Summary: "No human being can tame the tongue." Now, that is a sobering thought! James confronts us as believers, calling us to account for our speech. The message reviews the destructive power of the tongue, with encouragement to change how we often speak.
THE MOST POWERFUL FORCE MAN EVER CREATED
“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 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. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. 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. 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! 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. For 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.”
Stronger than a nuclear bomb, more destructive than napalm, more deadly than genetically engineered microbes, more invasive than nanobots—the human tongue is the most powerful force ever created. The tongue can put steel into the spine of frightened men and women, encourage the downhearted, build nations and societies, and heal wounded hearts. However, when abused, the tongue can destroy nations and kingdoms, our fellow man, and worst of all, the work of God’s Kingdom.
James’ focus is the power of the tongue as a teaching instrument within the assembly of the Lord. There, the tongue can either honour the Master of the church, building His people and providing sound counsel, or it can destroy godly people, forever rendering them ineffective in their endeavours. His words of caution need to be heard, especially in this day when an increasing number of the professed saints of God have “itching ears” and seek to “accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions.”
THE DESTRUCTIVE POWER OF SPEECH — James focuses our attention on the destructive power of the tongue; and we will do well to recognise the power inherent in our speech to destroy. James compares the tongue to the rudder for a ship or to the bit for a horse, indicating that the tongue can act similarly for us. We might well ask, “How can this be? Haven’t you said in a previous message, Pastor, that the tongue reflects what is in the heart? Now you seem to be saying that the tongue creates the problems of the heart rather than reflecting what is in the heart. Is there a contradiction in these two concepts?”
The tongue does reflect the heart. Jesus warned that “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil” [MATTHEW 12:34, 35].
However, reading what James wrote, it becomes evident that he is cautioning us that the tongue can set the direction for our life. When we make a statement that is detrimental to another person, we position ourselves relative to that individual. Consequently, it is difficult, if not impossible, for us to retreat from our stated position. If we have appeared to attack the other person when we spoke, we put them on the defensive and they are unlikely to permit us an opening for retreat. Consequently, we have created a tension and made it almost impossible to retreat. Thus, what has been said determines the direction we will move in all future conversations concerning that individual. The tongue has become the bit for our mouth, guiding our body in a direction we may not have thought to go.
Iterating the cautionary statement Jesus made, which was cited moments ago, He also warned, “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].
When you review that list of terrible sins, every one finds its origin in the heart. However, each of these sins is manifested through some expression, usually through speech. Murder originates in hatred. Bitterness festers until it inflames the heart and expressions of malice and hatred boil forth, leading us even to murder. If you say that you would never murder another person, I warn that if your heart surrenders to anger it is astonishing what you can do.