The uncontrollable tongue.

by K.W. Leslie, 22 June 2017

James 3.3-12.

In talking about the sort of mature Christian who’s got the self-control necessary to teach others, James went off on a tangent about how out-of-control the tongue can get. Which, if you think about it, is a little ironic. Wasn’t he talking about teachers?

Well, anyway. This just after he briefly wrote how mature Christians oughta be able to control ourselves. Under the Holy Spirit’s power, of course, ’cause it’s profoundly difficult to get such hold of ourselves without him, since self-control is one of the Spirit’s fruit. Ge 5.23 For Christians, it‘s totally doable.

It’s just we don’t do it. Cause we demand the “freedom in Christ” to do as we please, say what we wish, and unwittingly hurt one another and hinder God’s kingdom.

James 3.1-6 KWL
1 My fellow Christians, don’t become “great teachers,”
since you’ve known we’ll receive great criticism, 2 for everybody stumbles.
If anybody doesn’t stumble in the message, this is a mature man, able to bridle the whole body.
3 If we put bridles in horses’ mouths so they heed us, we steer their whole body.
4 Look also at ships: They’re large, and driven by strong winds,
steered wherever the urge of the pilot wants—by the smallest rudder.
5 Likewise the tongue: It’s a little body part, but claims huge things.
Look how it lights a big fire on a big forest! 6 The tongue is fire.
The tongue places an unrighteous world in our body parts, staining the whole body,
setting the cycle of creation on fire, set on fire by ge-Henna.

Y’know, James was there when the tongues of fire fell upon the apostles at Pentecost in the year 33. He was among the brothers of Jesus who were praying for the Spirit to come. Ac 1.14 So it’s interesting he used the term “fire” to describe the tongue. At Pentecost, it was a positive sort of fire; it was the Spirit’s empowerment. In contrast, James described the human tongue, when not under the Holy Spirit’s direction, as fed by his culture’s favorite metaphor for hell, the landfill outside Jerusalem where trash fires burned day and night.

The popular saying may be “Talk is cheap,” but nobody really believes that. Talk is seldom cheap, and more destructive than ever we realize. That’s James’s point.

Nobody controls their tongue.

Jesus teaches whatever comes out of one’s mouth is an overflow of what’s in one’s heart. Mt 12.34, Lk 6.45 No doubt James, as the Jerusalem church’s leader, had encountered people with very evil hearts. Here, and in the verses following, he hammered on such people. Rather than use their tongues to encourage, to share God’s things, to spread God’s grace, they started fires which James was obligated to put out.

James 3.7-8 KWL
7 Every sort of beast, bird, reptile, and sea life is and has been tamed by every sort of person.
8 No person’s been able to tame the tongue. It’s unstable evil, full of deadly poison.

Most of that unstable evil and deadly poison comes from how eager we are for bad news. Namely that people we don’t care for, or are jealous of—or for that matter never really think about, but isn’t it fascinating what they’ve got themselves into?—have made minor mistakes, major mistakes, sinned, or scandalized. Some of this stuff isn’t news at all, but pure gossip. Sadly, most media outlets don’t care about the difference anymore, and as a result the public doesn’t either.

James wrote nobody’s been able to tame the tongue. And when you make universal statements like that, you kinda include yourself in them. Like I said, James sorta went on a tangent about the tongue in the middle of a bit about teaching, which goes to demonstrate his own struggle to tame his own tongue. Good teachers try to stick to the topic, because if they’re too easy to distract with tangents, their students might take advantage and hijack the lesson. (Something we used to do a lot with our high school geometry teacher. Way more fun to get him to rant about his home life than graph polynomials.) But even the best of us go sideways sometimes.

Every creature James could think of, humans have domesticated. But even the most self-controlled person can run at the mouth sometimes. It’s why some Christians figured the only way to really get their tongues under control, was to never speak. Hence vows of silence, and monastics who simply don’t talk. (Sometimes exceptions are made for praise; sometimes not.) Is that the appropriate response to the problem? No, ’cause Jesus used words to preach the gospel, and so must we. So we gotta work on that self-control.

If the tongue can’t be tamed, it means we gotta treat it as a wild animal. Which, y’know, humans have learned to deal with. We learn what makes ’em tick, what triggers their behavior patterns, and try not to trigger the behaviors we don’t want. We stay cautious. That’s not a bad policy when it comes to our tongues. Y’never know when the stupid thing’ll trip you up. Stay alert.

Good and evil shouldn’t have the same source.

Here’s another common example of how out-of-control the tongue can be: The tongue was meant for blessing, and blessing only. If it curses, it oughta only curse evil. But of course people don’t do that. Christians don’t do that.

James 3.9-12 KWL
9 With the tongue we praise the Master and Father;
with it we call down curses on people who were created in God’s likeness.
10 Praise and cursing come out of the same mouth.
My fellow Christians it ought not be this way with such things.
11 A spring of water from the same cave doesn’t bubble up both fresh and bitter water.
12 My fellow Christians, figs can’t be produced by an olive tree.
Nor vines produce figs, nor salt make water sweet.

I’ve heard many a Christian condemn sinners. Usually for political reasons. Sometimes they’re outraged because a person did something they consider vile. Sometimes it was rudeness or inconsiderate behavior, like poor driving. Regardless, the Christian will call ’em God-damned and declare they’re going to hell. Sometimes as worthless profanity, but sometimes they actually do want those people in hell.

Often they’ll justify this condemnation because they figure God’s already beat them to it: Those sinners are damned, ’cause their sins drove God to already turn away from them. “God’s damned them already; I’m just stating facts.” Well, you’re not. God hasn’t damned anyone already. Jesus came to save the world, not condemn it. Jn 3.17 Condemnation doesn’t happen till the End. Which takes place 10 centuries after Jesus returns, so we’re still a long ways off from that point.

In the meanwhile what’s our duty? Win the world. Love our neighbors, Lv 19.18 not declare them irredeemable. Any premature cursing is entirely inappropriate for people who wish to follow Jesus’s example.

Y’know, when he walked the earth, Jesus cursed only one thing in his life: A tree. Mk 11.12-14 Not a human. And in fact whenever people did condemn people, Jesus had this habit which really annoyed them: He’d try to save ’em anyway. God takes the side of humans who’d ordinarily get condemned by others. Ps 109.31 Including good religious people like us Christians.

In the case of the tree, it wasn’t even a harsh, “I wish this tree would go to hell!” but a simpler, “I wish no one’d ever eat from you again.” Something as simple as that killed the tree, Mk 11.20-21 which should be a little warning to us: It doesn’t take a lot of harsh words to condemn and destroy. Simple words also do the trick.

I’ve heard people point out how James’s rhetorical, “A fig tree can’t grow olives” can be undone by grafting an olive branch onto a fig tree. Well yeah, you could do such a thing—but why? Yeah you could attach something to a freshwater well so you could get brackish water—but why? The idea isn’t whether we can do something; it’s whether we should, and in these cases it’s kinda stupid to. Same with curses coming out of a mouth meant to bless.

So let’s consider the loaded weapons we carry in our own mouths. Have you ever thought about how destructive your words can be? Have you recognized what effect the things you say can have over other people, and over yourself? Let’s be particularly conscientious about any negativity—especially since we’re called to be optimistic.