Summary: 7th message on James. The ability to control the tongue is a test of character for all Christians. James concern is to tame the tongue, a small organ that can indicate the temperature of your soul.
Winston Churchill rallied the Free World against the threat of totalitarianism by the power of his speech. During those same days, Adolph Hitler, mesmerized the German nation with his oratorical skill, and led the Axis war machine to enslave much of Europe. Churchill and Hitler demonstrate the power of the tongue to achieve good or evil.
The Bible says a great deal about the power of speech for right or for wrong. James offers the classic Biblical exposition on the problem of the human tongue. Teachers instruct by example and by words, so James begins this chapter insisting that those who desire to teach must understand their great responsibility and that they face an ultimate judgment based on their words. The ability to control the tongue is a test of character, not just for teachers, but also for all Christians. It is a proof of maturity and self-control.
James’ concern is to tame the tongue. This little organ offers an index on our well-being. In a doctor’s office the physician will often ask you to show him your tongue. It tells him something about your physical condition. It also reveals the temperature of your soul.
I. THE TONGUE IS SMALL BUT POWERFUL FOR DOING EVIL -vv. 3-5
James presents three illustrations to demonstrate the impact of small things. A bit placed in a horse’s mouth is little, but it controls the animal. A rudder is tiny, compared to the size of a ship, but it determines the vessel’s course in powerful ocean currents. An insignificant spark may go unnoticed, but it can cause a great fire, destroying an entire forest. The tongue is minor in size, but it has major potential to influence and destroy.
The element of control is vital in each of the illustrations. The strength of the horse has revolutionized human history. Indeed, we measure energy by horsepower. Unless controlled, however, that strength is ineffective at best; at worst it is destructive. A great ship is capable of transporting people and valuable goods. But if the rudder doesn’t operate correctly, the rich cargo can be lost or destroyed. A rudderless, uncontrollable ship is worthless. A controlled fire provides warmth and comfort in a home. Out of control, that same fire becomes an agent of tragedy.
James says, “Likewise the tongue....” (v. 5). The tongue has the power to destroy. Like a stampede of horses, or a wildfire, it can do irreparable harm. False teaching, malicious gossip, and even slight innuendos can destroy confidence and undermine reputations.
Words must be used very carefully. A visitor to the U. S. attempted to answer a question about his family, “Do you have any children?” Trying to explain that his wife could not have a child, he said, “My wife is impregnable!” Seeing that the word wasn’t quite proper, he said, “No; you see my wife is inconceivable!” Again realizing that his adjective wasn’t appropriate, he finally and triumphantly exclaimed, “You see my wife is unbearable!” The following sentences are literal, taken from actual letters received by public welfare departments:
“I cannot get sick pay. I have 6 children. Can you tell me why?”
“I am glad to report that my husband who was reported missing is dead.”
“I am very much annoyed to find that you have branded my boy illiterate, as this is a dirty lie. I was married a week before he was born.”
“Mrs. Jones has not had any clothes for a year, and has been visited by the clergy regularly.”
Careful thought must be given to the power of our words. An untimely word or an unfair evaluation may do damage that lasts a lifetime. Someone has said, “The human tongue is small, hidden and boneless. However [it] is so powerful. The fist can reach only about three feet, but the tongue has the reach of an intercontinental ballistic missile. The tongue can separate, kill, wound, wreck, split and alienate” [Tal D. Bonham, God Doesn’t Want Your Money (VIP, n.d.), 6].
On the ability of the tongue to “make great boasts” one man comments:
It can sway men to violence, or it can move them to the noblest actions. In can instruct the ignorant, encourage the dejected, comfort the sorrowing, and soothe the dying. Or, it can crush the human spirit, destroy reputations, spread distrust and hate, and bring nations to the brink of war [Curtis Vaughn, James, A Study Guide (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1969)].
II. THE TONGUE IS UNCONTROLLABLY DANGEROUS ... vv. 6-8
The tongue has cataclysmic power: “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell” (v. 6). The grim assessment of this verse presents one of the most difficult passages of the epistle.