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The Book of James

Chapter 3

Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.

When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or 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. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

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. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. 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.

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.

The first two verses of the chapter dovetail nicely into James’ next theme which concerns the tongue. Just as the teacher may lead society astray, so one little organ of the body may lead the individual astray. James implores us to work hard at controlling our tongue. For its power over the rest of the body is as great as the power that the small rudder has over the course of an entire ship.

One would think that it’s our mind that controls our speech, but both the Bible and modern psychology agree it’s actually the other way around. It is our tongue—our speech—that steers our thinking. Saying something out loud, whether it’s to yourself or to another, gives power to a thought. Our tongue therefore controls our thinking. James tells us that as maturing Christians we must control our tongue.

He points out “the tongue is a little member that boasts great things.” We can all think of times that our words lead to difficulties, a misplaced jest, a “Freudian Slip,” a proclamation of love (or hatred), a commitment on a contract, a glib remark, an impossible promise, or a dangerous dare. Such words have the power to make us do things that hurt ourselves or others. There are more subtle ways our speech can harm; negative self-talk, self-deprecation, gossip, comments that erode another’s self confidence. In verse 19 of chapter one, James has already cautioned us to be “swift to hear” and “slow to speak.”

We can even recall the best of men being led astray by the work of their tongues. Peter, in Matthew (26:35), tells Jesus that he will never deny Him. Yet after the trial that led to His crucifixion and before the rooster crowed, Peter found occasion to deny His Lord three separate times.

James goes further, in chapter 3, verse 8, “The tongue can not tame a man; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.” Here we are again reminded of the power of the tongue. No man may tame it, but it may be kept under control with the help of God. He does not want us to refrain from its use altogether, but to regulate it for our own good and the good of others.

Questions to ponder:

  • In what ways has your tongue (or speech) gotten you in trouble or held you back from your full potential?
  • Do you see a need to change the way you talk to yourself or others?
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