Words have real power. The tongue may be relatively small compared to the rest of the body but it is mighty and can do great things. James gives some examples of similarly small but mighty members. He mentions a bit placed in a horse’s mouth. With that small tool a rider is able to guide the horse. He also writes of a rudder, which is a small part of the ship, that is able to direct the path of the vessel, even in the midst of a storm. Both of these examples allude to the power for good that is possible for us with our words. With our words we can praise the Lord, teach our children and one another, encourage someone who is down, or share the Gospel of Christ. Such words can build someone up. They can be the creative force behind ministry or business or political progress.
The same power of words that can be used for great, even eternal, good can also be used for destruction. James’ third example, of a small fire (a spark) setting off a wildfire, warns of such destructive possibilities. “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” So goes the old adage that many of us were told as children. The truth is not so simple. Yes, physical violence and abuse can wound us severely, but so too can the wounds inflicted by words be very serious. Not only are the recipients of harsh, critical, spiteful, sarcastic, or even flattering words harmed but so are those who speak them. James says that our words, when uncontrolled by the Gospel at work in us, stain our whole person and set on fire the entire course of our existence (v. 6). This fire is the very fire of hell, according to James (v. 6).
In all these illustrations we must remember that the bit, the rudder, and the spark are in the hands of a rider, a pilot, and an arsonist. These tools do not act on their own. The courses that the horse, the ship, and the fire take are directed by the will of a person. The tongue does not act on its own either. It is connected to the heart of the speaker (James 1:26; Matthew 12:33-37; 15:10-20). To paraphrase Jesus, nothing ever came out of someone’s mouth that was not in his heart to begin with. If our words are joyful, humble, and loving it is because our hearts are full of joy, humility, and love. If we speak words of anger, envy, deceit, and pride it is because in our hearts we are angry, envious, deceitful, and proud.
With this connection between the heart and tongue firmly in mind, James tells us that the tongue is untamable by people. As image bearers, we have been given the responsibility and the authority to rule and subdue the earth. In that role, we as humans are taming and have tamed many kinds of wild beasts. We can tame lions and tigers and bears but we cannot tame the tongue, because in our own strength we cannot tame the heart. The untamable nature of the tongue (heart) is evidenced in our double speech. From the same mouth (heart) we bless “our Lord and Father” and we curse other people who are created in His image. How can this be? How can we say that God is great and wonderful but those who are created in His image are condemnable in our eyes? James says that for a Christian speaking such double talk is like a spring producing salt water one day and fresh water the next. It is inconsistent with nature. Yet, the good we want to speak we do not say and the evil we want to quiet that we vocalize.
None of us are perfect, not even the teachers among us (vv. 1-2). We all stumble in various ways, especially in how we use our words. Try as we might we cannot perfectly tame the tongue. But, by the grace of Christ Jesus, we can grow in increasingly and consistently speaking words of truth, confession, humility, encouragement, and love. The impossible task of taming the tongue should not be something we shrug at with indifference. Neither should it be something that drives us to hopeless despair. Rather, it should cause us to run more and more to the cross, resurrection, and ascension of our Savior and Lord, so that through Him we might see the renewal of our hearts manifest itself in the fruit of pure words.
Discuss and Pray – James 3:1-12
- How have you seen the power of words used for great good in your own life, or in the lives of those near to you?
- What does Jesus say of you before His Father in heaven? What is the result of those words? Do you believe those words to be true? Are there other words – your own or those of another – that you believe over against the Word of Christ? Why?
- Does the untamable nature of the tongue (heart) drive you all the more to Christ or to despair?