Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.
How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.
What James has to say here in the third chapter is very true, practical teaching. This is lesson number one on how to be a good disciple. James says it very plainly in verse 2. “For we all stumble in many ways.” No question there. “And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.” He’s not saying anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect in speaking, but is perfect, period. Because if we can get hold of what comes out of our mouth, it will keep everything else we do in check. It’s the same thing that psychologists have been telling us, that Jesus told us long ago — what comes out of the mouth reflects what’s in the heart, and it’s what’s in the heart that makes us do the things that we do. Sin begins first in our heart. We get the next indication of it as it comes out of our lips. Then finally, as we have felt it inside, as we have spoken it aloud, we create it.
We often don’t pay much attention to sins of the tongue—gossip, slander, lying, exaggeration. Perhaps it’s because we so mindlessly commit these “respectable sins” that we don’t regard them as seriously as we do sins such as hate or adultery.
Also, let’s admit that bridling the tongue is tough. All of my life, my father told me that “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Nevertheless, I grew up speaking “rashly like the thrusts of a sword” (Proverbs 12:18). As I matured as a Christian, I tried to follow the advice of my father by cutting back on my cutting words—behavior modification. But I discovered I was focusing on the wrong organ.
I got help from the New Testament writer James, who calls the tongue a fire, a world of iniquity, a restless evil full of deadly poison (James 3:6, 8). That’s serious! James continues, saying that although many birds and reptiles have been tamed, “no human can tame the tongue” (James 3:8). And James leaves it at that—without a how-to formula!
Then James seems to switch subjects. In 3:13-18, he says that evil behavior comes from bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart. This heart-mouth connection sounds like the teaching of his half-brother, Jesus: “For his mouth speaks from that which fills his heart” (Luke 6:45).
Our words create and they endure, and James tell us we have got to watch what we say. The very first step in Christian discipleship is being able to keep track of what comes out of our mouths, and to guide and shape that to make sure that the words are good, kind, loving, and truthful. It’s the most basic form of self-control. As James says, if we get that right we’re likely to get everything else right as well. The basic rule for Christian speech happens to be the basic rule for all the rest of Christian action — do it in love. If you can’t do it in love, don’t do it. Whether it’s speech or action, love is the guiding principle that underlies every law in scripture, that underlies everything God wants from us. We need to think about that.
So I encourage you to look at the things you say. How much of it is criticism? How much of it is loving? How do those weigh out in the balance? If you put them on a scale, do the loving words weigh heavier than the critical ones? The most important thing is that you say what you say with love in your heart. Remember that who you’re talking to is someone made in the image of God, and a person for whom Christ died. They may be driving you crazy, but say that to yourself again and again until you can speak as if you were speaking to Jesus. Then, nine times out of ten, whatever you say is going to be all right.