Summary: It is impossible to live a life characterized by blessing God while simultaneously cursing other believers. To attempt to so live is to demonstrate that one is suffering spiritual schizophrenia.
“Every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.”
Since the fall of our first parents, each member of the race is afflicted with a form of spiritual schizophrenia. In stating the obvious, I do not mean to disparage the tragic medical condition that plagues some of our friends and family members; but I do want to point out the obvious. Though we Christians profess to be children of the True and Living God, too often we are more thoroughly identified as belonging to this dying world rather than exhibiting characteristics reflecting our position as people of promise.
James is not the only biblical writer who compels us to confront this spiritual malady. It appears as a constant theme in Paul’s writings, and it is central to the message of many of the Old Testament prophets. Even the Psalmists occasionally address this tendency of attempting to live simultaneously in two worlds. Jesus did not hesitate to expose this disturbing tendency when He ministered in Judea. We should, therefore, take heed to the warnings and instruction provided through the Word of God so that we can be pleasing in the sight of God.
THE PROBLEM OF THE TONGUE — “Every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue.” Though we may seek to deny our malady, God deliberately removes whatever comfort we think to derive from hiding our condition. God did not create us to be fallible creatures, but because of the rebellion of our first parents, we are nevertheless fallen. We cannot keep ourselves from sin, and ultimately the tongue exposes our fallen condition, forcing us to confess that we are sinful.
Man may be said potentially to experience one of four states. Before the Fall, Adam was able not to sin. Since the Fall, fallen people have been unable not to sin. When people are regenerated, they are able to sin and they are also able to do good works pleasing to God. Ultimately, when transformed into our glorified state, redeemed people will be unable to sin. Though we live in anticipation of what shall yet come to pass, we must still contend with the present. Though we sin, we who are Christians cannot enjoy sinning—the Spirit of God convicts us. In our hearts, we long to please God with our words and with our deeds.
God’s Spirit, dwelling within the believer, urges the child of God to discover what pleases the Father and to do those things. Therefore, throughout the Word of God we are warned against sin and informed of what is pleasing to the Master. James’ instructions confront the condition that afflicts each of us, exposing the sinful nature we inherited from our first parents. The evidence for our sinful condition, apparent to all who permit themselves to reflect on the current state, is revealed through our speech.
James’ bald statement is that “no human being can tame the tongue.” The reason for such a strong statement is revealed whenever we recall a statement Jesus made on one occasion. “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person” [MATTHEW 15:18-20a]. His teaching iterates a truth stated earlier in His ministry. Then, Jesus said, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” [MATTHEW 12:34b].
Another time the Master said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” [MATTHEW 6:21]. He continued by making what superficially may appear to be an enigmatic statement. Jesus said, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness” [MATTHEW 6:22, 23]!
While the context makes it clear that the Master is speaking of the dangers arising when one is consumed by materialism, there is a broader application which fits with the caution James is giving. When we are blinded by prejudice, jealousy or conceit, the heart is darkened. Consequently, the darkened heart provides the impetus to injure others with the tongue. Prejudice erupts in calumny and malicious words. Jealousy within motivates us to gossip and to defame people we would not otherwise attack. Conceit drives us to tear down rather than to build up. Focused on ourselves, we become destructive. No wonder the tongue cannot be tamed! Its root is in the heart, and “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” [JEREMIAH 17:9].