Imagine what it would be like if you could not communicate your thoughts in any way at all.
I remember a couple of years ago an episode of the television series “ER” about a woman who was victim of a stroke. She was unable to communicate in any way: she could not speak, point, or change facial expression. The story was told mostly via a female voice-over which let the viewer in on what she was thinking and desperately wanting to communicate with the doctors as they tried to convince her husband to authorize a risky surgery. Inside, she was shouting “yes,” but outside she remained motionless and expressionless.
In the passage today, James 3:1-13, James discusses the tongue, the term he uses for speech and communication. His basic point is that what we say demonstrates to others what’s going on inside: our thoughts, biases, our inner righteousness or unrighteousness; in other words, who we are spiritually.
And it’s not just the “spiritual talk” James has in mind. He tells us that everything we say reveals to people something about what’s inside. Our text points out some of the various attributes our speech reveals about us. We can deceive flatter, gossip, backbite, curse, encourage, and praise.
Look at Matthew 15 for a moment for some insight. There was a tradition of the scribes and Pharisees requiring Jews to perform a ceremonial washing. This was not for hygiene, but a ceremonial act signifying spiritual cleanliness. It wasn’t part of the Law of Moses, but one of the hundreds of traditions imposed by Jewish religious leaders over the centuries. The scribes and Pharisees accused Jesus and His disciples of not performing this rite. In Matthew 15:2, one of the leaders asked, “Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when the eat bread.”
Jesus’ response was typical. He answered with a question that pointed an accusing finger at the scribes and Pharisees and revealed their hypocrisy. In verses 3 to 6, he describes the Pharisees’ traditional practice of acquiring wealth and then ceremonially dedicating their wealth to God. They did not contribute their wealth to the Temple, but only claimed it was dedicated to God. In the culture, it was the son’s duty to provide financial assistance to aging parents if it was needed. But by dedicating their personal wealth to God, the Pharisees were able to avoid this obligation to their parents and keep their wealth for themselves.
Jesus was emphasizing ceremonial traditions versus real righteousness, and his teaching is similar to the principle James is teaching in our text today. In Matthew 15:1-20, Jesus makes the point that we can observe all the religious ceremonies and traditions, but what we say inevitably communicates who we are spiritually, what is coming from our heart, whether truly full of praise and desire for righteousness or tainted with hypocrisy. “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. These are the things which defile a man, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man” (Matthew 15:19-20).
As we can expect, James’ teaching is entirely consistent with the teachings of Jesus. The tongue itself is not the real issue; the issue is the spirit in us and the fact that what is inside us—our spirit—is demonstrated in what we say, in addition to in what we do.
The dangers of the tongue
In verses 1-5, James singles out teachers in the young church for a special warning. There is a great responsibility that comes from teaching others. The words we speak and the way we interpret scripture are open to scrutiny. James is not discouraging people from teaching. Rather, he is stressing accuracy and truthfulness.
The points he makes are similar to encouragement Paul wrote to Timothy: “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15-16)
James expands on his point in verses 3 and 4. What a teacher or pastor teaches provides spiritual guidance, like the bit for the horse or the rudder for the ship. Both are small, but they determine direction. The bit controls the whole horse, and the rudder, which is quite small, controls the direction of the ship.
The tongue has the power to control and corrupt
The analogy of the bit and the rudder seems to have a double application. Obviously in the context of the pastor or teacher, what is taught must be truthful so as not to lead other Christians astray. But James seems to expand his analogy to every Christian in the verses 6 and following. In this section, he sees the tongue as not just revealing what is inside us, but as an instrument that can lead us into righteousness or sin.
The analogy of the bit and the rudder applies not just to the teacher, but also seems to start a line of reasoning that our habit of speaking can, in fact, play a leading role in controlling and influencing our whole life. His next analogy (the last sentence is verse 5) describes how a tiny fire can set the forest aflame (v. 5). That is a comparison with which we can identify as we watched during the summer the television coverage of the thousands of acres burning in the southern California brush fires. One of the worst was started by a car fire at the side of the road. When we visit our daughter and her family in northern California, it is really not unusual to see grass a grass fire stretching for hundreds of feet on Interstate 5, fires which started from the comparatively insignificant embers from a cigarette carelessly thrown from a passing vehicle.
In verse 6, James tells us that like the small flame can burn the entire forest, the tongue can set on fire “the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell.” The term “hell” here is literally, “the Gehenna of fire.” This was originally the valley just south of Jerusalem which was the city dump and was always burning. For the Jews, the Gehenna valley came to be a symbol of hell, destiny of the wicked and their future destruction. The term usually is translated “hell.” Note how well this fits in with James’ analogy of how the tongue can be like the small fire that burns a forest.
James adds that while all of creation can be tamed by human beings, no one can tame the tongue. It has the characteristic of being a corrupting influence.
Taming the tongue (9-13)
James does not leave his readers stranded with no answer to the problem of the tongue and its dangers of control and corruption. In verses 9 and 10, James points out that we do, indeed, have a choice when it comes to our manner of speaking
First, he states how things tend to be. Christians often don’t control their tongues very well. Sometimes, the tongue is used to praise, and other times it is used to curse. James writes, “My brethren, these things ought not to be this way.” In other words, we have a choice.
By way of illustration, he raises three points in verses 11 and 12. First, he asks, “Does a spring send forth fresh water and bitter from the same opening?” The implied answer is no. Then he asks, “Can a fig tree, my brethren, bear olives or a grapevine bear figs?” Again, the answer is no. And finally, “no spring yields both salt water and fresh.”
So what is he telling his readers? What we say reveals what’s really going on inside. If we are in spiritual darkness or in bondage to our sinful natures, that’s what our speech and life will demonstrate. If we are saved and walking in the light, that, too, will show in our lives.
If James were teaching today, he might say something like the tongue is where the rubber meets the road. It reveals who we are. So if we are like the world—spiteful, vengeful, selfish, preoccupied with acquiring wealth and possessions, angry—then it will be revealed in our words, such as gossiping, condemning others, lying, and speech that is arrogant and self-serving.
But look at verse 13, in which James broadens his argument from our speech to our whole manner of living. In it, he tells us there is a positive side: we have a choice: “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom.”
So, relying on the wisdom of God’s message through James, I would ask: Being saved and wanting to grow in the Lord, do we continually seek spiritual wisdom and understanding? We can choose to do so. And when we choose the path of wisdom, that will show itself, too, in our speech, our demeanor, and living according to God’s standards of righteousness. James says, “Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom.”
So how do we tame the tongue? By reading and mulling over the letter from James, the answer quickly becomes apparent. We tame the tongue by seeking to be more and more like Christ in our thoughts and in our actions. James would tell us we tame the tongue and become more like Christ both inside and outside by being proactive not only in growing spiritually, but also by allowing the Holy Spirit within us to control what we do and what we say.
In conclusion, I find myself frequently drawn to the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22 and measuring my own spiritual health against that list. Those fruits, produced in us by the Holy Spirit, should be our objective not just in our attitudes and actions, but also in our speech: we have the ability to speak love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
As God’s children, we must choose to show the world around us the character of God by the way we act, by what we say, and by the way we say it.