James 3: Taming the Tongue
The first verse of James 3 certainly gets my attention as a teacher. The Word of God tells me I will be judged more strictly as a teacher. This judgment is the judgment at the bema of the Lord Jesus Christ and it is the judgment of our works which is spoken of in I Cor. 3:11-15. It is to test the quality of our works for our rewards. However, because I am a teacher- it makes me think-‘why do I teach?’ And the only answer I can come up with- I cannot help but teach. There would be such a void in my life without the time I spend in the Word of God to prepare. I have learned so much and it has had such an impact on my life. The teacher always learns more than the student. And as a teacher, the Holy Spirit has formed the daily habit of Bible study in my life. I cannot tell you how many times- I have experienced the joy of understanding something in the Word of God; of seeing it in a new, fresh way and how it applies to my life. I have also made friend with theologians of old as I have studied their commentaries, thoughts, insights and sermons.
Having said that- it also makes me aware of the responsibility I have to practice what I teach. I must never teach more than I know. I must also make sure I do not use my position as a teacher as a platform for my agendas or opinions.
Here is something I have learned which applies to all of us. This is a spiritual principle: *One may never understand some things in Scripture, until they start living up to the light we have; until we start practicing what we understand.*
Proverbs has a lot to say about the tongue, its power to build up or destroy. Listen to this Proverb found in Proverbs 6:19:” There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to Him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies and a man who stirs up dissension among his brothers.” Did you notice three of those seven involved the tongue?
James then tells us in verse 2: “We all stumble in many ways. If anyone never is at fault in what he says, he is a perfect (mature) man, able to keep his whole body in check. “James is saying if we can control our tongue- we can control our whole body. Here is another way we can judge our spiritual maturity. The tongue is an indication of our spiritual maturity. When you go to the doctor with an illness- the doctor may ask you to ‘stick out your tongue and say ah’. A tongues’ condition, its coating may give the doctor information as to your health. The temperature is checked by placing a thermometer under the tongue (or used to be). Our tongues reveal the condition of our hearts.
James just told us – we all stumble, we all offend in many ways. The teacher must be more careful for his words direct and influence others, thus he/she is held more accountable.
James will now give us six illustrations of the tongue: the bit in the horse’s mouth; the rudder of a ship; fire, a poisonous animal; a fountain, and a fig tree. These six illustrations can be grouped in three distinct categories which reveal the power of the tongue.
The first two illustrations- the bit in horse’s mouth and the rudder of the ship illustrate the power to direct and influence. Just as the small bit can guide and direct the power of a horse and small rudder can direct a massive ship at sea- so can the tongue exert great influence in the directing others and ourselves. Words lead to deeds. Words reflect what is in the heart.
The bit controlled by the reins enables the rider to direct the horse. So a 110 lb. jockey sitting on a powerful race horse can direct him and guide the horse. A rider who lets the horse have his own head and go where he wants can find himself thrown off the horse or on a dangerous run-away. The bit in the horse’s mouth is controlled by the reins in the rider’s hands which allow the rider to direct the powerful body of the horse in the direction he/she wants the horse to take. We cannot control our tongues on our own. We must depend upon Jesus to control our tongues. When we saturate ourselves in the Word of God, and it has taken root in our hearts- we give the reins to our Lord. The popular bracelet several years ago WWJD- stood for ‘what would Jesus do?’ What we really need to do is apply the same philosophy to what we say- by asking ‘WWJS- what would Jesus say?
The rudder of the ship gives us another illustration. This small rudder can direct a massive ship in the direction the pilot wants the ship to go. In a storm at sea, the pilot and his ability to guide the ship with the use of the rudder requires great skill. What we say in the midst of life’s storms determines the direction our lives will take just like the rudder does. We can have victory or we can be defeated by our storms, life’s problems by what we say. The disciples, many of whom were fisherman, knew something about storms at sea and how to deal with them. However, on a storm at sea when they feared for their lives, even with Jesus on board, they despaired. Listen to their negative words: “Don’t you care that we are perishing?!” If we doubt God and His promises during the storms of life- our tongues will reveal our despair. Don’t you care, Lord, we are hurting? We are never going to get out of this- we are never going to be able to overcome this ______________ (whatever storm you are enduring, financial, health, and a loved one in trouble). It is easy to praise God when the sun is shining and claim His promises of the abundant life. However, when you are sinking in a dark, desperate storm it is not so easy, is it?
Certainly there is no one who had more reason to complain about the storms in his life than Job. He certainly could have been bitter and we would have not faulted him. In the course of one day- Job suffered a lifetime of tragedy. He lost his wealth, his livestock was stolen or struck dead by lightning and his servants and all of his children were killed in a storm. His response: “He fell on the ground in worship and said: “Naked I came from my mothers’ womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away, may the name of the Lord be praised. In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.” (Job 1)
Next Job was covered from head to toe with painful sores. His wife advises Job to curse God and die. Job replies: “Shall we accept good from God and not trouble? If all this Job did not sin in what he said.” (Job 2) Job was steadfast and refused to curse God, complain or become bitter. What was the end result? Job discovered an intimacy with God he would not have otherwise experienced. “I had heard about you before, but now I have seen you.” (Job 42:5) And we are told- “The Lord blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the first.”
I remember when my mother was diagnosed with cancer about six months after we had buried my father. I was with her when the doctor told her and she said: “That’s not fair!” She apologized almost immediately, but I knew how she felt, for I had the same response inside me. Guess what? Life is not always fair, but God is always fair. And of this we may be sure- God is in control for He is sovereign. He is almighty and all knowing and He is too wise to be mistaken and too good to be unkind. I have to trust Him with all my heart. For if I do not trust Him with all my heart, He cannot control my tongue. And if I allow my old nature to take the rudder in the storms of life- I will find myself complaining and bitter about life and it only make matters worse. You might say- I do not feel like praising God and thanking Him for this storm. Then you realize you are allowing your emotions and feelings to take control rather than the Lord. You will soon be in the same despair the disciples were on that stormy night – when they questioned the Lord’s goodness and wisdom and said: ‘don’t you care we are perishing?’
What comes out of your mouth during the storms of life reveal what was in your heart. As Vance Havner used to say: ‘what’s down in the well comes up in the bucket. ‘Proverbs 4:23, 24 says: “above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.”
Sin on the inside and pressures on the outside are seeking to get control of the tongue. This means the bit and the rudder must be under the control of a strong man. The reins of the horse must be under an expert horseman, the rudder under a skilled experienced pilot. Let Jesus control your tongue and you will not say the wrong things. Never underestimate the power of words. They have the power of life and death.
God has promised never to place more on us than we can bear. But in the midst of a dark and desperate storm we can despair just as the disciples did on that stormy night on the Sea of Galilee. It comes down to who do you believe? The Lord? Or your old nature and the enemy of your soul, who is a liar? What time I am afraid- I will trust in the Lord. Your tongue cannot only direct and influence others, it can do the same for you when the storms of life crash in or your old nature rears its head like a headstrong stallion and wants to go its own way. A promise of the Lord repeated out loud to yourself can create calm and peace in the midst of the storm. The power of the God’s Word is it is able to create new life. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the fact of the waters and God said: Let there be light and there was light.” (Genesis 1) This is the Power of the Spoken Word of God. It goes forth and accomplishes the purpose for which it was sent.
“I would have lost hope (fainted); unless I had believed I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait on the Lord, be of good courage, and He shall strengthen your heart; wait, I say on the Lord.” (Psalm 27) Speak to yourself. David said to his soul: “Why are you so downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? For your hope is in God, for I will yet praise Him, My Savior and my God. (Psalm 42) The power of the tongue to influence and direct certainly applies to ourselves. Speak to your soul, and remind yourself who your hope is in- it is in God. Speak, means to me, to say it out loud.
The next illustration James gives us is the power to destroy in fire and wild animals. Think of the false teachers of false religions which will destroy millions of people who are brought under the influence of the false teaching. Look at what one man, Adolf Hitler was able to do in Germany with the spoken word which resulted in the death of millions. Fire can be good. Remember the couple on the road to Emmaus who the resurrected Lord Jesus shared the Scripture with? After he opened the scripture to them, they remarked: “Did not our hearts burn within us?” A fire can be for good- or it can be one of the most destructive forces on earth. A fire and its billowing smoke can create chaos and confusion. Our words can fuel a destructive fire or under the control of the Lord Jesus can create a fire of zeal for good. Words can cause division among believers, among family and friends or they can unite and bring peace.
To be burned by fire is one of the most painful injuries. A minor burn can create a blister. A severe burn can leave horrible scars, require skin grafts and take a long time to heal. My father caught on fire when he was a small boy trying to make a chocolate cake. He had horrible scars on his side from where his shirt caught on fire. Not only did it leave a scar, take a long time to heal, my father from that day until the day he died was allergic to chocolate, it made him sick. Our words can blister, scar and make people allergic to the gospel of peace because of the flames our tongues have caused such severe burns. James says a tongue that creates this type of destructive fire is ‘itself set on fire by hell.’
James then likens the tongue to a dangerous animal or reptile. We see the enemy appear as a snake; we hear John the Baptists call the Pharisees- vipers; and the enemy is pictured as a roaring lion going about seeking those whom he may destroy. Some animals and reptiles have a poisonous bite, their tongues spread poison which spreads throughout the body. Our tongues can be unruly and viscous like a wild animal or poisonous like a snake or spider’s bite. Animals can be tamed, fire can be controlled. Likewise the tongue needs to be controlled by the Holy Spirit within. If one’s heart is filled with the love of God, God will light the fire and use it for good. As the Lord did when He opened His mouth and shared the scripture with the disciples on the Road to Emmaus and lit a fire a burning desire in their hearts for the Word of God. But if our hearts are filled with hatred, then the devil will light the fire that will destroy.
Third illustration James uses is the power to delight- the fountain and the tree. “With tongue we can praise our Lord and Father, and we can curse men who have been made in the image of God. Out of the same mouth, come praise and cursing. My brothers this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt flow from the same spring? My brothers can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can salt spring produce fresh water? “A fountain can provide cool water that quenches our thirst. And man must have water to survive. Water is necessary for so many things: drinking, cooking, cleansing, farming, and many other things. Proverbs has a lot of verses regarding the tongue: “The mouth of a righteous man is a well of life.” (Proverbs 10:11) Death and life are in the power of the tongue we are told in Proverbs 18.
The water in the laver in the Old Testament tabernacle was used by the priests to cleanse themselves before entering the Holy Place. Jesus said in John 15- the water of his word cleanses us. Our words can help to cleanse others. Our words can lift up or bring down. James also says the tongue is like a tree that provides fruit to be enjoyed. A tree can provide shade and comfort on a hot day. Do your word provide food for a hungry soul? Do you provide comfort to a hot, tired traveler in this world? Trees help prevent erosion. The root system of the tree is the most important part of the tree. If roots do not grow down deep, the tree will not be healthy. Psalm 1 tells us about the man who is blessed, is the one who meditates on the Word of God day and night. His roots go down deep and produce fruit in due season
If we are to have tongues that delight- we must have roots that go down deep. Paul prayed about ‘being rooted and established in love.’ To do this we must meet with the Lord daily and learn from Him. We must let our spiritual roots go deep into His Word. Prayer, meditation and obedience- being a doer of the Word is the only way.
Salt water compared to fresh water is bitter. James may well have been thinking of the account of Moses and people in the wilderness and the waters of Marah. In Exodus 15, Moses had brought the people out of Egypt into the Wilderness of Shur and they had no water for 3 days. Then they came to Marah and the water was bitter. “And the people complained against Moses, saying what shall we drink? So Moses cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a tree. When he cast it into the waters, the waters were made sweet.”
What did the Lord do when Moses cried out? He showed him the tree. The verb showed comes from a root word meaning ‘to teach’. God was teaching Moses something- not just supplying him and the people with water, but instructing.
Have you been delivered from your old sinful life? Certainly the picture of Moses leading the Israelites from the captivity of Egypt is a picture of our redemption. We were freed from the slavery of sin. However, we can be freed from our Egypt and yet find times in our life, especially during trials, that we are filled with bitterness. What is God showing you is the way to deal with bitterness? You need the re-submerge yourself in the finished work of Calvary. Peter told us Christ bore our sins in His body on the tree. (2 Peter 2:24) Reminding oneself- we have been crucified with Christ. Nevertheless, we live. Yet not I, but Christ liveth in me, and the life I live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the One who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal. 2:20) Our lives have been sweetened by the work of our Lord on the Tree of Calvary.
Sometimes we come to a place in our lives where an event, a person, or some hurt, some disappointment and all of a sudden life turns bitter. It ruins your day. It ruins your vacation, your plans, and your carefully orchestrated plan for life to be just the way you want it to be. In fact James tells us in the next verses it is envy and selfish ambitions that create bitter hearts within us. Bitterness is contagious- it spreads and ruins the day for all around the bitter, complaining person. (Tuesday night in Boca Raton)
Maybe what you need is to let God show you the ‘tree’ once again. Drink in through meditation the wonders of God’s love that was revealed on Calvary. He can turn your bitterness into sweetness. He can heal you from your heart. Sit under the shade of Word – and watch the wonder of His Word applied to your thirsty soul.
Ask yourself these simple questions: “Why are you so downcast my soul? Why are you so disturbed? Is not your hope in God? If He is for you- who or what can be against you?