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Domesticating the Tongue

FAITH AT WORK: Devotions through the book of James

“No human being can tame the tongue.” (James 3:8, ESV) 

James has already touched on the topic of the tongue. In chapter one of his letter he urged us to be “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (1:19). There we saw that our words are the weapon of choice in the hand of anger. 

At the close of chapter one, James describes true religion in terms of bridling the tongue. The religious tongue is not one of lip-service that talks a good talk but the expression of true faith consecrated to Jesus Christ. 

Now in chapter three James returns to the tongue, where he gives us a fuller picture of its power and potential. With this fuller picture comes a dire word of caution. It’s like those triangular warning signs on the back of tanker trucks: “DANGER! Highly Flammable.” 

It’s curious how James broaches the subject: “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” (Jas. 3:1–2). 

He begins not by talking about the tongue as a weapon in the hand of anger but by addressing an occupation that uses the tongue as a basic tool—a teacher. Then, by way of the conjunction “for,” he notes that all of us (not just teachers) “stumble” in what we say. The idea is that we sin because our tongue trips us up. 

The capacity of the tongue to trip up and to cause harm resides with each of us because we all have words at our disposal. Each word, improperly placed, can be an IED to a relationship and inflict serious injury to others, and bring dishonor to our Lord. 

This entire second take on the tongue (Jas. 3:1-12) is couched in the negative. James casts it as an incendiary device, a deadly poison, a restless evil, a world of unrighteousness. Why does James speak in such strong negative terms? For the same reason parents tell their kids not to play with matches. The potential for harm is real. 

So when James speaks of taming the tongue, he reminds us in a sense that it is a wild animal that cannot be domesticated. We can never let down our guard. 

1. To what does James refer when he speaks of the tongue?

2. Why does James highlight its destructive power? 

“Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips!” (Psalm 141:3)

Stan Gale

Stanley D. Gale (MDiv Westminster, DMin Covenant) has pastored churches in Maryland and Pennsylvania for over 30 years. He is the author of several books, including A Vine-Ripened Life: Spiritual Fruitfulness through Abiding in Christ and The Christian’s Creed: Embracing the Apostolic Faith. He has been married to his wife, Linda, since 1975. They have four children and nine grandchildren. He lives in West Chester, Pa.
Books by Stan Gale

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