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.
All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.
Proverbs makes it clear that words can both heal and harm. James counsels restraint in what we say, the need to metaphorically bridle, or keep a tight rein on the tongue (James 1:26). We little understand the damage our words can do. The devil is not only in the details, but the results which can be devastating. And it seems that the human tongue is much more prone to bad, even evil than it is to good. And like James and the rest of scripture points out, this is indeed deceptive. After all we’re speaking our hearts, and that’s the problem, just as Jesus pointed out:
…the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.
On a more hopeful note, Jesus also said:
A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.
And James does get to that (3:13-18). But first we must settle in well on the fact and reality that our heart, and the thoughts which come from it are often helpful to no one. Heart in the New Testament, by the way, and in scripture includes thoughts and disposition. We certainly need to fill our hearts with good things. And God is at work to change our hearts to become more and more Christian, like Christ, and to be increasingly attuned to what’s good, and sensitive to what’s not. But again, we have to hone in on the truth that there’s a certain proneness in ourselves toward what ends up being destructive, along with a certain deception inherent in that, and with awful, hellish consequences. James minces no words on this, and considering the rest of the letter, does lend more words to the subject than what one might expect, with supporting words dotted here and there elsewhere.
When we have even a yellow flag up in our minds about a certain subject, we should at least stop, and consider. Red lights, no, even if someone ought to say something. Maybe it’s not we ourselves. Perhaps someone will be gifted by God to help as needed in a situation, but we may not have the call and gift that goes with that to do so. It is best on those occasions to simply pray, not only for what troubles us, but for ourselves, and our response to that. James would say that we should at least be slow to speak, quick to listen, slow to anger (James 1). That we should speak words that are helpful to the hearer. And if there’s a needed word on a hard subject, we must look for wisdom from God and God’s word for ourselves first. Maybe after we’ve taken it in well for ourselves, God might be able to use us to help others. But it will mainly be through our lives. The point James gets to next.