Speak

James 3:2–12

... If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well.

3 Now if we put the bits into the horses’ mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well.

4 Look at the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires.

5 So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things.

See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire!

6 And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell.

7 For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race.

8 But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison.

9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God;

10 from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way.

11 Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water?

12 Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Nor can salt water produce fresh.

Intro

It is said that “actions speak louder than words.”

I suppose, when taken literally, actions don’t inherently make a noise at all, and so the worn-out phrase is false.  But of course, it’s meant to be taken symbolically: Actions that are tangible and physically manifested mean more than easy-to-say words.  Yet, even the symbolic meaning of the phrase is false.  The relationship between words and action is not so simple; it is not merely a hierarchical structure, that actions are superior to words.

From Scripture we see that one of the many relationships between words and actions is that words give birth to action — God created the heavens with merely a word (Psalm 33:6); Peter spoke with words and the Holy Spirit moved to convict the men of sin (Acts 2:37); Jesus raised the lame to walk, made the sick well, calmed the seas, and cast out demons with merely a word (John 5:8; Matthew 9:6; Mark 4:39; Mark 1:25; and more); etc. Indeed, in other cases, as we will see by the end of this article, words are by no means softer or less than actions.

As James 3:2-12 proves, words are an integral part of a Christian’s walk with God.

2

...If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well.

Is it humanly possible to not stumble in what we say?  Surely the whole world stands guilty, as Romans 3:10-18 says:

10 as it is written,

“There is none righteous, not even one;

11There is none who understands,

There is none who seeks for God;

12 All have turned aside, together they have become useless;

There is none who does good,

There is not even one.”

13 “Their throat is an open grave,

With their tongues they keep deceiving,”

“The poison of asps is under their lips”;

14 “Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness”;

15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood,

16 Destruction and misery are in their paths,

17 And the path of peace they have not known.”

18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

Verse 13-14 are especially condemning.  Our throats are full of rotting flesh and dead man’s bones, and with this stench on our tongues, we keep deceiving.  The poison of asps (Egyptian cobras) is in our mouth under our tongues, and we wait to unleash the poison that kills with cursing and bitterness.

Isaiah gives another description of humanity, as he cries when he sees the Lord in the heavenly places in all His splendor and majesty: “...Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I live among a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (Isaiah 6:5).  In truth, seeing the majesty of God enables us to see the depravity of ourselves.

This stands in stark contrast to what Isaiah prophecies about the Messiah to come, “Nor was there any deceit in His mouth” (Isaiah 53:9).  Yet the issue is not only of what we speak.  Jesus says to the Pharisees in Matthew 12:34–37 that the source of wicked speech is rather in the heart, the core and center of a man.  Speaking to the Pharisees and the multitudes, He says:

34 “You brood of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak what is good? For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart.

35 “The good man brings out of his good treasure what is good; and the evil man brings out of his evil treasure what is evil.

36 “But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment.

37 “For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”

No man is good, for no man’s heart is good.  Rather, left to himself, every man is hopelessly wicked, condemned by his own tongue, a viper with a poisonous tongue.  Out of the depraved and vile heart comes all sorts of evil.  We will all give an accounting for even the careless words, not to mention the evil treasure, that spews from the open grave and out of the poisonous mouth, and all who are guilty will be condemned.

James expounds this fact, that the words are a reflection of all that is within a man’s heart and core, in 3:3-5a.

3-5a

3 Now if we put the bits into the horses’ mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well.

4 Look at the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires.

5 So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things. [...]

The bit is not greater than the horse who holds it in its mouth, is it?  The rudder is not greater than the great ships and sails that the vast expanses of the ocean it is attached to, is it?  The tongue is not greater than the body that it rests in, is it?  Yet, the bit, the rudder, and the tongue, leads and guides the greater thing that it is a part of.  To victory or defeat?  To treasure or shipwreck?  To kindness and love or hatred and injury?  Our lives paths are directed by our tongue.  Learn to bridle it, and one can walk to path of peace, of righteousness, of God.

5b-6

[...] See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire!

6 And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell.

Fire devastates and propagates, with only an eye for fuel, leaving destruction and misery in it’s path.  The scars it leaves is never one of life or rejuvenation.  [And yes, some forest fires are necessary to clear underbrush and make room for new life, but you get the point.]  Fire overwhelming cuts down, burns, brings down; it does not generally build up or give life.

And this small fire sets on fire the our entire bodies, our lives in this world, and even our lives to come after death.  It’s flame has the power to condemn us in sin.  It is evident that the saints of old understood this well, as the Solomon writes extensively in Proverbs and the psalmists in Psalms.  [See previous posts].  The apostles also knew the power of the tongue, as they often exhorted fellow Christians to guard their speech.

Ephesians 4:15, 25, 29, 31; 5:4

15 but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ,

[...]

25 Therefore, laying aside falsehood, speak truth each one of you with his neighbor, for we are members of one another.

[...]

29 Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.

[..]

31 Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.

[...]

4 and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks.

Colossians 3:8-9

8 But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth.

9 Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices,

1 Peter 2:1

Therefore,putting aside all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander,

Romans 14:19

So then we pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another.

The tongue has to power to speak in love, aid in maturing towards Christ-likeness,  speak truth, build unity, edify, give grace, give thanks, make peace, and build up the body of Christ, as well as the power to set on fire the course of our lives, speak falsehood, speak unwholesome words, express bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander, and malice, spew filthiness, silliness, coarse jesting, abuse, evil, hypocrisy, and envy.  Why do we not naturally choose to speak forth the former and all their goodness?  James gives the answer in 3:7-8.

7-8

7 For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race.

8 But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison.

Lions, tigers, and bears (oh my!), elephants, hippos, falcons, vultures, Komodo dragons, dinosaurs, snakes, scorpions, crocodiles, whales, sharks, jellyfish, stingrays, etc., when compared to the untamable tongue, are mere child’s play.  Humanity rules over all creatures of the land, air, and sea, whether by having the power to tame, capture, or kill.  Yet our own tongues rule over us.  It is restless, full of a deadlier poison than the poison of the box jellyfish, king cobra, blue-ringed octopus, poison dart frog, puffer fish, or stone fish, some of the deadliest animals on earth.  Yet, it’s not because the tongue can directly kill the body, but because it kills the spirit.  It condemns to hell.  As Jesus says in Matthew 5:21-22 —

21 “You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not commit murder’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’

22 “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.”

Escalating levels of guilt: guilty before the court, guilty before the supreme court, guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.  It escalates from anger unexpressed to fruition of that anger in words.

James says that “no one can tame the tongue.”  But the apostles give repeated commands to bridle the tongue, to kill the wickedness that it spews and instead use it for good.  Conflict?  No.  We also know that “...His commandments are not burdensome (1 John 5:3), so that His commands are not meant only to build up guilt and shame.  So then, while it may be impossible to perfectly tame the tongue, there must be a means of gaining progressive control over it.  God through the apostles would not command Christians to do something that is impossible and that He was unwilling to help us with.  James gives the solution in 3:9-10.

9-12

9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God;

10 from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way.

11 Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water?

12 Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Nor can salt water produce fresh.

Can the same lips that sing, “come, Lord Jesus, come”; “how great is our God”; “how great the Father’s love for us”; “in Thy service pain is pleasure”; “Your grace has found me just as I am”; “the King of glory has died in my place”; “holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God, Almighty”; “I know that while in heaven He stands, no tongue can bid me hence depart”, such blessed refrains of praise, also sing a song of “you good-for-nothing”; “you fool”; or other phrases full of spite, bitterness, envy, anger, malice, hatred, abuse, evil, hypocrisy, coarseness, silliness, envy, filthiness?

The resounding answer should be “No!”  Just as a fountain cannot spew both fresh water and bitter water, just as a fig tree cannot produce a fruit that is contrary to it’s nature, so a Christian’s mouth should not be able to bring forth any word but that which is life-giving and refreshing to the hearer because of a circumcised heart (Deuteronomy 30:6; Romans 2:29), or bring forth any word but that which is contrary to his new nature received from the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 5:17) that loves the things that God loves and hates the things that God hates.

What hypocrisy I stand in! “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25)

But Hebrews 13:15 encourages:

Through Him then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name.

Through Him, Christ Jesus, let us continually, unceasingly, with a never-ending song of worship and praise lift up thanks with our lips to God the Father, His name, His character, His attributes, Him.  The throat, tongue, lips, mouth, heart, that is full of praise to a worthy God cannot simultaneously be cursing men.

And so, the key to taming the mouth, and subsequently guiding the rest of the body, is not by trying to avoid sinning through word by going mute, but by out of a transformed heart seeking to worship God in words and praise.

As is often the case in true, biblical Christianity, merely avoiding or eliminating something undesirable and sinful it not sufficient to transformation; it is the replacing, the overwhelming, the consuming, that replaces the sin with something far superior—God.

Idolatry is not killed by merely avoiding idols, but by loving the true God.  Addiction to foods, drugs, alcohol, technology, people, is not killed merely by fasting from them (for a new god will merely replace it), but by realizing that God who is the only One who can satisfy.  Selfishness is not killed merely by struggling to think of oneself less, but by having a right understanding that oneself is undeserving of praise, and considering others as more important than oneself (Philippians 2:3-4) as Christ Himself did (Phil 2:5-8).  Lust is not killed merely by avoiding situations and images that stumble the mind, but by seeing the Savior on the cross as more beautiful and more worthy of adoration.  Sin of the mouth is not killed by avoiding talking negatively, but by filling the mouth with continually praise and thanks to God.

Words and Salvation

In 3:11-12, James appeals to the Christian’s new nature, a Christian’s new heart that although is tainted with the remnant of sin, is made new by the sacrifice of Christ.  It is futile to attempt to control the mouth without the Holy Spirit who gives life and breath.  Being convicted of sin and trusting in Christ alone as the only way to God and heaven is step one.

Romans 10:9-10

9 that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved;

10 for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.

The mouth is inseparably tied to the heart.  May those who are called according to His purpose out of a sinful, yes, but transformed and regenerate heart, speak nothing but that which glorifies God (1 Corinthians 10:31), transfixed on the majesty, mercy, and grace that is our God.  May it lead to worship in word, deed, and thought, and may you strive by His grace according to His Spirit, thankful for His Son for the Father’s glory.

May those who do not know the great Judge as Father God turn away from their sin and towards the Savior Christ Jesus, and trade a heart of stone for heart of flesh (Ezekiel 11:19-20), sensitive rather than calloused to the things of God.

May the grace of God be with you,

Keith Fong

1 Peter 1:3-9

Psalm of Thanksgiving

Psalms