisy it so readily breeds. No one is so greatly deceived as he who thinks he is something when he is nothing (Galatians 6:3). James is telling us that what we think about our personal piety does not make it so. Being actively religious does not insure one’s usefulness and acceptability to God. The heart is deceived that thinks the fruit of its lips have no bearing on its virtue. The tongue that wags with backbiting gossip, profane innuendos or contentious murmurings exposes a heart that is not devoted to God. Such language reveals a heart that is devoted to itself. The heart from which such language spews shows it is willing to hurt others (while justifying itself). We must bring our tongues under control by bringing our hearts under control. We do that by looking into the perfect law of liberty and being doers of the word (James 1:22-25).