The Untameable Tongue
“No human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8).
The tongue is an especially effective tool for the will of the devil. Our speech is all too easily perverted. We eagerly gossip and spread unsubstantiated and even false rumors about other people. The pain inflicted upon us from physical sources is far easier to heal than the permanent damage that can be dealt to one’s reputation or view of self by thoughtless and malicious comments.
That the tongue is set on fire by the forces of evil is emphasized in today’s passage. In 3:7–8, James tells us that while every kind of animal has been and is being tamed by mankind, the tongue itself cannot be tamed by any person. All of the creatures of the physical world can be subdued by human beings save the tongue, and so there must be something more powerful at work directing it. As John Calvin says, “Since the tongue cannot be restrained, there must be some secret fire of hell hidden in it.”
When God created Adam and Eve, He gave humanity the mandate to subdue the earth (Gen. 1:28). For the most part, we have been successful in this endeavor. We have domesticated a large number of animals including cats, dogs, and horses for our benefit. Though sin does pervert our efforts, we have been far more successful in stewarding the earth than we have been controlling our tongues.
The progress of human civilization has not helped us control our speech. We continue to lie and gossip among our friends and family. Technological advancement creates new possibilities for false propaganda, written or oral, to find its way into the hearts of millions. Rank filth pours into our homes via radio, television, and the Internet.
Left to ourselves, we could never tame the tongue because of its restless nature and deadly poison (James 3:8). But the Father has not left those in Christ to their own devices. He has given us the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13) who will enable us to control our tongues as we submit to Him. Though we will not bring our speech into full submission on this side of glory, by the Spirit we can make our tongues serve the purposes of God rather than those of the Devil.
Contrary to some theological traditions, the Bible does not teach that it is possible to achieve a sinless perfection this side of heaven. Today’s passage reminds us of the powerful presence of sin, especially as manifested in the tongue. However, this should not lead us to give up in our quest to put our sin to death. In prayer, ask the Lord to lead you into submission to the Holy Spirit to control your tongue. Find another believer who can hold you accountable in these things.
Passages for Further Study
- Pss. 15; 34:13
- Prov. 21:23
- Col. 3:5
- Titus 2:7–8
- James 1:26