The tongue is a little member of the body that has limitless and awesome power. The tongue can start wars, ruin friendships and bring down nations. It has destroyed more reputations, families, and churches, and driven more people out of Christian churches and ministries, and caused more harm than any other weapon in the world.
That is why the first 12 verses of James 3 deal with the tongue, as do many other verses in the Bible. Just as an old-fashioned doctor starts his examination by looking at a patient’s tongue to help diagnose a problem, James tests a person’s spiritual health by his or her conversation and sins of speech.
The modern saying, “Watch your tongue. It’s easy to slip in wet places,” describes the tongue so well. Listen to the same tongue go from “I love you” to “I hate you.” From “I am willing to spend the rest of my life with you” to “It’s over” or “I can’t stand you any longer.”
The power of tongue is first compared to bits in the mouth of a horse (v.3). Even though the bit is a very small piece of steel, if a person can control that bit well, he can control the behaviour of the horse. So it is with the human tongue; it can direct the life of the person — either for good or for evil.
Then the tongue is compared to the rudder of a ship, also very small and yet able to control the direction of the ship.
The third example of the power of the tongue is fire. A small spark or a lighted match can start a forest fire and destroy whatever comes its way.
Consider this story of a great catastrophe that took place in Chicago in 1871. It started when Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over her lantern, which fell into some hay and set it on fire. The fire spread and burned for three days and over three square miles of the city was destroyed. In addition, 300 people died, 100,000 people were left homeless, 17,500 buildings were destroyed. The value of the property destroyed was $175 million and the cost to the city was over $400 million. One flame did all this.
The tongue is like a small lighted match or a turned-over lantern. Its potential to destroy is limitless. One careless word can set the whole course of life on fire (v.6).
Families are torn apart by uncontrolled tongues. Words spoken (or written) in anger must be dealt with immediately to restore peace and relationships. Harsh words spoken (or written) by Christians to one another must be dealt with in love and respect.
James 1:26 says: “If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.” Board meetings, group meetings, congregational meetings, etc. can be full of deadly poison. Critical and uncontrolled tongues have closed church doors. We must never allow negative or critical words to pass our lips, but if it happens it should be dealt with it.
“He who guards his lips guards his life, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin.” (Proverbs 13:3) We also read: “The tongue has the power of life and death.” (Proverbs 18:21) Psalm 57:4 compares the tongue to a sharp sword: “I am in the midst of lions; I lie among ravenous beasts — men whose teeth are spears and arrows, whose tongues are sharp swords.”
Apostle Peter, writing to the believers, said: “For, whoever would love life and see good days must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from deceitful speech.” (1 Peter 3:10)
We often think that our words are unimportant, but the wrong words can direct the listener into the wrong paths. An idle word, a questionable story or even a half-truth could change the direction of a life and lead it to destruction. But the right words given by the Holy Spirit could direct a soul out of sin and into salvation. “An anxious heart weighs a man down, but a kind word cheers him up.” (Prov.12:25)
The potential of a God-controlled tongue is wonderful. With our tongue we praise our Lord (James 3:9), we confess the Lord Jesus (Romans 10:9), we become His witnesses (Acts 1:8)
How? By teaching a class, by training our children in the way of God, by speaking a tender word to a troubled soul, by speaking a word of peace between enemies, by singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.
Psalm 71:8 says: “My mouth is filled with your praise.” God has changed the tongues and lives of many in the Bible and He still changes tongues and lives today.
When Apostle Paul said: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God-which is your spiritual worship,” (Romans 12:1) that includes our tongue!
When we sing “I surrender all,” all must include our tongue! It may be the most difficult thing to surrender to God, but we must if we are his disciples.
Pastor Joseph Hovsepian