Taming the tongue, 3:1-12

James now moves to a new subject, that of the tongue. After an initial observation about the propensity of many believers to get themselves into a pulpit and the inherent dangers that go with such a responsibility, James shines a spotlight on Christian conversation and the damage that can be done by a casual comment.

The passage

v1. James begins with a warning to those who are thinking of entering the ministry. Christian ministry provides abundant opportunities for teaching the Word of God, but it does come with its responsibilities. As Jesus reminds his disciples, "from everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded", Lk.12:48.

v2. Moving on, James makes a simple observation about the tongue. Throughout life, we all slip and fall, and of all faults, the one that is hardest to avoid is a flapping tongue. Eugene Peterson puts it nicely, "We get it wrong nearly every time we open our mouths. If you could find someone whose speech was perfectly true, you'd have a perfect person, in perfect control of life."

v3-5a. In his next observation James makes the point that the tongue, although a very small part of our body, has the power to influence the events of life, either for good or ill. The tongue is like the bit that controls a horse, or the rudder that steers a ship.

v5b-6. Of course, more often than not the tongue functions like fire in the hands of an arsonist; it is destructive beyond all measure. As Douglas Moo puts it, the tongue is too often the "conduit by which all the evil of the world around us comes to expression in us." So, a loose tongue not only damages the business of life for ourselves and others, it pushes us toward the very fires of Hell.

v7-8b. Continuing with his observations, James makes the point that the tongue evidences a treacherous inconsistency. Humans have been quite successful in taming animals, but we fail miserably when it comes to the tongue.

v8c-12. Finally, James observes that the tongue is duplicitous. On the one hand, our pious words wouldn't melt chocolate, but then comes Monday and our mouth turns into a sewer. Rightly James asks whether we can live such a double life.

Motor mouth

Unless we are severely handicapped, we have most likely inherited the "motor mouth" gene. It's actually a freak of nature, defying the evolutionary process. One finds it hard to imagine why it wasn't surgically removed from the gene pool millions of years ago.

In my family we have a dominant "poke the cocky" gene. "Poking the cocky" is an Australian term derived from the propensity of children to poke caged parrots with a stick - a child usually only does it once with their finger! To try and control the gene I would remind my children that their great grandfather was thrown out of the Sussex Inlet Progress Association for "poking the cocky", or in simple terms, for being a verbal pest. Thankfully, I didn't inherit the gene, and I have continued to maintain this assessment against overwhelming evidence to contrary.

So, what's the lesson? James has told us that the tongue is extremely powerful, for both good or ill; that it is destructive beyond measure; that it evidences a treacherous inconsistency and is too often duplicitous. Given that sin is a constant in our lives, and of all sins the wagging tongue is the hardest sin to avoid, then we will do well to apply ourselves to the art of listening. As Winston Churchill said of much of the oratory in the House of Commons, "Before they get up, they do not know what they are going to say; when they are speaking, they do not know what they are saying; and when they have sat down, they do not know what they have said."

Let us remember then, that syllables govern the world.


List and discuss the many and varied ways that words can be used for good or ill in a Christian congregation.