“Taming the tongue” (James 3:1-12)

What do you think is the most powerful part of our body?

  • Perhaps our bulging biceps?
  • Maybe our beating heart?
  • Or our amazing brain?

(Did you know, for example, that our brain processes 70,000 thoughts a day, or that our heart pumps two thousand gallons of blood every 24 hours?!)

Those bits of our body are amazing, but the book of James in the Bible says there is an even more powerful part than that – our tongues.

They may only be little and mostly hidden in our mouth – but our tongues are powerful. That’s because we use our tongues to speak, and our words can have huge effects.

Our words can really help people or really hurt them. I expect we have all been helped and hurt at different times by words that people have said to us. In our reading today, James compares our tongues to some other small objects that can have big effects.

  • For example in verse 3 James says “When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal.A little piece of metal can make a huge horse change direction.
  • Now look at verse 4, which says “take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go”. A small rudder can determine whether a whole ship stays afloat or crashes into the rocks!
  • And in verse 5, James reminds us that just a “small spark”, can set a whole forest on fire. A small spark can create an inferno.

You see, small things can have big effects – including our tongues.

Did you know that we open our mouths to speak 700 times a day on average? (Some people rather more than that, I suspect!)

Whenever we open our mouths we are wielding a powerful force. Good words can make us feel great, but bad words can make us feel sad or drive us to despair. Friendships and careers, marriages and churches can (and sadly have) been damaged by bad words. Wrong words can be ‘weapons of mass destruction’.

I think we can summarise what James is saying to us today under three headings.

  • Firstly, our tongues need to be tamed.
  • Second, our speech shows our heart.
  • And thirdly, our speech should serve Jesus.

Let’s look at each of those in turn.

  1. Our tongues need to be tamed!

I guess we all know the saying: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”? But that’s not true – is it? We’ve all been upset at some time by critical comments, harsh words, bullying, bad language and lies.

So James says our unruly tongues need to be tamed – just like we tame wild animals to be pets in our homes or to perform in a circus. Look with me again at verse 7: “All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue.

Our tongues need to be brought under control. We need to make sure we say the right thing at the right time. As James says in verse 10: Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. We should be careful in what we say.

But its incredibly hard isn’t it? We have all said wrong things sometimes, and we find it really hard to keep our tongue under control.

In fact, James says its impossible for us on our own to tame our tongue, doesn’t he? Its easier to fly to the moon than tame our tongue!

On our own we don’t have the power to be perfect in what we say. Verse 2 today says we’re all “at fault” for some of the things we’ve said.

  1. Our speech shows our heart

Human beings can tame roaring lions and birds of prey, but we can’t control our own tongues. That’s because the Bible says our speech shows our heart. Our speech shows our heart – that’s the second lesson from our passage this morning. To change our words, we need a change of heart. Our hearts – our thoughts and feelings – control our heart, rather like a pilot controls a plane or a driver controls a car.

That is the point James is making in verses 11 and 12 today. Listen to them again with me: “Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig-tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.”  

What James is saying is that a plant produces its own fruit. A grape vine produces grapes, and a fig tree produces figs. You don’t see oranges on an apple tree, or plums on a pear tree! And elsewhere in nature, a salt spring can only spurt out salt water – it can’t produce pure water.

Our words are the ‘fruit’ from our heart – they ‘spring’ out from our soul. If we find ourselves speaking bad words, it shows that there is something wrong with our heart. To tame our tongues we first need a new heart.

This week we had a powercut at the Vicarage – it all went black downstairs one evening. I had to follow the wiring all the way back to the fusebox in the garage. I had to track the problem right back to its source to solve it.

In a similar way, to tame our tongues we need to have a change of heart. We need to tackle the problem with our speech at its source!

Jesus himself taught this, just as James does. Listen to Jesus’ words in Matthew chapter 12: “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognised by its fruit. The mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.” 

There’s only one person who can perform the ‘heart surgery’ every human needs. And that person is God’s Holy Spirit. Whenever someone becomes a Christian and first puts their faith in Jesus, God’s Spirit enters their heart and begins to change it.

And when God’s Spirit gets to work on our hearts, our words will change as a result – as our heart is transformed by God, so too our tongue will be tamed. In fact, some of the most visible ‘fruit of the Spirit’ in our lives will be a change in how and what we say.

If we are eager to grow as disciples of Jesus (as I hope we all are) we should be eager and impatient to see improvements in our speech – as God’s Spirit gets to work in us.

  1. Our speech should serve Jesus!

So before I finish, how do we use our tongues well? Well the third lesson from our reading this morning is that our speech should serve Jesus.

Here are three ways we can serve Jesus with our speech: i) by praising God, ii) by encouraging each other, and iii) by talking about Jesus.

Firstly, our tongues should be used to praise God. In verse 9 today, James tells us that when we “praise our Lord and Father” we are putting our tongues to very good use. We should praise the great God who made us, gives us all good things and sent us his Son. We can praise him in prayer, and sing songs to God in gratitude for all he’s given us.

Secondly, we should use our lips to encourage our fellow Christians. In fact the New Testament letter of Hebrews tells us to “spur one another on towards love and good deeds”.

So I hope that when we gather together at Church on Sundays we don’t grumble or gossip, criticize or condemn, but try to encourage our fellow Christians. I hope we seek to spur each other on to keep living for Jesus and growing in faith, hope and love.

Thirdly and finally, we should use our tongues to tell our non-Christian friends and family about Jesus – who he is, what he did for us on the Cross, and how we can become God’s forgiven friends forever through faith in him alone.

When you think about it, the most loving words we can ever share with someone are words about Jesus Christ. Words about the one person who can save us from sin, steer us through life, and give us eternal life beyond the grave.

So in the power of the Spirit, let’s use our tongues to praise God, to encourage one another, and to share the Gospel. But for now, let’s use our tongues to pray:

Lord Jesus, we’re sorry for those times when our words have been wrong, when we’ve sinned with our tongues. By the power of your Spirit, change our hearts, so that our lips may serve you as they should. In your name we pray, Amen.