Taming the Tongue
James 3:7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and creature of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind. 8 But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God. 10 Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring send forth fresh water and bitter from the same opening? 12 Can a fig tree, my brethren, bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Thus no spring yields both salt water and fresh. (NKJV)
James is writing here to Christian Jews of the first century church. These are God’s words to believers, Christians. In this chapter, James is giving instruction to teachers of the gospel, but this passage applies just as well to all Christians.
James is warning us of the dangers of not minding our tongue, our words to others. The tongue is an instrument that can be used for sin. Solomon said it best when he wrote “Whoever guards his mouth and tongue Keeps his soul from troubles” (Prov. 21:23).
James begins this passage by pointing out that mankind can tame all kinds of animals, but cannot tame the tongue (vv. 7-8a). The tongue is more powerful than the greatest of animals. Lions, the so called kings of the jungle, can be tamed by man. Huge elephants can be tamed by man. But the very small and seemingly innocuous tongue cannot be tamed by man. It can cause more damage than any animal. Words can cut to the soul, while animals can only damage the body.
James describes the tongue as “an unruly evil, full of deadly poison” (v. 8b). It can be used to do great evil. Like poison, it has the ability to kill. It kills relationships. It can have eternal consequences.
Wikipedia defines gossip as “idle talk or rumor, especially about the personal or private affairs of others.” Gossip can be true, but that does not make it right. Before we speak we should always ask ourselves three little questions. “Is it true?” “Is it kind?” Is it necessary?” Gossip may be true. But is it kind? Is it necessary? If it is about the personal or private affairs of another, it is not kind to speak of that without first asking permission of that person. Also, it is not necessary, in most cases. Gossip is a sin. Sin is evil. Gossip is an “unruly evil”.
So the tongue can be a curse. But it can also be a blessing. We can bless God with our tongue, and we can also curse men, that are made in God’s image, with that same tongue (v.9-10a). This “ought not to be so” (v. 10b), according to God. God gave us the tongue for blessing, not for cursing. It is an instrument designed by God for one thing, blessing. It is not designed for two opposite purposes.
Next, James gives us three examples of how God designed nature for a specific purpose (vv. 11-12a). A fresh water spring is not designed to produce salt water. A fig tree is not designed to produce olives. And a grapevine is not designed to produce figs. In the same way, the tongue is not designed to produce curses.
In summary, the tongue is not designed for both curses and blessing. “No spring yields both salt water and fresh” (v. 12b). God designed the tongue for the specific purpose of blessing.
So the next question is “How do we do this?” How do we use the tongue strictly for blessing? How do we tame the tongue? The answer is that “we” cannot do this. “No man can tame the tongue” (v. 8).
Only God can tame the tongue. That is because the tongue only speaks what is already in the heart, and only God can change hearts. He changes us from the inside out. God, through the work of the Holy Spirit, changes our “want tos”. We no longer want to be the person we were before we became a Christian. We no longer want to do the same things, and we no longer want to say the same things. God changes us and makes us the person he designed us to be. All we have to do is yield to the Holy Spirit who lives in every Christian. We allow God to live in us. He changes our heart and, in so doing, He tames our tongue.
Online Bible Commentary