The Tongue, Small Yet Great

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. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. 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. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.
—James 3:2–5a

According to researchers at the University of Arizona, “men talk just as much as women–on average, 16,000 words in a day.”1 Imagine that . . . 16,000 words in a day! However, Proverbs 10:19 warns, “When words are many, transgression is not lacking.” Indeed, the more you talk, the more likely you sin. Aware of the teaching found in this verse, it’s really no wonder that James takes the time to write about taming the tongue! As we reflect on James 3:2–5a, there are at least three significant observations that we should make: (1) the inclusive truth about the tongue; (2) the importance of the tongue; and (3) the inclination of the tongue.

First, we must recognize the inclusive (or universal) truth about the tongue, which is that we all make moral mistakes with it! Verse 2 reminds us that “we all stumble . . .” In this context, “stumble” means to fall into sin and commit moral error. You and I—all of us—struggle and fall into sin at times with our tongues. The text adds that we do this “in many ways.” This can include such sinful behavior as lying, slander, gossip, vulgarity, insults, blasphemous comments and verbally abusing others. Indeed, one of the many ways in which we sin against God is in our speech, and there are so many ways in which we are liable to do this!

James continues, “And if anyone does not stumble in what he says . . .”—that is to say, if anyone claims to have mastered the use of his tongue—“ . . . he is a perfect man.” In other words, to say that you never sin in your speech is to declare boldly that you never sin at all—that you are perfect! Anyone who fits this description is “ . . . able also to bridle his whole body.” Supposedly, this person is “perfect” in the sense that he is able to control all parts of his body . . . but the truth is that nobody is perfect!

To insist that you have fully mastered the use of your tongue is to imply that you are fully perfect—which means, also, that you have absolute control over your mind, your eyes, your heart, and so on—but the fact that you sometimes stumble in what you say shows that you also stumble at times in other ways. Without doubt, we all stumble in regard to our mind (what we think), our eyes (what we see), our ears (what we hear), our heart (what we feel), our hands (what we do), and our feet (where we go).

We all stumble—we are all vulnerable to temptation—and we all sin. Even James acknowledges his own need to admit this. He intentionally uses the pronoun “we,” counting himself among those who fail in their moral behavior. Proverbs 20:9 asks, “Who can say, ‘I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my sin’?” Who among us no longer falls into temptation? Not one person! This truth is a universal one—we still struggle with sin—and this includes sin with regard to our tongue.

Children—have you spoken to your parents disrespectfully? Have you lied to them? If you know that you have done this, will you now come before the Lord and repent of your sin, and commit yourself to speaking to your parents with love and respect?

Parents—have you used overly harsh words when disciplining your children? Have you ever said things that you didn’t truly mean, such as, “You are always bad!” (knowing that your child is not always bad), or “You don’t do anything right!” (knowing that it isn’t true)? If you have, will you confess your error to your children, seek their forgiveness for this, and repent before God?

Husbands and wives—have you communicated with one another in anger when there have been disagreements between you? Have you used unnecessary yelling to communicate with one another? Worse yet—have you done this in front of your children? Do you need to confess sin of this sort to one another—and to God—in order to restore health, happiness, and love to your marriage? If so, then isn’t it worth the effort to do this in order to see the joy and blessing increase in your home? (It is!)

Proverbs 12:18 says, “Thoughtless words can wound as deeply as any sword, but wisely spoken words can heal.”2 Oh, friends—how often have we deeply wounded other people simply because we were not careful with our speech? Far too often, we are hasty, careless, insensitive, and thoughtless of the ways that we speak to others. In this passage, though, James offers us a sobering warning—we should take this matter very seriously, for we all stumble in what we say—and this truth is inclusive, in that it includes you and me.

Second, we should acknowledge the importance of the tongue, which is great! James already addressed this subject in James 1:26, where he wrote the following: “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.” Now, in chapter 3, James delves more deeply into this problem, offering us twelve additional verses of instruction about our speech. The fact that he’s teaching us about the tongue in multiple parts of his epistle should leave no doubt concerning the subject’s importance to James—and, more especially, to God.

Clearly, the tongue is an important part of our bodies! We should note, though, that James sometimes uses the word “tongue” in a literal sense to mean a physical part of our bodies, while in other verses he uses the word figuratively, in regard to our speech and our communication with one another. In regard to our physical bodies, though, the tongue is vital. There are certain parts of our bodies—such as our wisdom teeth, our tonsils and our appendix—which can be removed with little consequence. However, without a tongue, we would have great difficulty communicating with other people!

James is drawing the conclusion that the tongue, though small, can greatly affect the outcome of our lives. He offers two illustrations to help us see this. First, he likens the tongue to the bit in the mouth of a horse (v. 3). That small metal mouthpiece, when put on a horse, is what enables riders to steer the direction of the horse. Without the bit, a rider can have great difficulty controlling where the horse goes. In the same way, each of us must control our tongue, which in turn helps determine the direction in which our life goes.

The popular commentator Albert Barnes once wrote, “A man always has complete government over himself if he has the entire control of his tongue. It is that by which he gives expression to his thoughts and passions; and if that is kept under proper restraint, all the rest of his members are as easily controlled as the horse is by having the control of the bit.”3 This, of course, is true!

As a second illustration, James compares the tongue to the rudder of a ship (v. 4). What a powerful illustration this is! In fact, James made excellent use of illustrations throughout this epistle—a skill which he, no doubt, acquired from listening to his half-brother, Jesus, when he taught! Illustrations are intended to help us learn profound truths about God, and that’s precisely what James is aiming to do here. He’s explaining that even ships, which are large and are constantly being blown to and fro by the wind, are actually guided by the small rudder—and by the will of the captain, who controls the rudder and determines the ship’s direction.

To control a ship’s rudder is to control the ship. Again, we see the same principle being taught. While the tongue is a small part of our bodies, how we use it can greatly influence the direction of our entire lives! None of us are perfect, and we will all continue to struggle with temptation regarding our speech, but the more control that each of us have over our tongue, the more control that we’ll have regarding the direction of our lives.

Throughout this book, James is concerned that there are some people who claim to be Christians, but demonstrate no good works. They give no signs or evidence that they have experienced genuine spiritual conversion.

If we are in Christ, we have the grace of God in our lives—and we can use that grace to direct our tongue, so that we may bring honor and glory to God. If, however, we continuously live with an uncontrolled tongue, it’s indicative of the fact that we are not truly in Christ. In other words, we can’t truly be in Christ if we consistently slander others and tell lies. We should be alarmed if we don’t sense an overwhelming conviction about such sinful behavior in our lives—conviction which the Holy Spirit promises to bring in the lives of all true believers.

Finally, in this passage from James, we should also see the inclination of the tongue, which is sinful! In verse 5, James warns, “So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.” In our speech—as in all areas of our lives—we are naturally inclined to sin. We have a tendency to curse God, and to sin against other people, by the things that we say. The tongue is small, but it is powerfully dangerous—like a poisonous snake that can bite!

With our tongues, we can destroy churches; we can ruin families; we can divide brother against brother and sister against sister. Evil words can emotionally wound a spouse or provoke our children to anger. A person’s character can be publicly shattered by what he says, or by what others might say about him.

So much of the evil and suffering in the world begins with sinful talk! Truly, the tongue can destroy our lives if we aren’t careful to honor God with how we use it! Regarding our ongoing struggle to guard our speech in this way, Matthew Henry wisely noted, “No man can tame the tongue without Divine grace and assistance. The apostle does not represent it as impossible, but as extremely difficult.”4 How true this is! Why don’t we humbly pray to God to help us tame our tongues?

Questions

1. Why is it foolish to deny the universal truth about the tongue? Explain James’ line of reasoning to answer this question.

In what area or sphere of your life are you most tempted to sin with your tongue? What steps of confession and repentance need to be taken?

2. In what way is your tongue important to the direction of your life? Explain the illustrations James uses to emphasize the importance of the tongue.

3. What are some practical and specific ways you can use your tongue to direct your life for God’s glory?

4. Do you experience the Holy Spirit’s conviction when you sin with your tongue? Why is your answer to this question so critical?

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References:

1. Ashley Phillips, “Study: Women Don’t Talk More Than Men,” ABC News, July 5, 2007, http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=3348076&page=1 (accessed June 6, 2016). 

2. Good News Translation.

3. Albert Barnes, Notes, Explanatory and Practical, on the General Epistles of James, Peter, John and Jude (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1850), 65. 

4. Matthew Henry, Short Comments on Every Chapter of the Holy Bible (London: Religious Tract Society, 1839), 972.

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Rev. Brian G. Najapfour
is the pastor of Dutton United Reformed Church, Caledonia, MI, and author of The Very Heart of Prayer: Reclaiming John Bunyan’s Spirituality (2012) and  Jonathan Edwards: His Doctrine of and Devotion to Prayer (2013). He and his wife, Sarah, have two children, Anna and James. He blogs at biblicalspiritualitypress.org.

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