Words are powerful. The tongue is a small but influential instrument. And it is incredibly difficult to use that little instrument in a good, beneficial, and God-honoring way. Recently I spent some time reflecting on James 3:2-12 and what it says about the use of speech in the Christian life and found eight truths in that passage worth meditating upon. In this post, I’d like to share those 8 truths with you.
James is About Consistent Christianity
The letter of James is about the importance of living out a consistent Christian faith and the sad tendency for all Christians to contradict our faith by the lives we that we live. And in this sobering passage, James (one of Jesus’ younger brothers) exposes one of the most common and most troublesome ways in which Christians contradict their profession of faith in Christ, which is, by the words that come out of our mouths.
James 3:2-12 is about the use of speech in the Christian life. What James shows us is that our tongues often go rogue. They get out of control and cause destruction like a wildfire in the Rocky Mountains. Incalculable damage can be done to people and to relationships simply by the use of sinful speech.
But perhaps the main, overarching point of this passage – despite the difficulty of “taming the tongue” – is that growth in spiritual maturity has a lot to do with learning to use our speech for good. The battle to gain control over your speech is a battle that both requires and evidences great growth in godliness. If you really want to grow in godliness, you must give some serious, soul-searching attention to the use of your tongue.
So, with that, here are 8 truths about the Christian and his speech from James 3:2-12. (It may help to read the passage yourself before reading the rest of this post.)
- Sinning with our speech is extraordinarily easy and altogether common. (v. 2)
We see this in verse 2, where James acknowledges that “we all stumble in many ways.” That is, we all stumble spiritually, which is to say we all sin, and in many ways. Our speech is just one of the many ways in which we sin.
But then he says, “and if anyone does not stumble (i.e. sin) in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle his whole body.” When James talks about a “perfect man” here, I take him as referring to a fully sanctified Christian. It’s the Christian who has been made “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (1:4). This is a Christian whose growth in godliness has reached completion. He is as spiritually mature as he could be. This person has been fully transformed into the likeness of Jesus.
Now, in case you’re wondering, there is not a single Christian walking the earth today whom this would apply to. As long as we are waiting for the return of Christ, we all have much room to grow spiritually. And so, I think what James is saying is that we are all in need of significant spiritual growth when it comes to our speech, not to mention the other parts of our lives. If you want to see how much spiritual growth is still needed in your life, just look at how you use your tongue.
It is so easy to sin with the tongue. And sins of the tongue are on the lips of every Christian on a daily basis. Sinning with our speech is easy and common.
- Speech is the primary tool we use to navigate this life. (vv. 3-5a)
In verses 3-5 James uses two images to show how the tongue – while such a small instrument – possesses great power. The first image (v. 3) is that of a bit that’s put into the mouth of a horse. The second image is that of a rudder on a ship (v. 4). Words are one of the primary things we use to navigate the terrain of life.
Think about it. We use words to express love and hatred. We use words to settle or exacerbate conflicts. We grow or harm friendships with words.We use words in the home, in the church, at work, and at play. Words are the primary way we help one another grow in the faith (Eph 4 – “speaking the truth in love”). Words are one of the most important tools of parenting, and marriage. Words are how we correct errors. Words are what we use to help each other learn.
Everywhere we go and in the vast majority of the things we do – we use words to do those things. Though it is a tiny instrument, the tongue guides a person’s life. This is one of the primary reasons our speech and spiritual growth in the area of our speech is so critical.
- Our speech can inflict great damage on ourselves and others. (vv. 5b)
Listen to the warning of the second part of verse 5: “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!”
Friends, you can burn all kinds of good things down with words.
How many marriages have been destroyed with words (lies, and vindictive words, and criticisms, and graceless communication)! How many parents and children have become estranged through words! How many churches have been divided with words!
Proverbs 18:21 says that “death and life are in the power of the tongue”. And notice, “death” is placed there first. Death is in the power of the tongue. Words can burn down everything around you if you simply set the tongue loose.
We need to take that to heart. Our words can inflict great damage on ourselves and others.
- Our speech is often full of sin, and for some, to an extent that will lead to judgment. (v. 6)
In verse 6, James expands on the damage that can be done – and that can result from sinful speech: “And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.”
Now there are some difficult phrases here to translate and figuring out how these phrases should all be connected is a challenging task, but the basic point seems to be clear: Our speech is often chock full of various sins that do serious damage. “The tongue,” as James says, “is a fire.”
And then he adds, literally, “[the tongue] is “the world of unrighteousness.” Not a world, but the world of unrighteousness. The unrighteous world can be found on the tongue.
That is to say, all the sins of the world can and do so often pour forth from our mouths. Idolatry. Immorality. Dishonesty. Pride. Self-love. Hatred. It all rolls so easily off the tongue. The tongue can stain the whole body. It can corrupt the whole of a person’s life.
But then he goes even further in verse 6 and makes the point that for some, the tongue is so full of sin, that unless they repent, eternal judgment under the wrath of God in hell is in their future. James pictures a person whose whole life goes up in flames; first by the damage that he/she does with the tongue (“it sets on fire the entire course of life”) and then by being consumed with the fires of hell (“and is set on fire by hell”).
I think the picture is that of a person whose words are so out of control, that nearly all they do is cause damage with their tongues, and whose words are so out of control that they reveal themselves to be unbelievers headed for judgment. They go along in life burning things down with their words and they end up being consumed in the fires of eternal judgment.
It is possible for your mouth to be such a problem, that you will be judged by God for the sins of your heart that were given a voice with your words throughout your life. That is worth some serious personal meditation.
- Controlling our speech is extremely difficult and exceedingly uncommon. (vv. 7-8)
This truth corresponds to the first one, but comes from verses 7 and 8, where James says that “every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless (or uncontrollable) evil, full of deadly poison.”
James here compares our inability to control the tongue with our remarkable ability to domesticate and rule over the natural world – including great beasts and magnificent creatures in the animal kingdom. We can control lions and tigers and elephants and bears…but no one has yet been able to tame the tongue. It is extremely difficult to do.
I suspect this truth is fairly self evident to most of us. The tongue is almost always poised to do damage. It’s “full of deadly poison,” James says. The picture here is that of a poisonous snake, ready to strike. It doesn’t take much at all to pull the trigger. Just a few simple words can corrupt all kinds of good things. (Think of the poisonous words of the serpent in the Garden, for example. Just a few dishonest, corrupted words, brought spiritual death and separation from God into Eden.)
It is very difficult to control our speech and use it in God-glorifying and joy-promoting ways that are consistent with the Gospel and the Lordship of Jesus.
- Spiritual hypocrisy is often manifested through our speech. (vv. 9-10a)
Next, James exposes the duplicity of our speech patterns in verses 9-10: “With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.”
I take the “blessing” James is referring to here to be words voiced in a setting of public corporate worship. We come to church and sing songs of praise to God. We pray prayers of humble dependence to God and give glory to God for his goodness and grace and love and mercy and holiness and righteousness and justice. And then, perhaps even before we go home from our gatherings, we hurt others with the same instrument with which we offered praise to God in a gathering of worship.
The mouth we use to give God public praise we use in private to tear down others and do them harm.
And the people we hurt with our words are creatures God has made to reflect his glory and greatness in a special way. The ones we hurt with our words are those who have been made in the “likeness of God.” The crown of God’s creation are the ones we hurt after giving God himself praise and glory in church.
The only word for this is hypocrisy.
You want to see hypocrisy in your life? Simply compare the words that come out of your mouth in church to the words that come out of your mouth outside of church. That will tell you something about the real state of your spiritual life.
- Hypocritical speech has no place among Christians. (v. 10b)
Verse 10b says very simply, “My brothers, these things ought not to be so.”
You can’t claim to be a follower of Jesus if you aren’t looking to Jesus to help you use your words in a way that bring him glory and that build up his people in the faith and that reach out to lost souls with grace and compassion.
Now, when James says, “my brothers, these things (the hypocrisies that come out of our mouths) ought not to be so,” what he’s really saying is that fruitful, beneficial, truthful, loving, honest, God-glorifying speech ought to be so among Christians. Hypocritical speech out not to be so, and genuine Jesus-loving, Jesus-ruled speech ought to be so. Among Jesus’ followers – you should be able to find the sweetest, most refreshing, most spiritually beneficial, most edifying words that are spoken in the world.
- God-honoring speech requires a God-loving heart. (vv. 11-12)
In verses 11 and 12, James shows us (again by way of images) where truly God-honoring speech that is uttered in submission to Jesus comes from: “Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.”
Simply put, James is saying that our words are a reflection of the condition of our hearts.
I think Doug Moo explains this in a helpful way: “James’s point is obvious: bad things don’t produce good things. And so a person who is not right with God and walking daily in his presence cannot consistently speak with pure and helpful words. One who is double and inconsistent with regard to the things of God in his heart…will be double and inconsistent in his speech…only a renewed heart can produce pure speech; and consistently (though not perfectly) pure speech is to be the product of the renewed heart.” (Moo, The Letter of James, pp. 166-167)
No man can tame the tongue, James says, but God can as he transforms and renews and purifies the hearts of his people, as they walk with him day by day. So, if you want to learn how to use your speech in a way that glorifies God and does people good, you have to have a transformed heart.
For some, that may mean that you need an altogether new heart. You need the Spirit of God to make you a new creation. You need to be born again. If you do not know Jesus as Lord, as evidenced by your sinful speech, ask God to give you a heart to believe upon him and trust him to save you from sin and death and judgment. And then you can begin learning how to use your words to do real good.
But for others – probably most of you who are reading this (assuming you have made it this far!) – this truth may simply mean that you need to keep pursuing Christ from day to day. Keep walking with him. Keep your eyes open to the sins of the heart that lead to the many sins of the tongue. Keep looking to him to sanctify you by his Spirit through his word. Keep growing. Keep learning. Keep enduring. And God, by his grace, will over time, make the words of your mouth more pleasing to himself and more helpful to others.
For Reflection & Application
Will you give these truths some personal consideration, friends? Consider how they might relate to the way you speak to your family members. Consider how they apply to your social media interactions. Think about how they relate to the way you talk at work. How do these things relate to the way you respond to your enemies, or to those who sin against you, or to those you disagree with about this issue or that issue. I pray there is something here that anyone could find useful.