James 3:1-12

Taming the Tongue

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”  We’ve all heard this little nursery rhyme and perhaps have even believed it was true — until we began to experience the long-lasting hurt of words spoken to us.  Words are powerful. Proverbs 18:21(NIV) says that “the tongue has the power of life and death.” We know this, don’t we? That words have the power either to build up or to tear down.  Words matter.  We serve a God who created the very universe by the power of his word.  Words can create but they also have the power to destroy.  James says in our passage here that the tongue is a “world of unrighteousness.”  We’ll consider what James has to say on this topic of the words we speak.

#1 Words are powerful.

The connection with James’ warning that many should not be teachers because they will be judged with greater strictness (v.1) and the rest of the passage on the effect of our words seems to be that teachers lead through their words.  This is a sober warning for any would-be pastor or teacher in the church.  It is a wonderful thing that God works his perfect will through imperfect people, but one should consider well before pursuing such a calling.

James acknowledges that everyone, himself included, hence the pronoun “we,” stumble in many ways (v.2).  But if someone can master his tongue, he is a perfect man (v.2).  This perfection is not about being sinless but rather about being mature and complete, just as James used the same Greek word teleios back in 1:4 to refer to Christian maturity.  But why the focus on words? This is a bit surprising that the key to Christian maturity is found in our speech.  J.A. Motyer is helpful at this point:

“It is not that a person strong enough to control the tongue is therefore also strong enough for every other battle.  It is much deeper and more important than that: it is rather that winning this battle is in itself a winning of all battles (The Message of James, p.120).”

At the end of the passage, James hints at how this battle of all battles is won, but first he considers the nature of the battle.  We learn first that that words are powerful.  They have the ability to control the direction we go.  Two illustrations are used to make the point.  First, bits which are put into the mouths of horses so that they obey us (v.3).  And secondly, a very small rudder which allows a large ship to go wherever the will of the pilot directs (v.4).  Both bits and rudders are relatively small yet exercise tremendous power to direct.  Words might feel insignificant when compared the obvious power of things like “sticks and stones,” but James says, words are quite powerful.  Despite seeming quite small and significant, words have the power to direct the course of our lives.

#2 Words can be destructive.

Not only do words have the power to direct our lives, for good or for bad, they also have the power to destroy.  An entire forest can become an inferno by a small fire (v.5).  The tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness (v.6) which though it is such a small part of our body, can easily become a means of staining the whole body (v.6).  Words can destroy us.  We all can easily remember harsh words that were spoken to us, perhaps decades ago, that still echo in our ears.  And what is more, we know we too have been guilty of causing harm with our words.

James says the tongue can set on fire the entire course of life (v.6).  John Calvin helps to understand the weight of this verse:

The meaning is, that when other vices are corrected by age or by succession of time, or when at least then do not possess the whole man, the vice of the tongue spreads and prevails other every part of life. (Commentary on James)

Calvin is saying that while so many of our vices (or sins) fade into the background with the passage of time, the issue of the tongue never goes away.  Words have the power to control our lives — for the course of our lives.

#3 Words are uncontrollable.

If our tongue really has such power, what can be done about it?  Can we tame our tongue?  James says that there are any many things which mankind is able to tame: every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature (v.7).  This is an impressive list, but he says no human being can tame the tongue (v.8).  This “slender portion of flesh,” as Calvin calls it, is elusive and successfully resists any attempt to bring it under control. It is restless evil, full of deadly poison (v.8).  There are times that we think we have made progress, for James says with it we bless our Lord and Father but with the very same mouth we curse people who are made in the likeness of God (v.9).  Note the use of the plural pronoun “we” here — James includes himself in this observation of the duplicitous nature of the tongue!

What hope do we have?

James writes, my brother, these things ought not to be so (v.10).  Yes, we agree!  But what are we to do about it?  We have a clue back in verse 8 when James declared that no human being can tame the tongue.  Are we to throw in the towel and accept this evil for what it is?  You’re a mess. I’m a mess.  Let’s quite kidding ourselves and embrace this evil for what it is! No!  The keyword in verse 8 is human being.  It is beyond our human ability to control the tongue but it is not beyond the reach of God.   Augustine explains:

He said this not in order that we should tolerate this evil but in order that we should ask for divine grace to tame our tongue.  (A Treatise on Nature and Grace quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary of Scripture, Vol XI, p.40)

We are told that we are incapable of taming the tongue so that we might humbly ask God for help.

James continues in verse 11 and 12: 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.  

This last illustration sounds familiar, doesn’t it?  James’ older brother, Jesus, said something remarkably similar in Luke 6:43-45

“For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.”

Why is the tongue untamable?  Because the ultimate issue is not the tongue at all. It is the heart!  Jesus says “out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.”  The only way to get at the tongue is to get a new heart.  We are in ourselves a “salt pond” that will never produce fresh water.  We need to be re-created.  And this is the promise of the gospel! 2 Corinthians 5:17: Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.  We are given a new heart and this is the key in our battle to tame the tongue.  The battle must be fought below the surface at the heart-level. Here are some questions to consider as you seek to get to the root of the heart issue:

  1. What idols are directing your heart?  
  2. What makes you angry?
  3. What person or thing in your life has become too important?
  4. What lies are you believing?  
  5. With whom are you bitter?  
  6. What unmet expectations are troubling you?
  7. Where are you are resisting repentance?  


The gospel offers us a new heart which is capable of producing good fruit.  Instead of words being a means of tearing others down, we can use our words to build others up.  Instead of sowing dissension, we can bring unity.  Instead discouragement, encouragement.  The gospel equips us to be an instrument of grace to others — through our words!


Discussion Questions

  1. What unique role do teachers (v.1) play in the church?  Why do you think they will be judged with greater strictness?
  2. Even though we stumble in “many ways,” why do you think James singles out the ways we stumble with our words (v.2)?
  3. In what ways do you stumble with your words?
  4. What point do you think James is making with the illustrations of a bit in a horse’s mouth (v.3) and a rudder on a ship (v.4)?
  5. How have words directed your life?  Can you cite examples of a good direction or bad direction you went as a result of someone’s words?
  6. Explain the illustration in verses 5b to 6.  In what way do our words “get away” from us?
  7. What point do you think James is making with the illustration of taming wild animals?  Should James’ statement that “no human being can tame the tongue” encourage us or discourage us? How so?
  8. What point do you think James is making with the illustrations in verses 11 and 12?
  9. How does the gospel promise of a new heart help us in our effort to tame our tongue?
  10. What is one thing you will do as a result of studying this passage?


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