Taming Your Tongue
Sunday School Lesson for August 17, 2003
Background Passage: James 3:1-18
Focal Teaching Passage: James 3:1-12
Accountability for Speech (3: 1-2)
This profound passage on the use and abuse of the tongue begins with a strong warning regarding the office of teacher. James cautioned his readers to be very aware of the fact that those charged with the responsibility of instructing others in the things of God will "incur a stricter judgment." For this reason "not many" should seek the office, and no one should endeavor to become a teacher who is not prepared to bear a greater weight of accountability. James does not explain the exact nature and timing of this judgment, but we may confidently assume that, at the least, teachers will be held to a higher standard of behavior in this life. In other words, since the main business of teachers is to instruct others in terms of how they are to live and what they are to believe, a failure to live up to one’s own instruction will be met with severe consequences. Those who are being taught will apply more stringent expectations to those who lead. Interestingly, James even included himself among those duly warned—"we shall incur a stricter judgment."
Next, James laid down what might be described as the governing principle of his theology of speech. Those who are able to apply proper discipline in the use of the tongue will be "able to bridle the whole body as well." Those who do not "stumble" in their words—that is, misuse the organ of speech—are clearly the more mature or "perfect" in the body of Christ. Stated another way, we might say that the "power of faith to bridle the tongue conveys a power to guide the activity of the body" [Richardson, 148]. This does not suggest, however, that one should refrain from speaking all together. Rather, it implies that every spoken word should be brought under the control of the Holy Spirit. In the verses that follow the importance of this principle will become much clearer.
The Power of Speech (3:3-8)
In order to communicate just how powerful the tongue actually is, James employed three memorable illustrations:
The sad reality regarding the use of the tongue now comes into play with James’ admission that "no one can tame the tongue" (v. 8). While humans have successfully "tamed" other "creatures," including "every species" of beasts, birds, and reptiles, the tongue remains unconquerable. Thus, "complete control of the tongue is an utter impossibility. It is evil in itself and intractable" [Tasker, 77].
That the tongue is a "restless evil and full of deadly poison" (v. 8) also adds to the sobering truth that no amount of self-will, intellectual strategizing, or bodily discipline will bring the beast under submission. The only hope one has is found in the transforming power of God through the Holy Spirit. The unmistakable implication of these verses is that the believer will continually face the challenge of using his tongue for the glory of God and the good of His people. In the same humble spirit that believers are to seek "wisdom from above" (v. 17), self-control in matters of speech is to be continually pursued.
Consistency in Speech (3:9-12)
In these verses James confronted his readers with the fact that the tongue may be used, on one hand, to "bless our Lord and Father" and, on the other hand, to "curse men" who have been created in the "likeness of God" (v. 9). Once more this illustrates the fact that the tongue has enormous power, either to accomplish those things that glorify God and serve His greater purposes, or to destroy and wreck havoc among men made in His image. Likewise, from the "same mouth come both blessing and cursing" (v. 10). This language seems to suggest that there is no middle ground when it comes to one’s speech. Either it is under the control of the Holy Spirit and thereby contributes to the welfare of the body of Christ and the glorification of God, or it promotes selfish ends that ultimately lead to pain and destruction.
The concluding lament in verse 10, "these things ought not to be this way," sets up two final illustrations of the use and abuse of the tongue. This time, however, James made it clear that such incongruity is clearly evil and betrays the need for continuous self-control. Two questions make the point:
The fundamental point here is that those who are redeemed by grace, endowed with God’s wisdom, and filled with the Holy Spirit will not manifest such duplicity in their speech. The tongue dedicated to God and brought under the control of His Spirit will be a powerful instrument used to serve the church and bear witness to the world.
Key Themes for Reflection and Application
One: The perils of teaching—In light of the explicit warning of verse 1, what changes would you suggest for the way your church chooses and trains its teachers? What structures of evaluation and accountability need to be put in place? What qualities should be seen in a worthy candidate?
Two: Keeping the tongue in check—Seeing that the tongue has enormous destructive power, what practical advice can you provide for keeping one’s speech under control? Hint: Use a concordance to discover other biblical passages (particularly in the Old Testament) that provide practical wisdom in this matter. You might begin with Proverbs 13:3.
Three: The measure of maturity—Consider how James links Christian maturity with the control of the tongue (3:2). Is it fair to say that, given the arguments in this passage, self-control in matters of speech is the most powerful indicator of one’s sanctification? Yet, it seems that we are often tempted to look for something more observable or spectacular as evidence of one’s maturity. Think about this: it is what one does not do and cannot see that marks him or her as a mature follower of Christ.