Don’t Mess with The Tongue

Day 16 | Today’s passage: James 3:1-6 | Historical context of James

1 Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. 2 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.
3 When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. 4 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. 5 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. 6 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.

We usually think that teaching the Bible is a noble profession. We know there is a pressing need worldwide for missionaries, pastors, teachers, and evangelists, and there was even more so in the early church. So why does James, quite abruptly changing the subject, discourage people from teaching?

Well, as James changes gear into the second half of his letter, he wants us to see that words are powerful. Every great movement in history is driven by a great speaker—Jesus, Mohammad, Lincoln, Hitler, Martin Luther King. A teacher’s greater capacity for influence comes with greater responsibility before God. So, James says, teachers should feel a healthy caution and care.

Of course, James goes on to say, this really applies to all of us.

1. Watch your tongue because it has great power for good

If you’re a city-dweller, you may never have seen a real one up close, so let me tell you as a country boy: horses are massive. Much larger than you’d think. And yet, four-year-old girls can learn to ride and control them—without being eaten—all because of the “bit.” The “bit” is a strip of leather or metal that goes between the horse’s teeth and acts like a steering wheel. If you control the bit, you control the whole horse, whatever your size.

The same is true of a ship. No matter how large they are or how strong the winds get, if you control the rudder (a tiny piece of equipment), you are in control of the whole ship.

It’s exactly the same with the tongue. “Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts.” (v. 5) The body tends to follow where the tongue leads. So, if you were to control your tongue, you would be perfectly self-controlled.

James quite rightly reassures us in verse 2 that none of us are perfect and we all get things wrong, especially in the words we say. But imagine if you never said anything wrong! How brilliant would it be if your words were always uplifting, always challenging, always loving, always kind? Imagine the good you could do in the world! In fact, you would be like Jesus.

Sadly, although James gives us something wonderful to aspire to, the tongue more commonly directs us into boasting and evil.

2. Watch your tongue because it has great power for evil

In January 2001, a motorist driving along a highway in San Diego County, US, flicked a cigarette butt out of his car. It sparked a forest fire that eventually burned more than 10,000 acres, destroyed 16 homes, and burned 64 vehicles.

All that from one spark.

The tongue is the same: it is small but destructive. James calls it evil, and even one carelessly uttered word can cause huge damage. Of all the parts of the body, verse 6 says, the tongue has the capacity to corrupt the whole of our being. It’s no use controlling the rest of you; if your tongue is going to spout evil, your whole body is doing evil.

It’s difficult to read a passage like today’s and not feel convicted. Even this week, I can see a situation that would have been better had I held my tongue.

Now, obviously, James is speaking metaphorically. It is not that our tongues have a life of their own and are somehow horrendously evil, and we ourselves are just innocent victims of its work. The truth is, as James repeats later in verse 12, the “mouth speaks what the heart is full of”. Our tongues are evil because our hearts are evil. Our tongues show our desperate, sinful state before God, and how badly we need Jesus to come and change us.

The good news is, as we will discover in other parts of the Bible: that’s just what Jesus is all about.

—James Bunyan, England

Questions for reflection

1. Think of the godliest person you know. How self-controlled are they with their tongue?

2. In what way does your tongue have the capacity to “corrupt the whole body”? Is it through gossiping; crude joking; being a harsh boss, spouse or critic; being overly negative or lying?

3. How can you practice the opposite this week?


James Bunyan is a bit of a fidget, to be honest. His inability to sit still tends to spill over into all sorts of areas of his life; he loves travelling, good writing, all sports (except frisbee), the sense of purpose that the gospel gives him, exotic teas and the satisfaction of peeling off a sticker all in one go. He lives in Twickenham (London), where he works as a CU Staff Worker for UCCF: The Christian Unions, a student mission movement, and he recently married his best friend, Lois. That was a good move.

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