“How many of you would go for 24 hours without saying anything unkind to/about others?” a popular Rabbi would ask his audiences. The majority would either laugh or say NO and handful would say they were able to hold their tongue-in-check. Many of you have a serious problem, he’d say. If you can’t go without alcohol for 24 hours, you’re a drunkard. If you can’t go without a cigarette for a day, you are addicted to smoking. If you can’t go without saying something unkind to/about people, then you have a “tongue-problem”.
The first 12 verses of James 3 is a common passage on “Taming the Tongue”. Instead of taking the usual top-down approach, if we do a bottom-up (i.e., consider the passage from that vantage point of the conclusion) then we’ll see it in a completely different light.
Though it is about the tongue the emphasis is NOT on the tongue. The emphasis is on our “faith in God” – that’s been the overarching theme of this epistle. James spends a good deal of time to differentiate between genuine & counterfeit faith. He gives us many faith-tests to determine whether or not we have the faith that can save. The tongue-test is one of them.
A medical doctor can tell a lot by checking a patient’s tongue. Its decolorization, lumps, sores, etc., would indicate vitamin deficiency, hygiene, immunity & even problems pertaining to the heart, liver, intestine, etc. From a spiritual perspective, the tongue serves as a window into a person’s mind and heart. The WORDS that tumble out of mouths are indicative of our spiritual birth or lack thereof.
We underestimate our tongue. The insignificant little thing boasts of great exploits! James likens it to a rudder / helm that steers a massive ship, a bit that makes a horse obedient & a fire/spark that’s capable of causing enormous destruction. James calls it a “world of sin” that contaminates the whole body and sets on fire the entire course of life and is it self-ignited by hell. We’ve tamed wild beasts, birds and serpents but have never been able to tame the unruly, evil & venomous tongue.
Keeping your mouth shut is not what James’ advising here. Suppressing the symptom does not cure the disease. The key to taming the tongue is to understand how it got unruly, evil and venomous in the first place. Jesus said: “For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Luke 6). A heart full of raw sewage gives a mouth that stinks.
Our words reveal condition of our heart. Apostle Paul in Romans 3 says: “their throat is an open grave, with their tongues they keep deceiving, the poison of asps is under their lips, whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness”. It is impossible for an unsaved / unregenerate man to bear fruits of righteousness. If we want a new tongue, we need get a new heart.
A good tree does not produce bad fruit. A fig tree does not produce olives. So then how come we who claim to be in Christ (a new creation et al) produce bad spiritual fruit? How can we use our tongues both to bless God and curse men who are made in the image of God? “Ought not so to be” James says. Would a fig tree bear olives? NEVER! If they did, then there is good reason to believe that it never was a fig tree to begin with.
What if a fig tree is labelled an “Olive Tree”? Would it produce olives? NO! A Christian name (even a Biblical name) won’t make one a Christian
What if you trim the fig tree to make it look like an olive tree? Would it now produce olives? NO! Careful discipline, trimming and shaping a child’s life won’t make it a Christian.
What if we put the fig tree in an olive garden? Would that make it into an olive tree? NO! Surrounding yourself with Christians won’t make you a Christian. A whole lot of Sunday school, youth meetings, church attendance won’t make an iota of difference.
You need a more fundamental change – a complete change in the nature. Not possible with man, you need a miracle of spiritual birth. Only God can make that happen.
New heart = Bridled Tongue = Genuine faith.
Sinful heart = Unruly Tongue = Fake Faith
The order is important. It always begins with the heart. And not with the tongue. It is NOT Unruly Tongue = Sinful Heart = Fake Faith
And James addresses this point, in the first few verses. “For we all stumble/fall & offend in many things…” James stumbled. We ALL offend in many things. We might occasionally put our foot in our mouth, and that’s a stumble; although our faith is genuine, and our hearts renewed. And this takes us back to Apostle Paul in Romans, where he explains that our inner man is made NEW when we believed in Christ. BUT we continue to struggle with sin because of the dichotomy between the inner man & the outer man. The former is new, the latter is cartel. And the war continues without any reprieve till we get a glorified body.
That DOES NOT mean we need to capitulate to our carnal bodies. “…and if any man does not offend in speech the same is a perfect man able to bridle his own body”. We must understand that our bodies are neutral. They can be used as instruments for righteous purposes OR for unrighteousness (Romans 6:12). Just like a knife that could be used to cut vegetables or kill a person. It depends on how we use it. Apostle Paul “buffeted his body into submission” (1 Cor 9:27), and we can too!