He who covers a transgression seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates friends. (Proverbs 17:9, NKJV)
The tongue is powerful. It can comfort the grieving with kindness and concern, and it can destroy a person’s credibility and good reputation through malicious gossip. It can build up brethren and it can destroy churches. “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. 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). Let us learn to restrain the tongue by controlling the heart. Jesus said what comes out of the mouth defiles the person, because it comes from the heart (Matthew 15:11, 18). Gossip is one such defilement. It tears down others to justify self. It is ugly and void of kindness. Gossip is prevented by keeping the meditations and issues of the heart pure (Philippians 4:8). Today’s proverb reminds us that love promotes forgiveness, not the separation caused by talebearing and gossip.
5 Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things. See how great a forest a little fire kindles! 6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. 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)
There is amazing power in your tongue. Of course, that is to say, there is great power in the words we choose to speak. Like a small match that sets an entire forest ablaze, the small tongue can do enormous damage. With it, one can engulf the whole body with the defilement of sin. Sinful habits are reinforced and perpetuated by sinful words that are put into action. Words have meaning, and the words we choose can hurt many souls, or conversely, our words can speak truth and build up the brokenhearted. Jesus said that our words either justify or condemn us before God on the day of judgment (Matt. 12:36-37). Just as we are careful when using a campfire in the forest, let us be careful not to use our tongues as daggers flung at an opponent, to disrupt, damage and destroy. Let us speak kindly, with gracious words that impart kindness and respect to others (Eph. 4:29).
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)
David took special care when wicked people were before him. He knew the ungodly, if given a chance, would unjustly turn their evil against him. They did so frequently throughout his life, without justification. When confronted by evil people, David chose to carefully guard his conduct and his words, lest he should fall into sin himself, and become “the reproach of the foolish” (Psa. 39:8). We may feel the impulse to lash out against the wicked, instead of speaking with the restraint of wisdom and truth. David knew the former would produce no good. Plus, it would fail to express the hope he had in the Lord and His deliverance from evil (Psa. 39:7-8). Like David, we should be “slow to speak” and “slow to wrath” when the wicked are before us. Even as he sighed with sorrow and grief of heart over the wickedness before him, David did not speak until he could do so as an expression of his faith and hope in the Lord (Psa. 39:3-8). His momentary silence allowed him to guard his ways, gather his thoughts to avoid sin, and then to speak fearlessly with faith in the Lord. It is a mark of spiritual maturity to remain calm, composed, and faithful when evil is before us (Jas. 1:19-20).
Whoever guards his mouth and tongue keeps his soul from troubles. (Proverbs 21:23, NKJV)
Our words are the expressions of our soul. The deepest recesses of the heart are exposed by the words of our mouth. Truly, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34). For example, guard your mouth against speaking corrupt words. There is no place in the Christian’s life for profanity, for it exposes a profane heart. Guard your mouth against speaking lies. Half-truths, misdirection and other forms of deception are not a trait of the pure in heart. “Let each one of you speak truth with his neighbor” defines the followers of Jesus (Eph. 4:25). Guard your mouth against angry words. These flow out of a heart that is bitter, resentful and unforgiving. Guard your mouth against speaking false doctrine. The Spirit of truth has spoken truth to us through Christ’s apostles (Jno. 16:13). Therefore, speak “as the oracles of God,” not with the wisdom and will of men (1 Pet. 4:11; Col. 2:8). By cleansing your heart of profanity, deceit, anger and error, your soul will be protected from trouble. That’s what repentance is; changing your heart. Rather than opening wide your mouth to pour out evil things, guard your soul from the troublesome results of an uncontrolled tongue. May we recall and live what the children sing, “Be careful little mouths what you say.”
9 With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God. 10 Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring send forth fresh water and bitter from the same opening? 12 Can a fig tree, my brethren, bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Thus no spring yields both salt water and fresh.” (James 3:9–12, NKJV)
A double-tongue (we are not talking about how to blow a trumpet) is morally repugnant (“these things ought not to be so”) to God. It ought to be so to us. With it, a person praises God while also speaking harmful criticisms against people. Since our words proceed from our hearts, this is ultimately a condemnation of the duplicitous heart. The self-righteous person is found to be such (see Lk. 18:9-12). Yet, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34). The consistency of nature (water, trees and vines) reflects the relationship between the heart and the tongue. Just as James warned of the spiritual instability of the “double-minded man” in James 1:7-8, and exhorted the doubled-minded to purify their hearts in James 4:8, he now warns us of being deceived by our very words. Keep your tongue under the control of truth by keeping your heart under the control of truth.
7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and creature of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind. 8 But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.” (James 3:7–8, NKJV)
By his intellect, cunning and power, man has subdued beast and fowl, reptiles and sea creatures. Fulfilling God’s creative design, human beings “have dominion” over every living creature, subduing it to our will and purposes (Gen. 1:26, 28). Even so, the lion-tamer does not turn his back on the lion, but respects its prowess and power. To emphasis the constant, consistent oversight of our tongues, James says “no man can tame the tongue.” We must continually monitor our tongues in order to rule over the evil it would otherwise unleash. Like the asp, whose venom awaits injection into its victim, the tongue’s poison is potent, poised to inflict its deadly affects upon others. Its poison takes different forms, all of which are evil: Profanity, gossip, tale bearing, backbiting, slander and lies to name a few (Psa. 58:3-5). Control your tongue by diligently guarding your heart. Don’t turn your back on your tongue; it needs constant surveillance.
3 Indeed, we put bits in horses’ mouths that they may obey us, and we turn their whole body. 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 3:3–5, NKJV)
We do well to ponder the power and potential of the tongue. Under the figures of horses, ships and fire, the Holy Spirit teaches us both. The mighty horse is brought under the rider’s control by the bit, the steed’s power directed at the will of the rider. The powerful tongue, when properly directed, accomplished great good. As a small rudder is potent to turn a large ship against forceful winds, the tongue’s potential is not to be calculated by its size. Just as a small fire can turn a forest into an inferno, this little member, the tongue, possesses the power of death and life (Prov. 18:21). As the horseman and the helmsman must train to effectively direct the horse and steer the ship, we must train ourselves in godliness, and use our words for “necessary edification” (Eph. 4:29).
1 My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment. 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. (James 3:1–2, NKJV)
The one who uses his tongue must learn to master it instead of being mastered by it. Teachers, for example, will be called into judgment for their words. To instruct others, the teacher must control the tongue in order to impart what is useful, pertinent, practical and timely for the students. If the teacher stumbles in word, he may well deconstruct a proper knowledge of the Lord instead of constructing that knowledge. Since we all use words, whether we are a teacher or not, we will all be judged for the words we speak. Jesus said, “But I say to you that for every idle words 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” (Matt. 12:36-37). A mark of spiritual maturity is controlling our words. Speak what is good and useful, not what is harmful to others – and yourself. Remember: “The wicked is ensnared by the transgression of his lips, but the righteous will come through trouble” (Prov. 12:13).
1 Lord, who may abide in Your tabernacle? Who may dwell in Your holy hill? … 3 He who does not backbite with his tongue, nor does evil to his neighbor, nor does he take up a reproach against his friend; (Psalm 15:1, 3, NKJV)
The ninth command God spoke to Israel from the mountain forbade them to bear false witness against their neighbor. Yet, it became a common sin in Judah, for which God rejected them (Jer. 6:28-30). The slanderous use of the tongue continues to be a common sin that prevents many souls from entering God’s presence. Backbiting draws a vivid picture of one who approaches unnoticed, from behind, to launch a deadly attack against an unsuspecting soul. Just as God receives the one who “speaks the truth in his heart,” He rejects the one who uses his tongue maliciously (Psa. 15:2-3). Drive out malice from your heart in order to remove backbiting from your tongue, so that kindness and compassion may take its place (Eph. 4:31-32).
7 Therefore thus says the Lord of hosts: “Behold, I will refine them and try them; For how shall I deal with the daughter of My people? 8 Their tongue is an arrow shot out; It speaks deceit; One speaks peaceably to his neighbor with his mouth, but in his heart he lies in wait. 9 Shall I not punish them for these things?” says the Lord. “Shall I not avenge Myself on such a nation as this?” (Jeremiah 9:7–9, NKJV)
God’s ancient people needed refining; the dross had to be removed. Jerusalem and Judah was to be cleansed by God’s punishment (Babylonian destruction and exile, Jer. 25:1-14). One of their pervasive sins was speaking deceitful words. They spoke flattering lies with hearts full of malice. From this we learn that God takes note of our words and of our heart that prompts what we say. God saw their flattering, malicious lies as a personal affront to His holy character. He would avenge Himself on the unholy nation. This impresses us to realize that when we speak lies we sin against God Himself. Sins of the tongue do not escape His notice or His judgment. May we purify our hearts so that both our words and our hearts are acceptable to the Lord, the Holy One of Israel (Psa. 19:14).