James 3:1-12—Legacy of a Tongue


During my college days a friend and I were looking at a bulletin board, checking out campus announcements while we caught up on each other’s lives. Conversation led to discussion about a mutual friend who was in a bad dating relationship. Innocent talk morphed into gossip as we freely expressed opinions about how foolish she was for putting up with her boyfriend and how she was adding to the problem.

Too late, I noticed someone walk up behind us—then saw who it was. You’ve probably guessed. It was the girl we’d been discussing. I’ll never forget the pain on her face, her eyes full of tears. We apologized, and she graciously forgave (though I doubt she ever trusted us afterwards). I was sick over having wounded my friend; I still am, thinking back on it now—decades later—as I write.

I learned two hard lessons that day. First, the power of the tongue is great, to heal and to harm. Second, words once spoken cannot be unsaid. A world of hurt can be inflicted in a matter of seconds and the damage may be irreparable, no matter how sorry I am. I also made a life rule I’ve tried hard to live by: I would never say about someone what I wouldn’t say to them. (More on this in a minute.) 

When James wrote to the Christians of his day, he included some strong teaching about the tongue. Pause here, go get your Bible, then read James 3:1-12. Mentally list the “pictures” James uses to illustrate the tongue’s power. (Hint: There are at least four!) Then glance at his other mentions of speech in 1:19-20, 26; 2:12; 4:11, 16; 5:9, 12—plus several indirect references. Are you getting the idea that misuse of speech was a major problem among his fellow Christians? Guess what: the problem has not diminished one bit.

Friendships, marriages, families, and church families have been damaged, sometimes destroyed, by a tiny body part called the tongue. Since every person has one, the tongue’s use is an issue that affects all cultures, genders, and eras. Each person’s legacy is affected by how she controlled—or failed to control—her tongue.

Teachers beware

James’ first warning was directed to teachers (3:1), people who use words in their profession. In Jewish culture, teachers/rabbis were highly revered. Therefore, many people wanted the prestige of the position whether or not they had anything worthwhile to say. James reminds his readers that teachers bear a responsibility to speak truth.

This verse has probably scared off (or provided an excuse for!) more potential teachers than any other verse in the Bible. James didn’t say not to teach; that would be contradictory to Jesus’ command in Matthew 28:19-20 to go and teach all nations—the Great Commission. He simply urges us to be conscientious when teaching. Even the best teacher will make innocent mistakes and must be open to correction—but fear of misspeaking can’t help us evade our calling forever.

Does limited Bible knowledge make you nervous about teaching? What are you doing about it? For how long is that a valid reason not to teach, before it becomes an excuse? The Lord expects us to be able to teach at least the basic message of salvation. Can you do it? Will you?

A matter of self-control

Verse 2 says that a person who masters her tongue will be able to manage her whole body. Our toughest assignment is the tongue. It’s small but mighty.

In quick succession, James gives three examples of tiny items with big effects:
• a bit in a horse’s mouth
• a rudder on a ship
• a spark in a forest

We get a clear picture of how potent our words are. (On a side note, James’ use of these concise, clear illustrations is so like Jesus’ teaching method. Isn’t it interesting how James—the half-brother of Jesus—picked up the same style? Growing up with Jesus, living in the same home with Him, must’ve given James an extraordinary window into teaching the truths of God. Enhanced by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, James’ knowledge produced a powerful, practical book on living for Christ.)

Earlier, I mentioned my life rule that promises not to say about someone anything I wouldn’t say to them. It’s a good start, but still allows a lot of wiggle-room. We may pride themselves on speaking our minds, on being brutally honest, on stating the facts. After all, what my friend and I said in front of the campus bulletin board that day was basically true, albeit self-righteous and judgmental. Too often, we equate “honesty” with a license to be unkind—forgetting that kindness, like self-control, is a “fruit” or an evidence of the Holy Spirit alive in us (Gal. 5:22-23). If we’re unkind then, the one at work in us is satan—a thought that should make us shudder.

Two paths to choose

So we have a choice. Our words can be poison or they can be life. They can bless or they can curse. They can praise God or they can shame Him. They can be satanic or they can be godly.

What they can’t be is both. We can’t effectively honor God with our lives if our tongues are constantly betraying our brothers and sisters, which equals betraying Him (Mt. 25:40, 45). James says fresh and bitter water can’t come from the same spring (3:11).
Dr. David Jeremiah tells of a grave marker that reads

“Beneath this stone, a lump of clay,
lies Arabella Young
who, on the twenty-fourth of May,
began to hold her tongue.” *

What a sad legacy! I’d much prefer to be remembered like Barnabas, the Apostle Paul’s coworker, whose name meant “son of encouragement” (Acts 4:36). Take charge of your tongue and choose your legacy.

This Week…

Learn James 3:7-8. Then review the eight verses you’ve memorized in previous weeks: James 1:2-3, 12, 17, 22, and James 2:13, 17 and 26. You’re now equipped with ten verses from James!
Think of a time when you were hurt by someone’s use of their tongue—or a time when your tongue inflicted harm on someone else. Either way, you know firsthand the power of the tongue! A person who can control her tongue has reached the pinnacle of self-control (Jas. 3:2). Be extra aware and cautious this week about the words that roll off your tongue, and pray to be disciplined and God-honoring in all you say.
Read the book of James, focusing on James 3:13—4:7. We’ll take a closer look at these verses next Wednesday. Have a wonderful week!

© Diane McLoud 2015

* from Turning Toward Integrity, a study of James by Dr. David Jeremiah (Chariot Victor Publishing, Colorado Springs, Colorado, 1993), p. 92.

1 Comments on “James 3:1-12—Legacy of a Tongue

  1. I think the sin I have had to confess the most to God is for things I have said. How easy to speak out in anger or irritation and then regret! It’s a fault that I do much better at but have not conquered. Thank you God for Your grace.

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