James 3:1–12 offers invaluable counsel on a subject all of us get in trouble with from time to time: our words. It is said the average person speaks enough words in one year to fill sixty-six 800 page books. That’s a lot of talking, and with that many words, it’s easy to get ourselves in trouble. James introduces the subject with a warning:
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways, and anyone who does not stumble in speaking is perfect, able also to bridle the whole body.
Teachers are used as an example because they work primarily with words, and it’s especially easy for their words to lead others astray. James says teachers (and this would include parents, friends, and other advice givers) must practice what they preach. Otherwise, they are hypocrites. “Do as I say, not as I do” won’t cut it. We must live out the faith we claim to possess, and nothing has a bigger impact on that than the way we speak to others.
James says if we can bridle our tongue, we can bridle our whole body. That is both good news and bad news. The good news is that if I am able to control what I say, I will be able to control everything else in my life. The bad news is that completely controlling my tongue is impossible. In verses 3–8, James gives three examples of the tongue’s power:
When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. In the same way, the tongue is a small part of the body, yet it makes great boasts. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness among the parts of the body. It stains the whole person, sets on fire the entire course of life, and is itself set on fire by hell. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by humankind, but no one can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”
James uses three examples his readers can relate to. A horse is a big and powerful animal, but a small bit in its mouth will allow the rider to go wherever she pleases. The same is true about ships. Even the largest vessel is easily turned by a small rudder. His third example is a tiny spark that can start a fire that will engulf millions of acres.
And the tongue, James says, is a fire–a world of evil. How destructive can my tongue be? It can destroy everything I value. Ever seen words destroy a relationship? Sometimes the evil is in the cruel words of a husband to his wife. I’ve been that husband. Sometimes the evil is in the hurtful words of an enraged father to his child. I’ve been that father.
In verse 6, James identifies the source of this kind of behavior: gehenna, a garbage dump outside Jerusalem that came to symbolize hell. It is a fitting image because hurtful words are just that–garbage. We’ve all been wounded by poisonous words, and some leak toxins into our soul for years. We’ve all been on the delivery side of those malicious words as well. I don’t want to recall how many times I’ve wished I could cut my tongue out after saying something unkind.
That’s the power of our words. They can destroy everything we hold dear. We need to get this truth deeply embedded in our hearts, because many of us are in the process of doing just that: destroying precious relationships. Some of us are slowly demolishing our marriages with spiteful barbs. Some of us have children who avoid us because they are tired of hearing our criticism. Some of us are gossips, and our tongue has cost us friends.
Been there, done that. I hope I’m doing better these days, but I realize I can still open my mouth and insert my foot at any time. This is James’s point: my tongue can be helpful, but it is inconsistent and potentially dangerous.
Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? Does a fig tree produce olives, or a grapevine produce figs?
These questions sound a lot like the one Jesus asked: “Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles?” (Matthew 7:16). James asks the rhetorical questions to make a simple point: The fruit of a tree is determined by the tree’s nature, and here James reveals the deeper problem–the greatest peril we face is not our tongue; it’s our heart. The tongue is like a bucket and the heart is like a well. The bucket drops down and pulls up whatever is in the well.
Jesus said it this way in Matthew 12: “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person brings good things out of the good stored up in them, and evil person brings evil things out of the evil stored up in them.”
Jesus and James are saying the same thing: who we are on the inside is reflected in what we say and do. And while we will never be able to completely control our tongue, we can keep short accounts with God and others. We can confess our verbal sins to those we have wounded and ask for their forgiveness, and we can borrow the words of David to pray, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”