Tame Tongues

None of us need to be convinced of how difficult it is to tame the tongue. It is likely that you have already failed today. But in the midst of knowing how hard it is to tame the tongue, we need to be reminded of why it’s so difficult and where to go for help. James 3:1-12 points us in the right direction. 

               James uses two illustrations to teach that humankind is unable to bridle his tongue. His first illustration is that of a rider on a horse who can put a bit into the horse’s mouth and control its whole body (Jas. 3:3). His second is of a pilot on a ship that can guide the large vessel with a small rudder, turning it where he wants it to go (v. 4). In contrast, a person cannot control his body with his tongue.

               To explain why James uses the imagery of fire. Just as a small fire can set a large forest ablaze, so too the small tongue can set the whole body ablaze. In fact, James calls the tongue a fire, a world of unrighteousness…staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life” (Jas. 3:6). What gives the tongue such destructive power? It is “set on fire by hell” (v. 6). In other words, Satan stands behind the destructive power of the tongue.

               James illustrates his point by using the animal world (Jas. 3:7). God commanded Adam and Eve to have dominion over the creatures of the earth (Gen. 1:26-28), and indeed James says that every kind of animal “can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind” (v. 7). However, humans cant tame the human tongue. “It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (v. 8). For example, the same mouth can bless God and curse people made in His image (vv. 9-10). But this should not be so, and James uses four images to teach us why.

               First, fresh water and salt water cannot pour out of the same spring (Jas. 3:11). Second, a fig tree cannot produce a different kind of fruit than figs (v. 12). Third, a grapevine cannot produce anything but grapes (v. 12). Finally, a salt pond cannot produce fresh water (v. 12). In all four illustrations, the point is the same. Believers should be blessing the Lord and others, not cursing them, because we have been blessed with eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. And yet, James has already told us that it is impossible for humankind to tame the tongue (v. 8). So what do we do?

               Jesus tells us that it is not first our tongues, but our hearts, that are the real culprit. But 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” (Matt. 15:18-19). So the tongue simply reflects what is already in the heart. Jesus also teaches that believers and unbelievers can be recognized by the fruit they bear. In teaching this He again emphasizes that it is out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:35). He compares our hearts to a storehouse of treasure. The good person brings forth good out of his good treasure/good heart, but an evil person brings forth evil out of his evil treasure/evil heart. He emphasizes the importance of our words by reminding us that we will give an account for every word we speak on the day of judgment (Matt. 12:35-36). Like James, Jesus keeps the heart and the tongue intricately connected.

               Since it is not just the temperature of our tongues, but also the temperature of our hearts, we need to ask the Lord for help. We know that we have received new hearts and that we have been given everything we need to life a life of godliness (see Jer. 31:31-34; 2 Pet. 1:3). Furthermore, we know that the throne of grace is open to us in our time of need (Heb. 4:16). But we also know that on this side of glory we will continue to sin. James doesnt give us the answer right away, but a little later in his letter he tells his readers that God gives more grace to those who come to Him in humility (4:6). This is the key in answering the question, What do we do with tongues we cant tame?” We approach our heavenly Father in humility, acknowledging that we are unable to tame our tongue, confessing the temperature of our tongue throughout the course of the day, and asking Him to tame our tongue. Will we still fail? Of course we will. No man is perfect on this side of glory. But as we approach our Father in humility, crying out for help, He is gracious to give us help in time of need and to provide a way of escape from our sinful hearts and tongues.

               In light of these verses, we could add another stanza to the hymn, Take My Life And Let It Be,

                              Take my tongue and let it be

                              Bridled, Father, unto Thee;

                              Take my teaching and my speech

                              Let them be on fire for Thee

                              Let them be on fire for Thee.

Sarah Ivill (ThM, Dallas Theological Seminary) is a Reformed author, wife, homeschooling mom, Bible study teacher, and conference speaker who lives in Matthews, North Carolina, and is a member of Christ Covenant Church (PCA). To learn more, please visit www.sarahivill.com.


Sarah Ivill