Controlling Our Tongues

Eating crow is never fun. The good news is we never have to eat words we fail to speak. Words are powerful. They can either offer hope, joy, and encouragement or destroy life. They can either nurture blessing or cause damage that cannot be undone.

James, Jesus’ half-brother and leader of the church in Jerusalem, offered counsel to persecuted believers with two apparent objectives when he wrote about the tongue: to squelch the tendencies to say hurtful things and to give advice to people going through tough times. James called the tongue “a fire, a world of iniquity” (Jas. 3:6) that must be controlled.

Use your Tongue Wisely
James compared the tongue to a bit and a rudder. Both are extremely small. Yet a rider controls a horse by pulling the bit’s leather straps, and an entire ship is controlled by turning the rudder. Both objects influence future direction.

Like bits and rudders, our tongues control our lives. “The tongue is a little member and boasts great things” (v. 5). James said to recognize the tongue’s influence and impulsiveness—and to control it.

One way to exercise control is by not rushing to give advice: “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment. For we all stumble in many things” (vv. 1–2). We all stumble in our speech at times. We may say something that doesn’t come out as intended. Or perhaps it does come out as intended and creates trouble, and we wish we could take it back. Bridled speech manifests maturity. Impulsive speech manifests immaturity.

James said “teachers” will “receive a stricter judgment” (v. 1). He was not speaking of false teachers who misinterpret Scripture (though that’s true). He was referring to people who are quick to give advice. We must be careful about counseling others because we make ourselves “teachers” and will be judged accordingly. If someone shares a problem, trial, or difficulty and we offer a solution the individual follows, we become partially responsible for that person’s actions.

Abraham and Sarah. In Genesis 16, for example, Sarah went to her husband, Abraham, and told him, “The LORD has restrained me from bearing children. Please, go in to my maid; perhaps I shall obtain children by her” (v. 2). So Abraham took Hagar as a second wife and fathered a son with her. That was not God’s plan, and later Sarah was angry with Abraham because of Hagar. Bad advice yields bad decisions.

Jacob and Rebekah. Jacob stole the birthright from his twin brother, Esau, based on bad advice from their mother, Rebekah (Gen. 27). She insisted Jacob pretend he was Esau to trick their father, Isaac, into giving him the blessing of the firstborn. Rather than trust God to keep His promise that Esau would serve Jacob, she concocted a scheme that extracted the blessing but forced Jacob to flee from his own brother; and there is no evidence Rebekah ever saw the son she loved again.

Job’s wife. Job went through so many trials his wife finally told him, “Curse God and die!” (Job 2:9). She basically said, “It’s not right you have to suffer like this. There’s no solution to what you’re going through. You need to acknowledge that God is not with you; curse Him, and die.”

But, unlike Abraham who heeded his wife’s bad advice, Job told the woman, “‘You speak as one of the foolish women speaks. Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity?’ In all this Job did not sin with his lips” (v. 10). Job exercised leadership and refused to follow bad counsel. How many times have we taken or given advice, only to find we unsuccessfully tried to circumvent a hardship God wanted us to go through?

Yet we must remember advice is cheap, and we must carefully choose what advice we give and what advice we follow.

We don’t like pain and suffering—for ourselves or our loved ones. So, we seek a way out. Yet we must remember advice is cheap, and we must carefully choose what advice we give and what advice we follow. Bad advice could be the rudder controlling someone’s life.

Use Your Tongue Carefully
We also must remember the tongue can set our worlds on fire: “See how great a forest a little fire kindles! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell” (Jas. 3:5–6).

Although James would have denounced filthy language, such speech is not what he was talking about here. He was referring to advice that contradicts God’s Word, thereby worsening the situations of those who follow such counsel. When Jesus spoke to the religious leaders, He called them a “brood of vipers” because their speech caused trouble (Mt. 12:34):

How can you, being evil, speak good things? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things. But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned (vv. 34–37).

Jesus did not subscribe to the philosophy “Just share what’s on your heart. As long as you say what you really believe, it’s fine.” Scripture calls the heart “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jer. 17:9). He said it’s possible for us to speak out of the evilness of our hearts. Even after we become Christians, we have old natures and a desire to avoid the hardships God allows into our lives.

James said, “Every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and creature of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind. But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison” (Jas. 3:7–8). If only we trained our tongues as diligently as we train our pets.

In the 1880s, James Wide trained a baboon he named Jack to work for the railroad. Jack never made a single mistake and worked for the railroad in South Africa nine years. All sorts of animals can be trained. Yet the tongue eludes us.

When we don’t want people to suffer, we sometimes offer advice contrary to God’s Word. Proverbs says, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit” (18:21). In other words, our speech either brings blessing or cursing from both God and men in both time and eternity. “The heart of the righteous studies how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours forth evil” (15:28). We must use our tongues carefully.

Use Your Tongue Positively
Unfortunately, the same tongue that blesses God also curses and contradicts God’s Word. Native Americans called this phenomenon a “forked tongue.” James said such behavior is unacceptable.

The tongue can contradict God’s design: “Does a spring send forth fresh water and bitter from the same opening? Can a fig tree, my brethren, bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Thus no spring yields both salt water and fresh” (Jas. 3:11–12).

There is unification in nature, but not with the tongue. The apostle Paul said, “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers” (Eph. 4:29).

Bestselling Christian author and counselor Larry Crabb told a story worth retelling in his book Encouragement. As a high school student, he stuttered terribly. One Sunday, a church elder approached him after Larry had stuttered through a Sunday morning prayer. “‘Larry,’ he said, ‘there’s one thing I want you to know. Whatever you do for the Lord, I’m behind you one thousand percent.’ Then he walked away.”

“Even as I write these words,” Crabb said, “my eyes fill with tears. . . . Those words were life words. They had power. They reached deep into my being. My resolve never again to speak publicly weakened instantly.

“Since the day those words were spoken, God has led me into a ministry in which I regularly address and pray before crowds of all sizes. I do it without stuttering. I love it. Not only death, but also life lies in the power of the tongue. God intends for us to be people who use words to encourage one another.”1 Amen.

    1. Dr. Larry Crabb and Dr. Dan Allender, Encouragement: The Unexpected Power of Building Others Up (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013), 27.

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