I’ll be honest. I have not always used my tongue in the most positive, and constructive of ways. I could append my guilty plea with the excuse, saying, “it wasn’t me, the devil made me do it,” but such trifle excuses remove personal responsibility from the case. So what am I to do? Repent, seek the counsel of the Scriptures, and then implement that wisdom on a consistent basis.
As in all spiritual quests, the journey is quite personal. Spiritual progress is a tailor-made phenomenon, for no two people are exactly the same and all have individualized challenges. It is the struggle of overcoming, and harnessing the impulses of our body, and conforming them to the teaching of God as revealed in the Bible that unites all men searching for spiritual solutions to their plight with sin.
Perhaps, the most pervasive struggle is the use and misuse of our tongue. This little piece is focused on providing an encouragement and to provide ammunition in the battle over the tongue.
A Warning by James
When the brother of the Lord addressed the church spread across the Roman Empire, James provided one of the most lengthy sections committed to illustrating the danger and misuse of the tongue in the New Testament (3:1-18).
The passage connects two main themes articulated to resolve a number of problems facing the Jewish-Gentile church. On the one hand, a section affirming that faith and action must go hand in hand in order to be genuine faith (2:14-26); and on the other hand, James makes the connection that a wise and understanding person is not only demonstrated by a “good conduct,” but that because of a behavior saturated in heavenly wisdom, such a person can contribute to the diffusion of quarrelings (3:13-4:12).
James argues, therefore, that all members should act in a spirit of humility grounded in the recognition of God (4:4-10; cf. Jas 1:27); otherwise, they will continue to be guilty of sins exasperating the church climate of James’ audience (4:17). So James addresses the use of the tongue and the need to minimize the “heat” amplifying the problems, and to maximize “light” in order to diffuse the internal strife.
James halts the multiplication of teachers by affirming that a teacher should be a mature Christian and that a mature Christian teacher is to be able to control the tongue (3:1-2). The reason? Because, despite its apparent insignificant size, it actually wields a large span of control over a person’s influence and ability (3:3-5a).
Furthermore, its destructive power (unrighteous use) can destroy lives presently and eternally (3:5b-6), but its most consistent problem is found in its duplicity (3:7-12): “with it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.”
Therefore, James warns against “wanna be teachers” who are too immature to enter the fray of “church problems.” Such matters are to be left to those who have demonstrated a pattern of life guided by wisdom and understanding (3:13). Such individuals will ideally refrain from acting “earthly, unspiritual, [and] demonic,” and instead will act on “the wisdom that comes from above” (3:14-17).
A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. (3:18)
Despite the great dangers of the tongue, James says that it can form the foundation needed to resolve conflict – physically, socially, and spiritually. Imagine just how much better people and churches we would be if we constantly sowed the seeds of peace within the congregation, and among our congregational neighbors.
In James’ approach to church conflict, he highlights an important trait of the Christian involved: it must be a mature Christian who can win the battle of control over the tongue. It may not always be a perfect use of the tongue, but the tongue will not be allowed to run wild. This is a decision all Christians can make; and so, what we are saying is this: the control of the tongue is an absolutely obtainable spiritual goal.
Usually, we find ourselves under the delusion of our own excuses: “I was raised to cuss like a sailor,” “I was angry and I lost it,” “I need to work on that, but I always forget.” We could plumb the depths of the excuse abyss ad infinitum and find a defense for every one of our misconducts. But we do ourselves a true dis-service by accepting defeat, instead of trusting in Him who raised Jesus from the dead (Rom 6:6-14, 8:32).
The apostle Paul says that we are more than conquerors through God’s power (Rom 8:37), and to raise the white flag is to accept defeat unnecessarily. Such determinism is Calvinistic to the core, and utterly rejects the free-volitional-will that God endowed upon His Imago Dei (Gen 1:26). A person can choose to serve God or not – it is within the hands of the person (Josh 24:15, cf. Eccl 9:10). Furthermore, it dismisses the seriousness of the sins of the mouth, which God has already spoken of as behaviors under His wrath (Prov 6:16-19; Rev 21:8).
Returning to the situation confronting the church James addresses, it is essential to notice that one of his main objectives is to denounce and expose the erroneous excuse that God has placed us in a difficult situation only to fail and that we have no recourse but to sin (cf. Jas 1:12-18). To overthrow this deception, James sets forth the themes of his letter:
Knowing this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear [1:21-2:26], slow to speak [3:1-18], slow to anger [4:1-5:6]; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness that God requires. (Jas 1:19-20)
Such a letter demands personal responsibility in the employment of true religion. Furthermore, true religious expressed through the Christian lifestyle is dependent upon the ability to control the tongue (Jas 1:27-28). This is clearly stated in James 3:2:
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.
Chalinagogeo, the word used for “bridle” in James 3:2 is the same word used in James 1.26. It means to literally “lead with a bridle”; and among all the New Testament documents it appears in James alone. Moreover, it carries the metaphorical force of restraint and the ability to keep things in check (cf. NIV).
Amazingly, James reaffirms his statement about the tongue in 1:26-28 , and applies it to the need to control the whole body (i.e. behavior and character) in 3:2. In light of this data, could anything be more clearer than the spiritual need to overcome his or her tongue?
In what way could the excuses above carry weight against the inspired words of James? An uncontrolled use of the tongue can not be explained away with frivolous excuses, nor will they stand when they are brought before the Divine Tribunal in the judgment (Eccl 12:14; Matt 12:36).
With such clear biblical data, excuses must be tossed to the side, responsibility must be taken for the misuse of the tongue, and a course of action must be taken to consistently (daily) manage the tongue knowing full well that it is “a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (Jas 3:8).
A study like this would be incomplete without attention brought to possible strategies to minimize the misuse of the tongue, and to maximize the potentials in reaching true religion with a proper use of the tongue. Some of the points come from Scripture, others come from common sense. There is no doubt that these are but a sample of all that could be said.
From the Heart. Jesus once made the statement that the heart was the source of all of our actions. Notice how Matthew records this affirmation:
[W]hat comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. (15:18-20; cf. Mark 7:14-23)
Indeed, we see the wisdom of Proverbs 4:23, saying, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” Many feel that the best way to succeed in life is to expose oneself to everything that can be known, and then let the chips fall where they may; thinking that exposure is the same thing as protection. Actually, the opposite is true.
The apostle Paul penned the following inspired words: “I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil” (Rom 16:19). Two things are said here: we must be thoroughly informed in what is good, and we must be unadulterated with evil.
Layering these passages together, it is clear that the heart must be guarded against evil influences by filling it with “what is good.” This will enable a person to control what proceeds “from the heart.” Certainly, then, with a tongue controlled at its source the course of our lives will be better.
Upgrade to Filter. Have you ever heard of BTM? BTM stands for “brain to mouth” and is commonly used to describe a popular “syndrome” of sharing whatever comes to mind – i.e., you think it, you say it. Surely this cannot be a prudent method of communication.
It is enlightening to observe some passages from Proverbs and how they describe BTM-ish uses of the mouth. Note a couple of passages:
- The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things. (15:28)
- If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame. (18:13)
There is evidence to conclude then that Christians should upgrade their tongue with a filter that makes them ponder of what they are going to say. Moreover, a person can say what is on their heart without forsaking forethought when talking with other people.
Word choice – and it is a choice – is an important part of the communication process. It will enable us to speak morally, honestly, correctly, empathically, and positively. So the next time you are on the verge of a brain-to-mouth moment, pause, “hear” and “ponder” over the matter at hand before you speak. This filtration system just might be the best thing you do to change the direction of your life for the better (Jas 3:2-6)!
A Time for Silence. In chapter 3 of Ecclesiastes, the “Preacher” (Eccl 1:1), presents his famous “there is a time” monologue (3:1-8). In verse 7 of this passage, he pens, that there is “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.” What was Solomon addressing?
The overruling theme of this section of the book focuses upon two main things: (a) in this transient life humanity has many ways (i.e. the “a time to” statements, 3:2-8) to stay busy (3:1, 10); and (b) despite the ability for the mundanity of life to bring despair (3:9), everything is beautiful “in its time” in light of the eternal consequences of living the life designed by God (3:11-14).
Now that we have established the context, the actual verse needs some clarification. The whole verse reads (3:7):
(A) a time to tear,
and (B) a time to sew;
(A’) a time to keep silence,
and (B’) a time to speak
As seen above, from the first verse to the eighth each verse is broken down into four parts of what can be best expressed as “opposite extremes.”
For example, in 3:2 birth and death are “opposite extremes” of each other, and then in a similar vein the vegetative imagery is used of planting a productive plant seed, and then plucking the plant to ends it productivity. The two lines are very similar in their emphasis, there is a time to begin life and a time that life and all its productivity will come to an end.
Ecclesiastes 3:7 follows a similar pattern, only that here the passage seems to refer to the customs of mourning and grief shown during the event of a death. Customarily, in the cultural milieu of biblical times a garment was “torn” to show grief, but when it was time to overcome grief reconnecting the torn pieces (i.e. “a time to sew”) would symbolize “picking up the pieces” (for lack of a better phrase).
Likewise, carrying this pattern of posing “opposite extremes” against each other, the Preacher says that there are appropriate times that justify silence -like a death- and that there are times when we must resume to our daily conversations.
Solomon stresses that life often confronts us with these opposite extremities of life. One moment, we are careful without a concern in the world; and then, in the next moment, it would seem as if the whole world were on our shoulders and every detail must be right. However, in the grand scheme of things, knowing that eternity looms in the future, and we have a purpose in the world, we face each challenge with spiritual and moral strategies in place. We fear God and keep his commandments (Eccl 12:13).
Amazingly, one of those spiritual and moral strategies is to be silent or conversant depending upon how the situation demands us to act. Often, spiritually concerned individuals feel that they must consistently insert their lips into every problem or situation, thinking perhaps that it is the conscientious thing to do. Solomon reminds us – there is a time for it, and then there is a time when it is highly inappropriate to speak.
What can we say, our tongue is the battleground. So much depends upon our ability to control this little muscle-organ. As we have observed, the use of our tongue stems from our own maturity and spiritual depth. We must be vigilant then to guard our hearts, be more patient and think before we speak; and finally, we must recognize that just because we feel we have something to say, the occasion may not call for it.
May this study be enriching and encouraging to you in your quest to live a life of biblical faith.
- All quotations are taken from the English Standard Version of the Holy Bible unless otherwise noted (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001).
- Although many have suggested outlines for the book of James, we agree with John Niemela’s assessment of the organization of the letter based upon the thematic structure of the letter (“Faith Without Works: A Definition,” Chafer Theological Seminary Journal 6.2 (2000): 3-6). In brief: (1) Prologue (1:1-18), (2) Theme (1:19-20), (3) Themes Subdivided (1:21-5:6), (4) Epilogue (5:7-20).
- Ralph Earle, Word Meanings in the New Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1998), 434.
- The word used for Ecclesiates’ author, the “Preacher”, translates a difficult word according to R. K. Harrison (Introduction to the Old Testament [1969; repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004], 1072-73). Perhaps a helpful way of thinking about the term itself is in the following way, “Ecclesiastes is a Greek translation of Heb. qohelet ‘one who convenes a congregation,’ presumably to preach to it. ‘Preacher,’ then, is not an inaccurate translation of either the Greek or Hebrew. However, Qoheleth (sometimes spelled Koheleth) would hardly parallel the Christian meaning since his texts were taken more from his own observations of life than from the Law or the Prophets” (William S. LaSor, David A. Hubbard, and Frederic W. Bush, Old Testament Survey, 2d ed. [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996], 497-98). For a brief but good response to the question of Solomon’s authorship in light of linguistic criticisms certain scholars use to reject Solomonic authorship see Gleason L. Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids:, MI Zondervan, 1982), 255-58.
- Derek Kidner, The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job, and Eccelsiastes (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1985), 97-99.
- Several passages in the Old Testament alone demonstrate this cultural practice: Gen 37:29, 34, 44:13; Num 14:6; Josh 7:6; Judg 11:35; 2 Sam 1:11-12; 2 Sam 13:19, 31; Ezra 9:3; Esth 4:1; Job 1:20, 2:12; Isa 37:1, etc. This is not all the passages that could be listed, but these are sufficient to demonstrate the pattern of behavior.
- D. Edmond Hiebert, “The Unifying Theme of the Epistle of James,” BSac 135 (1978): 221-31.
- Wayne Jackson, “James 3:1 – A Warning to Teachers,” ChristianCourier.com (Accessed: 17 May 2002).
- Wayne Jackson, “The Tongue – One of Man’s Most Dangerous Weapons,” ChristianCourier.com (Accessed: 21 March 2005).