Bryan Clements - Taming the Tongue

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Taming the Tongue


It’s the little things in life that make a difference.


A tiny rock in your shoe.

Speck in your eye.

Splinter.  Very small but it has a great impact on the body.


James teaches this lesson as he writes about the tongue.  It is not very big, but it has enormous power.


James 3:1-18 (NASB95)
1 Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment.
2 For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well.  Romans 3.23
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.
13 Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom.

Introduction: The Bible says a great deal about the tongue.

David prayed for the Lord to set a watch and keep the door of his lips.

The writer of Proverbs declared that the hypocrite with his mouth destroyed his neighbor.

Jesus warned about judgment regarding use of the tongue (Matt. 12:36–37).

James said it takes a perfect person to not offend by words (James 3:3).

The way we talk reveals what we think, for out of the abundance of his heart a man speaks.

The use of the tongue either crowns or curses the Christian community.

How we talk is a gauge to our spiritual health.

Our speech reveals what kind of person we are. And it is not just what we say but it is how we say it.

1.    The Tongue’s Power to Direct (James 3:3–5). James 3:3–5 illustrates the great potential of the tongue in how it directs: like the bit to control a horse and the rudder to control a ship. The power of the tongue is effective to direct the lives of others into right or wrong paths. We must ever be aware of the idle word, the questionable story, the deliberate lie, or a half-truth, which is in reality a whole lie. If the tongue is properly regulated, the whole man—as a horse is managed by the bit and a ship is steered by the rudder—is brought under control.  We can use our tongues to guide people in right choices and decisions that honor God.   The problem with the tongue, however, is that it has the power to direct in the wrong way as well.  The tongue is like any other gift that is given by God; it can be misused and do serious damage.

James 3:5 (NASB95)
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!

We used to sing, “It only takes a spark, to get a fire going…”  Every year we see huge forest fires that cause millions of dollars worth of damage and inevitably when they get to the source they find something small; a camper didn’t put his fire out, someone careless with a match or cigarette butt unintentionally starts a fire that soon gets out of control destroying everything in its path.

What a picture of what happens when we don’t guard our tongue.  A careless word, a half truth, or even the complete truth spoken in a manner that there is no hint of love.  Arguments erupt and before you know it you’re in the middle of a forest fire of words, words that burn and sting and injure.  You didn’t mean it to happen that way it just did.  And then when you look around you the damage is unbelievable.

2.    The Tongue’s Power to Destroy (James 3:6). James gives us the tongue’s description, comparing it to a fire, a world of iniquity (3:6). He further states that it defiles the whole body, sets on fire the course of nature and is itself set on fire by hell. What a powerful indictment!

The tongue is a powerful weapon.

Ps 52:2 Your tongue devises destruction, Like a sharp razor, O worker of deceit.
Job 5:21 “You will be hidden from the scourge of the tongue, And you will not be afraid of violence when it comes.
Ps 57:4 My soul is among lions; I must lie among those who breathe forth fire, Even the sons of men, whose teeth are spears and arrows And their tongue a sharp sword.
Ps 64:3 Who have sharpened their tongue like a sword. They aimed bitter speech as their arrow,
Ps 140:3 They sharpen their tongues as a serpent; Poison of a viper is under their lips. Selah.
Jer 9:8 “Their tongue is a deadly arrow; It speaks deceit; With his mouth one speaks peace to his neighbor, But inwardly he sets an ambush for him.
Jer 18:18 Then they said, “Come and let us devise plans against Jeremiah. Surely the law is not going to be lost to the priest, nor counsel to the sage, nor the divine word to the prophet! Come on and let us strike at him with our tongue, and let us give no heed to any of his words.”

What do we sharpen?  Knives, swords, axes, tongues

Why do we sharpen these items?  We want them to cut better, faster, easier, do more damage. 

          You wait til I see that person.  We plan what we are going to say, we rehearse it in our minds.

We are more careful with sharp knives than we are with our tongues.  But the wounds that we make with knives heal, while the wounds that we make with our tongues are easily reopened.  All it takes is another careless word and those wounds are fresh on our minds.

James tells us that the tongue defiles the whole body.  You may look clean on the outside and you may even act okay most of the time, but if your tongue is dirty, if the language and the words out of your mouth are hurtful or obscene or careless, it affects your entire body.

Throughout his epistle, James describes the tongue’s devastation: the hasty tongue (1:19), the hellish tongue (3:6), the heathen tongue (5:12), the hypocritical tongue (1:26), and the heartless tongue (2:15–16) are all described in this book.

3.    The Tongue’s Power to Delight or to Degrade (James 3:9–17).

James shows us very clearly that we need to discipline our tongues.  We need to be mindful of the words that come out of our mouths.

We bless God with our mouths.

Ps 35:28 And my tongue shall declare Your righteousness And Your praise all day long.
Ps 51:14 Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, the God of my salvation; Then my tongue will joyfully sing of Your righteousness.
Ps 66:17 I cried to Him with my mouth, And He was extolled with my tongue.
Ps 119:172 Let my tongue sing of Your word, For all Your commandments are righteousness.

We were meant to praise and glorify God.  We do it with the words that we say, with the words that we sing. Then James reminds us that with that very same tongue we curse men.  We curse the very creation of the God that we just finished praising.  God we love you, but those people you created, we can’t stand them.  God we can’t even understand why you love those people.  We use our tongues to cut them down, chop them off at the knees.  But God we love you!

James tells us that we can’t have it both ways.  We can’t have blessings and curses from the same mouth. It just doesn’t work. 

Ps 15:3 He does not slander with his tongue, Nor does evil to his neighbor,
Ps 34:13 Keep your tongue from evil And your lips from speaking deceit.
Ps 50:19 “You let your mouth loose in evil And your tongue frames deceit.
Ps 52:4 You love all words that devour, O deceitful tongue.
Ps 78:36 But they deceived Him with their mouth And lied to Him with their tongue.
Ps 109:2 For they have opened the wicked and deceitful mouth against me; They have spoken against me with a lying tongue.

A.  The Illustrations (v. 11). James uses a fountain and fruit trees to set forth this truth (3:9–17). He argues, “Does a spring send forth fresh water and bitter from the same opening? It just doesn’t happen.  Can a fig tree, my brethren, bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Thus no spring yields both salt water and fresh.”  These are obvious contradictions.  We almost laugh when we think of them.  A fig tree full of olives. 

It is just as big a contradiction when we use our tongues to destroy and degrade instead of delighting in God.

One other point as we talk about using our tongues in a destructive manner.  We get angry and some pretty nasty things come out of our mouth and then we want to say, “I didn’t mean that.”  Be careful here.

Jesus tells us that

18 “But the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man.
19 “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders.

What comes out of our mouth starts in our heart.  When you hear those things come out of your mouth you need to stop and do a heart check.  They didn’t just slip out.  If it wasn’t in your heart it would not have come out of your mouth.

One of my favorite quotes is, “What’s down in the well comes up in the bucket.”  If your well is full of fresh living water…..or if it is full of mud.

B.     The Impossibility (v. 10b). James declares that it is impossible for a fountain to give both fresh and salt water at the same time. Likewise it is impossible for the tongue to speak blessings and cursing at the same time; in the end your blessings are contradicted and mean nothing.  The tongue cannot do two things simultaneously. 

C.     The Imperative (vv. 8–10). These verses make it obvious that we must discipline our tongues. The holy tongue, happy tongue, honest tongue, and humble tongue characterize the Christian. We should use the tongue to pray for wisdom, help the afflicted, for healing, and for backsliders to be restored. Use the tongue to praise his heavenly Father for His glory, goodness and greatness. Use his tongue to proclaim the gospel.

Ps 35:28 And my tongue shall declare Your righteousness And Your praise all day long.
Ps 37:30 The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom, And his tongue speaks justice.
Ps 51:14 Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, the God of my salvation; Then my tongue will joyfully sing of Your righteousness.
Ps 66:17 I cried to Him with my mouth, And He was extolled with my tongue.
Ps 119:172 Let my tongue sing of Your word, For all Your commandments are righteousness.
Ps 126:2 Then our mouth was filled with laughter And our tongue with joyful shouting; Then they said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.”  

We should use our tongues to proclaim the gospel, but we can’t stop with just proclaiming it to people.  We also need to use our tongues to live the gospel every day.  By offering forgiveness, giving healing and comfort and by accepting grace.  All of these show the gospel being lived every day. 

D.     The Inference (v. 8a). Our challenge in this is that, as James puts it, “No man can tame the tongue.”  The tongue can only be tamed by the Holy Spirit.  

If we cannot tame the tongue, we must rely on the Holy Spirit to do so in our lives. We are exhorted to yield our members (Rom. 6:13) to the Lord. That includes the tongue.

We need to be mindful of every word that comes out of our mouth. 

Is this going to cut or this going to heal?

Just because it is the truth doesn’t mean that it has to be just laid out there.  There is a time for brutal honesty and there is a time for bridling the tongue.  We have to use our tongues like a surgeon uses his scalpel.  That scalpel is sharp and can either do irreparable damage or it can bring healing.

Prov 12:18 There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword, But the tongue of the wise brings healing.
Prov 15:4 A soothing tongue is a tree of life, 
Prov 18:21 Death and life are in the power of the tongue, And those who love it will eat its fruit.
Prov 21:23 He who guards his mouth and his tongue, Guards his soul from troubles.

Conclusion: Maybe it’s time we all gave our tongues to the Lord and prayed, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, my strength and my Redeemer” (Ps. 19:14).

We want God to guide our words. And we want them to glorify the Father.  Because the one thing that we know that every tongue will do is

Phil 2:11 and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

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