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… And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. – James 3:2,6
This is the second mention of the tongue in the book of James. The first is in James 1:26, which says, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.” Looking at these two passages, it becomes very clear that James takes the tongue very seriously.
But does he take it too seriously? He gets it right when he tells us that we all stumble in many ways, but then seems to dismiss every other manner of sin, claiming that Christian perfection is found in taming the tongue. Taming the tongue is difficult and important, but can we really associate a tame tongue with perfection?
James then continues to discuss how much influence the tongue exerts over our lives and calls it a fire set alight by hell. This passage, on first reading is perplexing at best, disturbing at worst. What are we to make of James’ challenging words on the tongue.
When James calls the tongue a fire set among our body from hell, he is not the first teacher to present a dismal view of the tongue. In Matthew 15:11, Jesus teaches the Pharisees and his disciples, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of his mouth.”
His disciples are confused by this statement and ask Jesus for clarification. In explaining this, Jesus gives a statement that parallels James’ evaluation of the tongue. James claims that the tongue is set on fire by hell; Jesus explains the fruit of the tongue comes from the heart, which is evil. The tongue is difficult to tame because it readily responds to our sinful impulses.
How often is this validated in our daily experience? Our tongue is often the clearest indicator of the depravity of our hearts. We regret what we say because we don’t intend certain thoughts and impulses of our hearts to be revealed. Our efforts to tame our tongues fail because we haven’t tamed our hearts. They are still set on fire by the evil within us.
This idea finds support through the New Testament. Paul instructs the Ephesians not to allow filthiness, foolish talk and crude joking in their midst, but rather thanksgiving, which is later described as evidence of being filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:4, 17-20). Slander and obscene talk are named in Colossians among the earthly things believers are to put away, choosing instead to put on the new self (Colossians 3:5-10). Jealousy and strife seen as evidence of worldliness in the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 3:3).
Then if a person doesn’t stumble in what he says, it’s not because he has mastered the skill of taming the tongue, but because he has mastered his heart. We focus on taming our tongues by exercising greater restraint over it. This is certainly one approach advocated by the book of Proverbs. “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.” (Proverbs 10:19). “A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds back.” (29:11). Our hearts are undergoing sanctification but the process is not complete. We still struggle with bitterness, selfishness, anger, lust and a number of things and restraining our tongues is valuable in allowing us to relate fruitfully with others around us. This is advice that can and should be applied by anyone, believer and unbeliever.
We can, however, only conceal the nature of our hearts for so long. Eventually our true selves will be made evident in our speech. Proverbs tells us that even a fool is thought to be wise if he remains silent (17:28), but goes on to explain that a fool gives full vent to his spirit (29:11). We truly tame our tongues when we bring our hearts in line with the image we desire to project. Godly speech begins with a godly heart.
Proverbs comments also on the relationship between a righteous heart and wise speech. “The mouth of the righteous brings forth wisdom, but the perverse tongue will be cut off. The lips of the righteous know what is acceptable, but the mouth of the wicked, what is perverse” (10:31-32). “The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things” (15:28).
James understands this correlation between purity of heart and speech. The tongue that is untamed is indeed set on fire by hell, or the wickedness within. He rightly expresses that no human being can tame the tongue (James 3:8). This is because we cannot tame our hearts.
The audience of his letter were people who claimed to be wise (3:13) but their conduct and speech towards each other was poisonous, bitter and unloving. James observes from their conduct jealousy and selfish ambition which he condemns as worldly wisdom and demonic (3:15). Wisdom that comes from above is pure, peaceable, and gentle among other characteristics. The work of God in our hearts leaves evidence, not the least of which is in our speech.
May God be glorified as His wisdom is expressed in our speech.