The Taming of the Tongue


In the book of James, chapter 3, the author begins a penetrating discourse on the most deceptively wicked member of the human body, the tongue.  While in the original letter there were no chapter breaks or verse numbers, it’s interesting that most all Bibles would begin chapter 3 with, “Not many  of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”  Following in context, James builds his argument against the tongue.  In the broader context, it would not be difficult to make the argument that teachers and preachers should be especially on guard with their tongue since words have meaning and consequence and as such they must be extremely careful not to spread false doctrine or knowledge of who God really is.  But it would seem here that James has a more general audience in mind, namely everyone, because this passage so greatly details the problem that each of us have in taming the tongue.

In verse 3, James begins his discussion by using several analogies to describe the tongue.  First is the bridle of a horse as he states ,”If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well.”  The bit, as part of the bridle equipment of the horse, is essentially a mouthpiece used to control the horse.  In essence you have on average nearly a half-ton animal being controlled by a small piece of metal placed in their mouth.  Figuratively speaking, James is equating this to the tongue, in that it directs the whole body.  If we have control of the tongue, then we control the rest of ourselves.  Sounds easy enough right?  I mean if an animal nearly 5 times the size of a human can be controlled via the mouth, surely we can too right?

In verse 4, he continues with another analogy this time that of a ship’s rudder, “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.”  Again, note James’ contrast of a large object managed by a smaller, seemingly inferior object.  It would seem then that since a large ship is controlled by such a small rudder at the hand of the captain, that we as people should be able to control our tongues and likewise our own bodies.  But James is methodically building his argument against the easiness of that idea.

The author pulls together his analogies by bringing the focus to the tongue in verse 5, “So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.  This verse isn’t a direct assault against the pride of man in boasting so much as it is a description of the tongues “piloting” abilities, much like the horse’s bit and ship’s rudder.  But in the second part of verse 5 we can see a change in direction from analogous descriptions of the tongue to the damaging effects of the untamed tongue.

“How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! 6 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.  7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue.  It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.  My brothers, these things ought not to be so.  11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water?  12 Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs?  Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.”  James 3:5-12

Let’s summarize how James describes the tongue: 

  • A fire
  • A world of unrighteousness
  • A stain to the whole body
  • Source of fire
  • Set on fire by hell
  • A restless evil
  •  Full of deadly poison
  • Used for cursing people

This is a deeply penetrating list and should convict each of us about the things we say, the carelessness of our words, and how we speak to others.  Think about it, gossip, rumors, and lies spread like a fire.  Even if untrue they have potential to do serious harm to another person’s character or reputation.  Sarcasm, backbiting, malicious words, belittling jokes can do serious damage to another person.  Think it can’t?  Consider the rampant online bullying that has caused teens to act out in violence or to harm themselves.  Our words matter.  Coarse or perverse talk, foul-language, name calling, are more examples of the tongue’s wickedness (Ephesians 5:4).  All of these things and so much more are evidences of the heart, as Jesus tells us, “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” Matthew 12:34b

The Apostle Paul exhorts us in Ephesians 4:29, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”  This should be the goal for each of us, to speak words that edify and build one another up, rather than corrupting talk that destroys and tears down.   But if James’ argument from verse 8 above is true, and it is, how can we possibly control our tongues and offer only good words of encouragement rather than words of destruction?

I offer 3 solutions, which I am in great need of as well:

  1. Renew your mind.  As believers, we are repeatedly reminded in the Bible to renew our minds (Romans 12:2, Ephesians 4:23, Colossians 3:10, Philippians 4:8).  This comes by way of filling our minds with the things of God, i.e. His Word and prayer, while reducing, even eliminating, worldly influences to our mind, i.e. unwholesome movies/music/conversations.  Truly input = output.  In doing this surely we will eliminate much of the damage caused by careless words, by lessening their frequency of use.
  2. Filter your speech.  Many times, as I know I’m severely guilty, we offer up sarcasm for a quick laugh, or unintentionally hurtful comments for the sake of humor.  This really spills over from pride, or in a more obvious way the desire for the approval of man.  Everyone wants to be liked and often we think that through quick wit or sarcasm this develops a likeable characteristic at far too often the expense of others.  If we just stopped to realize that by filtering our speech and allowing words of encouragement and edification to flow freely it would garner more respect from people.  James 1:19 says, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.”  Slow to speak.  In other words, think before you speak.    
  3. Apologize often.  More often than not, a hurtful word just “slips out”.  Maybe it is the tone or the context in which something is said and perhaps even no true harm was meant.  But in the end the damage has been done. In these cases, apologize, quickly yet sincerely.  Genuinely ask forgiveness and grow from it.  Luke 17:3-4 says “Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, 4 and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to  you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”   Here we see repentance and forgiveness working together within a brotherly/sisterly relationship.  Sometimes we need the wrong brought to our face in order to recognize it.  Other times, we recognize it ourselves and apologize.  Either way, reconciliation is important to maintaining the relationship (Matthew 5:24).

Our speech, i.e. tongues, have such a great potential to glorify God by praising Him, sharing His glorious Gospel with unbelievers, and teaching and edifying fellow believers.  But it also has such great potential to destroy or cause serious damage, hurt or harm to not only others, but to ourselves as well.  I know personally, I need God to work in my heart such that my tongue comes increasingly under control.  Surely I am not alone in this.  Diligently seek the Lord for His help and choose your words wisely and carefully.  Renew your mind with the things of God, filter your speech by being slow to speak, and apologize sincerely when those occasional discouraging or hurtful words come out.

Proverbs 12:18 “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”


About the author

Christian saved by grace through faith.


  1. Good cross-reference from Ephesians. In the 2 Corinthians passage, I might be more inclined to think Paul is “sorry” that the truth hurts, if I understand how you are referencing them to this post.

    God bless,

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