Home » James » The Test of the Tongue, Part 1

The Test of the Tongue, Part 1

Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.

When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.”
(James 3:1-6 NIV)

James has finished the question and test of our deeds as evidence of our faith, He now moves on to the test of our speech as evidence of our faith.  James covers this subject in chapter 3, verses 1-12; we will cover the passage here in two posts.

We know this is important, as James uses one of his terms of endearment (“my fellow believers”) to begin this section.  James opens with a warning to not desire to be a “teacher”.  The word James uses for “teacher” means “master”.  A “master” or “teacher” was normally associated with a formal office, what we would today call a “pastor” or “preacher”.

Was James going against what Jesus taught, to spread the Gospel message across the world?  Not at all.  James was saying, however, that as teachers (and he lumped himself in with that group), that they incur a greater scrutiny, and a greater responsibility and judgment for what they say. I understand this warning includes me as a writer, as my words “speak” through the written page.

So what was James’ point?  Again, James puts himself in the same group as everyone else: “We all stumble in many ways.” (verse 2).  James goes on to say that if we are perfect in what we say, we can keep the rest of our body in check.  James implies, by preceding this observation with “we all stumble in many ways”, that it’s impossible to be perfect in what we say.

Staying consistent with Hebrew literary form, James personifies the mouth and tongue as the offending party.  In reality, the heart is the issue, but the mouth and tongue are called out as the culprits, as the source of the problem.

Jesus brought relationship between what is in our hearts and what we say to light during one of His many encounters with the Pharisees.  Jesus said, “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.  A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.”  (Matthew 12:34-35 NIV, emphasis mine)

James uses three analogies to speak of the relationship of the tongue or mouth to the rest of the body:

  • the bit in the mouth of a horse
  • the rudder on a ship
  • a spark in relationship to a forest fire

All are small compared to the size of the object, but still have a controlling effect.  And so is the tongue in relationship to our body.  It’s so small, but yet, it can control our direction and destiny.  This is why James says our tongue can set our entire course of life on fire, burning up everything in its path if we let it.

This is some pretty heavy stuff to consider.  James points out a lot of negative in this section.  What is the positive?  What should be our goal?

The Apostle Paul laid out what we should “put off” and what we should “put on” in his letter to the church at Colossae (Colossians 3:1-17).  May that be our pattern of speech going forward.


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