The Pressure of Words

The Point:  Fuel your words with wisdom and gentleness.

Taming the Tongue:  James 3:1-8.

[1]  Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. [2]  For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. [3]  If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. [4]  Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. [5]  So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! [6]  And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. [7]  For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, [8]  but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

[1-8]  It is best to see James’ reference to teachers as a way of catching his readers’ attention. The tongue gives opportunities for many easy mistakes, and the mistakes of those who hold public position invite closer divine scrutiny and severer divine reaction than those of Christians in a private capacity. In this way, James brings us to his intended topic concerning controlling the tongue. Verse 2 explains verse 1. The more searching judgment to which teachers expose themselves arises this way: they belong to a talking profession, and while we all sin in many ways, it would take a truly perfect person to keep free of sins of speech. By perfect he means the completeness and maturity that will mark us when God has fully wrought in us all that He intends for us in Christ – in a word, the holiness of those who see Him and are like Him [1 John 3:2]. But there is more to it than that. As Christians, we all stumble in many ways. Sin remains our universal experience and it takes all sorts of forms. Among them, as every self-aware believer will admit, sins of speech are prominent – the hasty word, the untruthful statement, the sly suggestion, harmful gossip, innuendo, impurity. Indeed, not to sin in speech would demand perfection. Yet James’ purpose in this section of his letter [3:1-18] is not to warn us to be on our guard against the hasty or impure or lying tongue but to make the positive point that control of the tongue leads to a master-control of ourselves and our lives. His two illustrations in 3:3-4 show this. As to the horse [3], a comparatively tiny thing, a bit, controls and directs all its powerful and potentially unruly, even menacing, forces. As to the ship [4], the essential point is the same, that a comparatively small factor, a rudder, is the key to control and direction, but the forces now are not internal but external, the strong winds that would blow the ship off course and on to the rocks. The tongue is the key factor in controlled and consistent living. We ask ourselves how we are to control the powerful forces within us that drive us into sin, and James replies by talking about something we never considered – do we control our tongues? The control of the tongue is the means to spiritual maturity. The tongue also has enormous power for actual harm. Tiny as the spark is, once it is fanned into flame and the flame takes hold, then it will keep on spreading till all is ablaze. So the tongue is an actual power for evil. James covers four aspects of the fiery potency of the tongue, starting with its character. The tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The world is this present state of affairs or scheme of things organized on the basis of man’s sinfulness, hostile to God, rejecting Christ. The world of unrighteousness means the world characterized by all that falls short of being right with God. The tongue makes itself available as the focal point of all that unrighteousness. James next speaks of the tongue’s influence: staining the whole body. Body is used here in the same sense as members earlier in this verse. Members are identified with the capacities which find expression through them, and the body is the total vehicle for expressing individual life. Everywhere the tongue makes its presence felt and leaves its stain. James then uses the unusual expression, setting on fire the entire course of life to refer to the whole range of the human life and to emphasize the continuance of the tongue. Lastly in verse 6 James notes the tongue’s affiliation: set on fire by hell. Hell is the place of fire and James sees the fires of hell reaching up to that part of our sinful, fallen nature where they will most easily find their torch. The tongue becomes the instrument of Satan himself. This is by no means to be thought of as something confined to what we would recognize as improper or questionable uses of the tongue. One day Peter took the Lord aside to give Him the best advice he was capable of and to do so with the most loving and concerned intentions. But the Lord Jesus replied, Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man [Matt. 16:22-23]. Now in verses 7 and 8 James writes that the tongue is humanly uncontrollable. Sadly we acknowledge – within the bounds of personal experience – how well James knows human nature and the tongue. Looking back into the past there are very many deeds we would like to go back and leave undone, but they are vastly outnumbered by the words we would now wish unsaid. We learn from these verses the constant need for watchfulness in case this restive beast should suddenly rouse itself to our shame and hurt.

Double Use of the Tongue:  James 3:9-12.

[9]  With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. [10]  From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. [11]  Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? [12]  Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.  [ESV]

[9-12]  The tongue also involves us so easily in the deadly sin of inconsistency. It is this sin which is the deadly poison [8] of which he speaks. The repeated words with it … with it underline the use of the same faculty for two opposite, irreconcilable purposes, to bless and to curse. Not only so, but our inconsistency is further compounded by the fact that we bless and curse the same thing. We look upwards to the Lord and Father and our awareness of His greatness, His glory – everything that is true and lovely about Him. The idea of “blessing” God should not be watered down to “praising” God. It is a distinct idea. When God blesses us He reviews our needs and responds to them; when we bless God we review His glories and respond to them. Praise can arise from a multitude of causes; blessing arises from an awareness of God’s glory. We look around at our brothers and sisters, whether in the human family or in the family of God, and think nothing of defaming, denigrating, criticizing, making the sly innuendo; yet they bear the image of God. We think of Jesus and count it a shame if His glory is despised or His name used dishonorably. But the same glorious image of God in other people we hardly think of and rarely hesitate to speak ill of. James, however, was shocked and moved. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. James makes us face something we can and must do. As he examined the tongue, its place among our bodily faculties, the dangers it threatens, the fearful task of controlling such a restive beast, we may well have found it all too much, far beyond the capacity of our present state of sanctification. But we can make a start here. Here is something precise, limited, manageable. This is not beyond us; this is something we can tackle. It concerns the way we speak inwardly about a brother or sister, the way we speak to somebody else about a brother or sister, the way we speak to a brother or sister. If we are in earnest as we sit before the Word of God, then we admit what seems far in excess of our powers, but we can start here with a new respect for the image of God seen in the members of His family. Another reason why we need to guard our tongues is its pollution, not its sweetness, prevails. The question James asks in verse 11 expects the answer ‘no’, and for a very obvious reason. Suppose two separate sources of water flowed together into the same outlet, one sweet water, the other brackish and unpalatable, we would never know of the double source because the bitter flavor would prevail. This is what would prove to be the stronger element; that is what would leave its mark. So the tongue needs guarding lest it leave a bitter taste behind it wherever it makes itself felt. Again James asks a question so as to suggest the answer ‘no’. The Creator has so organized plant life that each plant bears fruit according to its kind [Gen. 1:11-12]. The nature of the plant determines the fruit; the fruit borne bears witness to the nature of the plant. A fig must have a fig tree as its source, a grape can come only from a vine, an olive from an olive tree; salt water has a salt source; sweet water a sweet source; bitter words a bitter heart; critical words a critical spirit; defamatory, unloving speech issues from a heart where the love of Jesus is a stranger.

Wisdom from Above:  James 3:13-18..

[13]  Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. [14]  But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. [15]  This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. [16]  For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. [17]  But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. [18]  And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.  [ESV]

[13-18]  This new section on good conduct arises by way of answer to the question implicit in the section on the tongue: how are we to purify the source? James does not tell us anything that we must actually do, any course of conduct to follow. Instead he tells us about the sort of people we are to be whatever we do. Everything is to be done in the meekness of wisdom. Meekness is a word which we have already met at 1:21 when we noted that it means self-subduing gentleness, both Godward and manward. What a remarkable priority target for the great gifts of wisdom and understanding. Meekness is a word which requires the context of relationships for its full meaning to emerge. The wisdom James advocates will put an end to jealousy, selfish ambition and disorder [16] and will be seen in peace, gentleness, reasonableness and mercy [17]. To James anything other than this life of self-submission and peace is a denial of the truth [14]. In verse 14 James makes a very clear connection with the conclusion of his passage on the tongue: he refers to the heart which needs to be purged of jealousy and selfish ambition, and uses the same adjective which is here translated bitter and appeared in verse 11 as salt. It is clear, therefore, that he is dealing with this matter of the source from which our lives issue out. What should dwell in our hearts is the truth, but the evidence of jealousy and selfish ambition – in a word, bad relationships and a divisive attitude towards others – shows that the truth and our hearts are strangers to each other. There are those who are more than ready to fight for their rights and easily prepared to feel that they are in some way threatened by others. It is more this sharpness of spirit in personal relationships, this over-concern for one’s own position, dignity, rights or whatever, that James has in mind. We come now in verse 15 to the central issue James has in mind. We have seen through his eyes our need of a pure source [12]. He has outlined his basic position [13-14] that there is a wisdom, working through self-subduing gentleness, productive of a life of lovely goodness; but, alternatively, there is sharp, defensive self-concern leading to division and party-spirit, exposing the absence of the truth from the heart. Now he is ready to put the vital choice to us: is the wisdom of earth [15-16] or of heaven [17-18] to rule our lives? No compromise is allowed, for they are true alternatives, standing in contrast to each other in origin, characteristics and results. As to origin, wisdom is either not from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic [15] or it is from above [17]. The key contrast is in the area of characteristics, for by it we can identify which of the wisdoms is prompting our life. A wisdom which is earthly is not necessarily easily identifiable. The word earthly means ‘belonging to this order of things’ – but such a wisdom can recommend much that is true. A wisdom that is unspiritual is not necessarily identifiable. The natural man, unaided by special regenerating grace (for such is the meaning of unspiritual), is nevertheless not wholly bereft of that which the Spirit approves. The same applies to a demonic wisdom. Peter showed such wisdom when in a spirit of concern he counseled the Lord not to go the way of the cross [Mark 8:32-33]. But there is no mistaking the characteristics as they manifest themselves, or the fruit they bear. James requires us to affirm that whatever displays a sharp, antagonistic spirit of self-concern (jealousy), whatever leads to or favors party spirit or the creation of parties or the dividing of fellowships (selfish ambition), whatever issues in disorder (restlessness, instability, disturbance in the fellowship) and in meanness in thought, word and deed (every vile practice) – this is the wisdom which in no way comes down from above. Unity is the main thrust of the wisdom from on high [17-18]. The heavenly wisdom is depicted before us in seven adjectives [17]. It has, first of all, that which is of special value to God: moral purity and holiness, the likeness of Jesus who is pure [1 John 3:3]. In its significance in James’ lists, pure balances jealousy [16]. There, the spirit of harsh, abrasive self-concern easily gave rise to inability to tolerate and get on with others (selfish ambition), but here, purity from all such defilement, a purity like that of Jesus, naturally reaches out to others in peaceable ways, peace-loving and peace-making. But if peace is to be achieved and kept, then there is need to be gentle, tolerantly though not weakly acceptive of the other person, graciously amenable, yielding wherever yielding is possible rather than standing up for one’s rights. And, matching this, open to reason, not necessarily easily persuaded but certainly readily persuaded and possibly also winning, able to gain the consent of others. And just as the mercy of God is moved by our plight so that His love finds free rein to pour grace on unworthy, wretched sinners [Eph. 2:4-7], so the wisdom from on high inculcates a spirit of mercy to the full. We live with each other in a full consciousness of the other person’s neediness and helplessness. We are therefore ready to forgive as He has forgiven us [Eph. 4:32], ready to welcome as He has welcomed us [Rom. 14:1,3], ready to be to them in all things what He has proved Himself to us. Furthermore, all this must come from the heart: this is not a face we wear for the occasion, but a nature which we display in our deeds. Impartial and sincere means that we are not in two minds about it all. We are not trying to be two different people, with an outward life maintained for appearance sake but an inward heart kept secret and very different. Instead we must have a firm commitment of mind and heart and an equally firm commitment to a matching life. Each of the two wisdoms brings about its own results. Worldly wisdom results in disorder and every vile practice [16] while wisdom from above results in a harvest of righteousness [18]. The words a harvest of righteousness means ‘the fruit which grows out of righteousness’, i.e., righteousness is the seed which bears the fruit. The fruit of the Spirit is the fruit which the Holy Spirit produces; the fruit of repentance is the evidence in our lives that we have truly repented. In the same way, the fruit of righteousness is the fruit righteousness bears. As in 2:23, righteousness is the fundamental reality of being right with God. Thus harvest refers back to all the good things mentioned in verse 17, characterizing the heavenly wisdom. They are all the proper and natural outgrowth of being right with God. Now a seed needs its own proper conditions for germination, growth and fruitage. However good the seed, it cannot thrive out of its environment. Even if it does not die, it will not properly grow; even if it grows, it will not properly bear. The conditions must be right. So it is also in this case. The crop demands the context for its true growth. James takes his gardening metaphor seriously. Peace is the soil and those who make peace are the gardeners while the harvest of righteousness is the result. A harmonious fellowship of believers is the soil out of which grows the whole life that is pleasing to God.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         Why is James so concerned about controlling the tongue? Why does he compare the tongue to a fire? What is the point of the two illustrations he uses in 3:3-4?

2.         How do 3:9-12 describe the restless evil and deadly poison of 3:8? Note in these verses the reason James gives for not cursing people: they are made in the likeness of God. How can remembering this truth help you not to speak unloving words to people?

3.         In 3:11-12 James writes that the problem of the tongue is due to the condition of the heart (source). If our heart is not pure then our thoughts and words will not be pure. According to 3:13-18 how are we to purify our heart?

4.         Contrast the two wisdoms according to their origin, characteristics and results. Think about the seven adjectives James uses in 3:17 to describe the wisdom from above. Do you see evidence of these seven adjectives in your life? Is your life producing a harvest of righteousness?


James, Dan McCartney, ECNT, Baker.

The Letter of James, Douglas Moo, Eerdmans.

The Message of James, J.A. Motyer, Inter-Varsity.

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