The Power and Peril of the Tongue

James 3
3 Now if we put the bits into the horses’ mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well. 4 Look at the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires. 5 So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things.
See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell. 7 For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race. 8 But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; 10 from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. 11 Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Nor can salt water produce fresh.

James returns to the topic of dealing with the way we speak that he started in chapter 1 when he said we should be quick to hear and slow to speak in verse 19, and in verse 26, “If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless.”

James devotes verses 3-12 in chapter 3 to digging into this issue of the tongue. He uses a Jewish literary technique of attributing blame to a specific body part to represent the true nature of our flesh and struggle with sin. Here in these verses the tongue is the culprit that’s named, but the real culprit is what is inside, our fleshly desires and the condition of our heart.

As was said last time, when we talk about the way we speak, we must also look at all the ways in which we communicate, whether that’s sign language, Twitter, Facebook, email, etc.

Here in James 3:3-12, he deals with the way we speak by giving us vivid word pictures that help us see the true nature of the power of our communication through speech. He gives us illustrations that the people who received this letter originally would have understood very well. I think even in our modern society these illustrations are still very effective.

He breaks up his discussion of the tongue into three sections. First, he gives us illustrations on the power of the tongue in relation to its small size (verses 3-5a). Second, he gives us illustrations of the dangers of the tongue (verses 5b-8). Finally, he gives us illustrations of the double minded and hypocritical nature of the tongue when it comes to believers (verses 9-12).

So let’s start with the first theme, that of the power of the tongue in relation to its small size. In verses 3 and 4 we have two illustrations, one using a house, and one using a ship, and in the beginning of verse 5 James ties the two illustrations together to make his point.

James 3
3 Now if we put the bits into the horses’ mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well. 4 Look at the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires. 5 So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things.

In our modern society most of us do not use horses in the same numbers and for the same purposes as the original readers of this letter did. We don’t use horses as one of the main means of our transportation, we have cars and other motorized vehicles. We don’t use horses to move heavy objects, we have trucks or tractors. We don’t use them to plow. So horses are not as big a part of our lives as they once were, but most of us have at least seen or ridden a horse. So we are aware of the power and strength of a horse. And when James talks about this majestic animal being led around by a small bit in its mouth, we can still get the point of the illustration.

And with a ship the same is true. I don’t know if any of you have gone on a cruise or had a chance to go to a large harbor and see some of the huge cargo ships or oil tankers which are thousands of tons, and are directed by a rudder or propeller that is just a fraction of the overall size and weight of the ship.

And like the bit in the horse’s mouth or rudder of a ship, our tongue can be used to do great things. Our speech has the ability to greatly influence our life and the lives of those around us. Think of the tongue as a powerful agent that can assist us in producing good works or evil.

I don’t want you to miss that in the two illustrations, the bit in the horse’s mouth and the rudder of a ship, these are powerful tools, as is the tongue. But even with the bit in its mouth the horse, it still needs a rider to make use of the bit. And the ship, even with a rudder, still needs a pilot or a captain to steer the ship.

So too, our tongue will always be led by what is in our heart. It is the captain of our mouth, it is the pilot of our tongue. As Jesus said in Matthew 15:18, “But the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man.”

Most of the verses we will look at today talk about the evil power that the tongue can wield.

In verses 3-5a James has just been talking about the raw power of the tongue to affect our life. We should spend a little time looking at how this works, and how we can use our tongue to bless others and ourselves as well.

Speaking is not only a means by which we share thoughts and ideas, but it is also an amplifier, and it reinforces those thoughts and ideas. So we not only talk to other people, but some of the most important conversations we have are with ourselves. Yes, we talk to ourselves all the time.

Here is a simple example. For a believer, when you say to yourself, “God loves me,” that thought is coming from your heart. But as you say it to yourself, and as you share that thought with others, the right thought that God loves you gets reinforced in your mind and in your heart, and you believe it even more strongly. And you begin to think and speak of the ways in which your God loves you. “He sent His Son to die so my sins could be forgiven; He has given me eternal life. He is preparing a place for me in heaven, He is providing for me here on earth,” and on it goes. That’s how the power of speaking can set the course of our life for good. That’s why we are instructed to study and read God’s Word, so we are feeding our heart and our mind what it needs! What we need is God’s Word, so He is directing our heart, which directs our speaking, both internally and externally, which influences our hearts more deeply toward God.

So now as believers, we can follow God more closely because our heart and our minds are hearing from Him, we are speaking His words to our mind and heart.

And we get further amplification and reinforcement in our heart and mind when we sing hymns and spiritual songs and come and hear the Word of God preached.

Romans 10
17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.

So in order to hear, someone must speak. I am not only preaching to you but to myself also.

Ephesians 5
19 speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord;

And so we are not only speaking to ourselves the Word of God, but we are speaking His Word to one another.

And this is not an “only on Sunday” thing, this is a way of life, an everyday thing. So that our changed heart can be continually directed by God, continually built up even more, and encouraged even more to say what is right to itself and to others. Drawing us even closer and closer to God as we speak to one another and to ourselves His truths. The heart directing our speech and our speech in turn influencing the heart.

I hope you are getting a picture for how the course of your life can be set toward God and godliness by what we say.

So what is the danger of doing the opposite of these things? Well, I’m glad you asked.

You know, we do not only have a changed heart, we are not only a new creation. But we have this flesh that wants to follow the world and do the things of the world. And if our changed heart is influenced by the things of the world and we begin feeding our flesh and we begin to speak like the world, then what is being reinforced in our heart? What direction is the course of your life set on?

James 3
5b See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell.

This is certainly true. Jesus said in Matthew 15:11, “It is not what enters into the mouth that defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man.” So it is true that our speech can have a corrosive, a defiling effect on us.

But as was already said earlier, Jesus also in Matthew 15:18 further explained that what the man spoke that defiled him came out of his heart.

Matthew 15
18 But the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man.

So James is warning us that the tongue is a willing participant, not only amplifying and reinforcing in our lives what is good, but also what is evil.

I lived most of my life is California, and in both northern and southern California there are huge forests, thousands and thousands of acres of tall redwoods, varieties of pine and fir trees, in canyons and on sides of mountains, it’s truly spectacular. And often the state highways run along the edge of forest and you can see them even if you never go camping. And during the fire season it takes just a spark from a cigarette or campfire that was not put out completely, and a forest can be set ablaze – burning for days and even weeks, consuming hundreds of square miles of trees. Destroying homes and taking the lives of both man and beast.

James wants us to see that this natural disaster that we can observe is the same thing that can happen to our lives and the lives of those around us.

Let’s look at an example of one evil thought spoken, and how that spoken word in our mind, then spoken aloud, can be the one spark to set the forest of our life ablaze.

Suppose in his flesh a man says, “I am sick of my wife and kids.” He says that in his mind and it is reinforced, and he believes it more. He shares that thought with a friend and he believes it more. He begins thinking of all the ways in which his wife and kids disappoint him. He says, “My kid doesn’t do their chores without being reminded, and when they do them, they halfway do them, they have no appreciation of me.” He says, “My wife is a terrible cook, she shows me no attention. Her life is all about the kids.” He becomes embittered toward his wife and kids. He begins quarreling with his wife, and he becomes short tempered and angry with his kids.

Do you see how the one spark, of speaking to himself what was evil, started a small fire that set aflame the course of his life? His wife was the same, and the kids were the same, but this man began focusing on what was evil, what he wanted from everyone else, with no thought of what God’s Word says about his role as husband and father, no thought of his own sins and shortcomings. Now everyone in the home has been harmed by this fire.

This is just one simple example. But there are countless sins that come out of the heart and are given voice and life by our tongue. Not just bitterness, but envy, jealousy, slander, gossip, lust, pride, foolishness, hatred, etc. Our tongue is the springboard from the heart into acts of evil. We think it, we speak it to our minds and hearts, and we speak it and act it out. And the devil and his evil world system are quick to encourage our evil speaking, and as James says, our evil speaking, our tongue is set on fire by hell.

Because of our flesh, James continues to instruct us on the dangers of the tongue.

James 3
7 For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race. 8 But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison.

James of course is absolutely right. We have been given by God the natural ability to subdue much of the natural world. Tame animals, tame rivers by massive dams, changing the landscape, planting fields for food, building cities where once there was a wilderness. But to tame our tongue is beyond human nature. It is beyond human nature to change our heart or renew our minds, by our humanness, our intellect, by the power of our own will, by our own goodness.

But we have already been told in chapter 1 verse 26 that we must control our tongue or we deceive our own heart and our religion is worthless. James has commanded us to do something that we cannot do. And in reality since this is the Word of God and James is God’s instrument, God through the pen of James is commanding us to do something He has told us we cannot do. That for sure is a paradox!

Praise God that He shatters the paradox, He tames the tongue, He changes the heart, He renews our mind. It is God the Father through His Son Jesus the Christ who has saved us and who can tame the tongue. It was by the exercise of His will, He brought us forth by the word of truth, James says in chapter 1 verse 18.

It was God who saved us, and if we want to tame our tongues in obedience to Him, and for our own good, and for the good of those around us, we will turn to Him to do in us what we cannot do for ourselves. We do this by confessing to Him the sins of our tongue. We confess our sins to a gracious God who is faithful and righteous to forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).

We pray and ask Him to change us, to tame our tongues. We confess to Him that we are helpless to tame our tongues, and we ask Him to do a work in us, in our hearts, in our mind, and in our speaking. We go to His Word to correct our thinking and change our heart, which will direct our speaking, which will influence our heart. It is God’s power and God’s Word which will tame the untamable.

But James is not done instructing us this morning regarding the tongue. In the next four verses James shares with us the double minded and hypocritical nature of our tongue.

James 3
9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; 10 from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. 11 Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Nor can salt water produce fresh.

Let’s start just by talking about verse 9 for a minute. How do we bless our Lord and Father? And how do we curse man who is made in the likeness of God? We bless God with our tongue by praising His name, by speaking and singing of who He is, His attributes, and by speaking and singing of what He has done, and what He has promised to do. By giving thanks to Him for who He is, and what He has done. By thanking Him in advance for what He has promised He will do. Here are some examples.

Deuteronomy 8
10 When you have eaten and are satisfied, you shall bless the LORD your God for the good land which He has given you.

You see the blessing of the Lord by giving thanks. Praising Him for what He has done. In this case thanking Him for the provision of food and land.

Here are just three of the 22 verses of Psalm 34. David says:

Psalm 34
1 I will bless the LORD at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth. 2 My soul will make its boast in the LORD; The humble will hear it and rejoice. 3 O magnify the LORD with me, And let us exalt His name together.

So in short we bless the Lord our Father by speaking and singing about all that is true about God. But that’s not all we do with our tongue. James says we also curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God.

We curse men by not only using profane words directed at them, but by also wishing them harm. And James rightly points out in verse 10 that from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, things ought not to be this way. It is an absurdity that we would do this, but we do. It is double minded and hypocritical in the extreme. And James cements his point by giving three examples in nature of why both blessing and cursing is so sinful in its inconsistency.

James 3
11 Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Nor can salt water produce fresh.

And the answer of course to the two rhetorical questions is no, and no. No, you cannot get both fresh and bitter water from the same fountain. No, a fig tree cannot produce olives, and a vine cannot produce figs. That would go against the natural laws that God has established.

And James ends his discussion here on the absurdity of using our tongue to both bless and curse by saying, “Nor can salt water produce fresh.” The point is, a saved, regenerated, Holy Spirit filled child of God who praises God with their mouth should never, ever be cursing another person who has been made in the likeness of God. It goes against our position and standing as child of God, children of the light.

But James tells us that we do, and we know that we do. So where does that leave us?

It leaves us with having to be willing to continue to recognize and confess the sins of our speaking and our communication. It leaves us in great need of our great God. Not only at the moment of salvation, but every moment for continuous change and growth into the perfect image of Christ. And we have God’s promise that we will get there. But this side of heaven, we must battle our flesh, resist the devil, and tame our tongue.

So when Anne Hawks wrote, “I need Thee every hour, most gracious Lord, I need Thee every hour, most Holy One, I need Thee, oh, I need Thee,” it was no exaggeration, but a statement of truth spoken from her heart. And it speaks the truth of our heart as well.

James 3
3 Now if we put the bits into the horses’ mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well. 4 Look at the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires. 5 So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things.
See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell. 7 For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race. 8 But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; 10 from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. 11 Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Nor can salt water produce fresh.