Taming the Tongue

Text: James 3:1-12 (NIV)

Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they sayis perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.

When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. 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.

All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.

The outline for the message today is simply 3 points:

  1. The tongue is powerful so control it.
  2. The tongue is pernicious so contain it.
  3. The tongue is polluted so cleanse it.

Simple – right? As someone once said No need for a powerpoint – the power is in the point!

All you have to remember is 3 P’s and 3 C’s.



Pernicious is not a word we often hear, but I needed one with a P, it simply means spiteful, malicious, and wicked.

The Tongue is Powerful – Control It.

James begins in verse 1 by cautioning teachers and leaders in the church. He reminds us that those who teach or lead will be judged more strictly by God.

Teaching was a highly valued and respected profession in Jewish culture and many Jews who embraced Christianity would have wanted to become teachers.  James warns that although it is good to aspire to being a teacher, the responsibility is great because the words and example set by a teacher affects the spiritual lives of others.

God holds teachers in the church to a higher standard. He will be stricter in His judgment of the church’s leaders than anybody else. That’s because they have more influence than the average church member. Their words have more power, have greater influence.

If you’re a leader in the church, your words and deeds can draw people towards Christ or drive them away.

Mark Twain, the famous author (Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn) was brought up in a Christian home and married a women of great faith, but he said he could not embrace Christianity because he was so disturbed by the poor example set by church leaders. He would see them speaking piously on Sunday, but the rest of the week they used foul language, cursing and physically abusing their slaves.

This is true for all teachers and leaders. We must learn to manage our words. Nelson Mandela said, “It is never my custom to use words lightly. If 27 years in prison have done anything to us, it was to use the silence of solitude to make us understand how precious words are and how real speech is in its impact on the way people live and die.”

Verse 2 James extends this warning to all of us saying “We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.”

James is saying if you can control your tongue to the extent that you are never at fault in what you say, then you can control your whole body and if you can control your whole body – you will be perfect.

The wisdom and grace which enables one to control one’s tongue also enables one to control all of one’s actions. 

Notice also that what you don’t say is equally important as what you do say!  To use proper speech we must not only not say the wrong things at the wrong time, but also say the right things at the right time. Just as the tongue can break people down, it can also build them up.

Ephesians 4: 29 says, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear”.

Examples of a tongue out of control: bragging, manipulating, false teaching, exaggerating, complaining, flattering and of course lying.

Before we speak we should ask ourselves if what we are about to say is true? Even if so, is it necessary? Is it kind?

If we are not part of the problem or part of the solution, best to be quite!

Verses 3 and 4 provide two analogies of what James is saying, he illustrates his point by creating 2 pictures:

  • the pictures of a horse being controlled by the bit and
  • a ship being controlled by the rudder.

Just as a bit directs a horse and just as a rudder directs a ship so this little tongue of ours directs our whole life and those of others.

What impact do your words have on your family, on your co-workers, on your friends and neighbours? Sometimes we say things without realising the impact of what we are saying.

Two hunters were out in the woods hunting when one fell to the ground. He didn’t seem to be breathing, and his eyes were rolled back in his head. Terrified, his friend got on his cell phone and dialled Emergency. “My friend is dead! What can I do?” he cried over the phone.

In a calm, soothing voice, the operator said, “Just take it easy. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There was a moment of silence, and then the operator heard a single shot ring out. The guy’s voice came back on line –

“OK, now what”.

Our words are powerful, so we must learn to control them. Though very small the tongue wields tremendous power and influence.

From verse 5 James introduces another analogy, another picture to illustrate another characteristic of the tongue, which brings us to the next point.

The Tongue is Pernicious – Contain It.

James likens the tongue to a small spark that ignites a great forest fire.

We see this in NZ and Australia – vast tracts of forest being completely destroyed by a raging fire that started as a spark

Ash Wednesday a bushfire in South Australia in 1983 destroyed over a million hectares of forest, about 2 400 homes and killed 75 people.

James is saying our words can be very harmful, even deadly.

Examples of a destructive tongue = gossiping, criticism and sarcasm.

Words can be so destructive – wrecking character, reputation, relationships – undoing years of good work. One careless inflammatory remark can unleash forces we are powerless to stop.

What is said can never be unsaid. Once a house has burnt down it can never be “unburnt”.

Even the tone in which we say things is important. Inside the power of words is also the tone in which we say things. This is where it gets really complicated. What is in the heart will emerge even without us knowing it because it is in the tone of what we say, not necessarily the actual words we speak.

A tangible demonstration of this is provided by my dog! When I call her she comes running – bounding in for a game, tail wagging, happy!

But – when she has been naughty, digging, and I call her – nowhere to be seen! I used the same words to call her, but the result is significantly different – all in the tone.

What about sarcasm or joking – sometimes we say something and then realise we have been hurtful, so we try to contain the damage by saying “I was only joking”.

“But many a true word is said in jest”. This old adage did not come about by chance.

Even when we apologise, we cannot reverse the damage we have done – the scars remain.

Romans 14:19: So then we pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another.

James also warns us in verse 6 that the tongue can be “a world of evil among the parts of the body”.

Satanic forces sometimes set our tongues on fire. You see if Satan can gain control of our tongue he undermines us!

  • He undermines the teaching of God’s ways
  • He undermines Christian discipleship
  • He undermines Christian fellowship
  • He undermines the control God has over our lives – “the bit”
  • He undermines the direction God would have us go – “the rudder”
  • He undermines the body of Christ!

So we see another aspect of the spiritual war we are involved in.

The Tongue is Polluted – Clean It

James tells us in verse 8 that the tongue is poison its polluted. It is contaminated! It is spoiled by dirty, bitter language:

  • From the same mouth come blessing and cursing
  • From the same mouth we bless our Lord and with it we curse people made in the likeness of God.

James says this should not be. Then he exhorts us as his brothers and sisters:

  • Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?
  • Can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs?
  • Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.

We cannot have it both ways. Our language is either salty or fresh. It is either bitter or sweet. You see, a bitter tongue is not made sweet just because we say some nice things every once in a while. When we add salt water to fresh, it ALL becomes salty.

1 Corinthians 5:6: Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough?

So what you have to do is get rid of the salt. Clean out all the bitter words.

What happens to our language when we are in pain – when you accidentally hit your thumb with a hammer? When we are frustrated or under pressure?

I recall one experience I am not very proud of. Sue and I were driving back to Cape Town down the west coast of SA – not very populated with only small towns – not even towns really. And we were very low on petrol. I was driving so asked Sue to look at the map and guide us to the closest village with a petrol station (the days before GPS).  Sue looked at the map turned it this way then that. I gave her the name of the last village we had been through – Elands Bay – silence. OK try a bigger town – Lamberts Bay. Silence – with much rotating of the map book. Then the petrol warning light came on!

Well, the story had a happy ending, we made it to the next town and filled up with petrol, but the damage had been done!

Colossians 3:8: But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth.

Let’s return to the 3 C’s

So how do we Control, Contain and Cleanse the Tongue?

What did God say when he gave the 10 commandments? We read it in Deuteronomy 6: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts.

Jesus Himself gives us direction about the importance of words we use to each other and that our words come from the condition of our heart.

What did Jesus say to the Pharisees in  Matthew 12 “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.

Again in Matthew 15 Jesus says “But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them.”

Jesus teaches that you cannot separate words and heart. They are very closely related and even if the words are right, the attitude may not be which detracts from the words.

Jesus is not interested in only changing our behaviour – He does not want us to simply say and do the right things.

He wants to create new hearts, with good words and deeds coming from a changed heart.

Colossians 4:6: Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person.

That grace that our words are filled with we get from God because we have experienced His grace

Galatians 5: 22 – 23: But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Even though we may not gain perfect control of our tongues, the Holy Spirit will help us learn self-control.  Remember we are not trying to tame the tongue in our own strength. The Holy Spirit will give us increasing power to monitor and control what we say. The Spirit reminds us of God’s love for us so that we do not respond in a hateful manner when we are criticised, the Spirit will heal the hurt and help us not lash out.

Our contradictory speech often puzzles us. At times our words are right and pleasing to God, but at other times they are violent and destructive.  Which of these speech patterns reflects our true identity? We were made in God’s image, but the tongue gives us a picture of our basic sinful nature. God works to change this from the inside out. When the Holy Spirit purifies a heart, he gives self-control so that we speak words that please God.

If your heart is bitter, your words will be bitter. But if your heart is full of grace, your words will be gracious.

What’s in your heart right now? Bitterness or grace? If you don’t like what you see, then ask God, by His grace, to change your heart.

Only a renewed heart can produce pure speech. If the source of our thoughts and actions is the love of God in our lives, then we will not be able to generate the kind of negative speech that James warns us against.

Ask God to give you a new heart. Change my heart, O God; Make it ever true. Change my heart, O God; May I be like you.

Pray for the condition of our hearts.