On Taming the Tongue
For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
Is the Apostle James a little harsh? Maybe a tad overstated? “…but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” One does not have to spend very long on social media to discover the truth of James’ indictment regarding the tongue. Many have had the experience of sharing an article via Facebook only to have hurtful and even vicious comments posted in response. Consider the fact that we try to police speech. Does this not indicate that we know something is off with regard to how we use the tongue? We have this category of speech called “hate speech;” speech that we think should not be uttered—or at least keep out of the public eye. We know that words can do harm because we have laws regarding defamation to prevent libel and slander.
The Apostle James makes plain what we are loathe to admit. When he says that “no one can tame the tongue” he means that no one in and of themselves can do it. What James touches on here is another angle of vision on something our Lord taught. Jesus said that it was “from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” There is an inner corruption of heart—human sinfulness—that we cannot correct in and of ourselves. The Apostle James puts his finger on this corruption pointing out that what we say reveals what is in our hearts—and many times it is not very pretty. “With the same tongue,” James points out, “we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.”
The gospel declares that our Lord gives his life to set us free from this bondage to sin; release us from captivity to this inner corruption. John Wesley firmly believed that God could do more with sin than simply forgive it—not that forgiveness of sin were a simple matter. Jesus’ presence in our lives by the power of the Holy Spirit aides us to be free from enslavement to this corruption. And so, the Apostle James would say to believers about blessing and cursing coming from the same mouth, “My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.” We are called to live in that freedom afforded by our Lord’s presence in our lives. I invite you to reflect with me about this gospel admonition to tame the tongue.
1. Taming the tongue is a figure of speech about our speech. “The tongue” is a figure used by James to have us think about the things we say. And one of the things James has us think about is the power of the tongue or the power of the spoken word. Even though the tongue is relatively small in size compared to rest of the body it has impact way beyond its size.
One of the metaphors James uses to make this point is to think about the size of the a bit we put in a horse’s mouth compared to the size of the horse. A rather large animal can be steered with a rather small bit. I remember the team of horses we had on the farm I grew up on and watching my father and grandfather harness those horses with that bit placed in their mouths. Using that harness my grandfather could get those horses to back a wagon into a very precise spot. A second metaphor is the rudder on a ship. Relative to the size of the ship and its sails, the rudder is tiny yet the pilot can direct the ship at will using the rudder.
The power of the spoken word indicates that we must be careful not to treat speech incidentally as if it is of no consequence. The Apostle went on to say the tongue, our speech, is a fire that “sets on fire the cycle of nature.” The Greek in this text is hard to translate but it is most likely that James meant “the whole course of life” by this expression. And we can easily agree. We know how profoundly as children we embrace visions of ourselves that impacts the course of life in the word spoken to us by parents or other significant adults in our lives. (Some for good and some for ill).
The gospel assumes the importance and power of the spoken word. I have noted with you many times that, according to scripture, the chief characteristic of the living God is that God speaks. God calls everything into existence by the efficacy of God’s spoken word. Through Moses God speaks to his people and constitutes them as his people by the same spoken word. From our reading in the book of Proverbs the wisdom of God “pours out my thoughts to you.” (Proverbs 1:23) Jesus is said to be the very word of God come in the flesh. We note that Jesus came preaching—the gospel, God’s good news, is a word that is to be spoken. The thing that distinguishes the human from the rest of God’s creatures is that God speaks to the human and renders us able to respond with speech. According to the scriptures the spoken word is never trivial or incidental. God has no throw away lines, so to speak. Our Hebrew fore parents had a profound regard for the spoken word reflected in the fact that the Hebrew language does not have an extended vocabulary—words are to be used judiciously given their power.
One of the texts in scripture that makes this preacher nervous is this one where James writes, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” Now James does not say whether the one judging with greater strictness is God or other people. We do know that people expect the one preaching should at least be the one to practise what is preached. The teaching/preaching position is still held with some esteem among us and therefore can be attractive because of the attention paid the teacher/preacher. Perhaps James wants to say a word of caution about wanting to become a teacher/preacher because a person likes being the centre of attention. Maybe this is a word of correction because of the bickering of some teachers/preachers in the church. Whatever the case, the caution underlines his point that the spoken word has power that requires commensurate care.
2. So how do we tame this tongue of ours? As you read James’ letter you can see hints earlier in the letter that indicate he will take up this subject of the taming of the tongue. He had already stated that “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.” (James 1:26) Faith, for James, is something we can see in action. Faith is something to be lived. Faith should influence our speech.
James also gave this admonition about our spoken word—“let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak.” (James 1:19) In a similar vein many have noted that God created us with two ears but only one mouth—a good indication of how much we should listen compared to how much we should speak. In asking the question on how to tame the tongue a good start is to increase our listening or to focus on listening.
With that in mind I invite you to turn you attention with me to Psalm 19—the Psalm we read/prayed today. The first section of the Psalm tells how the created world pours forth speech telling the glory of God. The voice is said to be heard in all the earth no matter the language people speak. The second section of the Psalm extols the glory of the law God has spoken to his people. The word of God is said to be perfect and sure and right and clear and pure and true; it revives the soul, makes wise, enlightens, and is greatly to be desired. It is that word of God that shows one how to live.
What I invite you to take note of is the shape of the Psalm. Almost the entire Psalm is dedicated to speech about and of God. There are fourteen verses and thirteen are dedicated to extolling the speech of God. Only one verse addresses our talking and it is the last verse. It is a word about what God’s speech indicates about our speech. “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” The shape of the Psalm that praises over and over the speech of God and only has one sentence about our speech indicates that we should do a lot more listening than talking; and, namely, listening and responding to the speech of God.
As we listen to God speak, the gospel informs us on how to speak about life; how to frame the nature of our existence; the categories that describe our nature and being. Come back with me to James’s epistle to note an example of what I am endeavoring to indicate. James wrote of the tongue, “With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.”
The category “those made in the likeness of God” is a gospel category—a category spoken by God when God said let us make the human in our image. The world and culture around us does not believe that humans are in God’s image. To describe humans as “those made in the likeness of God” is to speak of life as the gospel speaks of our lives. It profoundly informs how we treat and think about our fellow human beings. We stop seeing race and ability and age and we see one in the likeness of God. This is an instance of how listening to God informs us how to speak and directs the taming of our tongues.
3. Let us probe a little further this taming of the tongue reflecting on this inner inconsistency the Apostle James points to that emerges in our speech. He describes it this way. “With it (the tongue) we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.
Elsewhere in scripture this is referred to as being double-minded or having a double heart. A little later in this letter James writes, “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” (James 4:8) In describing the ungodliness of the world the Psalmist writes, “They utter lies to each other; with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.”
How is it that out of the same well (our hearts) comes both fresh and brackish water? I read recently of the celebrity chef, author, and travel documentarian Anthony Bourdain whose tragic suicide death was reported on June 8, 2018. In an interview for Men's Journal from 2014, Bourdain was asked: What are the benefits of hedonism, and what are the risks? Bourdain replied, "Look, I understand that inside me there is a greedy, gluttonous, lazy, hippie—you know? I understand that. … there's a guy inside me who wants to lay in bed, and smoke weed all day, and watch cartoons, and old movies. I could easily do that. My whole life is a series of stratagems to avoid, and outwit, that guy. … I'm aware of my appetites, and I don't let them take charge."
In his letter to the Romans the Apostle Paul described a similar conflict raging within. “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (Romans 7:19) But the solution the Apostle Paul points to is much different than the solution indicated by Bourdain. Bourdain proposes to look within and develop “stratagems to avoid, and outwit” our appetites; the Apostle guides us to look outside ourselves, “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25)
Does it ever surprise you how easily we can on Sunday praise the name of Jesus but on Monday trash someone created in our Lord’s image? I was reflecting on some complaining I had recently voiced about some department of our local government. And of course the way I framed things everyone else was an idiot but me. (Now that is not true, some agree with me and aren’t idiots … see how easy it is to trash someone.) I hear my name’s sake the Apostle James say to me—Jim, “this ought not to be.” And he is correct.
Since this “blessing and cursing” ought not be, as a follower of Jesus, I would say that in our speech our practise would be to favour blessing in our speech about others. Praise where you can. Recognize that some things are better left unsaid. Sometimes following the adage of “calling a spade a spade” is cover for cruelty. If you are going to call a spade a spade then only speak about spades. People are not spades but creatures in the image of God.
This does not mean that we should call bad things or evil actions good. When Jesus enjoins love of the enemy he expects that we recognize they are an enemy who seek our destruction; they are not a friend we haven’t met yet. Even though they are enemies we are not to despitefully use them nor treat them as sub-human.
I will let the Apostle Paul have the last word. “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think (and talk) about these things. (Philippians 4:8)