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James 3.1-12: Taming and Staining

November 15, 2009 Series: James | Retro-Faith

Topic: New Testament Passage: James 3:1–3:12

James 3.1-12 Taming and Staining

November 15, 2009

Sam Ford


Words and Works

James chapter three is about most influential power in all of creation—THE TONGUE.  Last week, James told us that faith without works is GOOD for nothing and no one—it won’t save and it won’t bless.  In his words, faith without works is dead, because true genuine living faith cannot help but be active.  James IS NOT arguing that works must be ADDED to faith, but that genuine biblical faith will inevitably be characterized by works.   And now James argues that Words are the some of the most powerful works.  James spends more time than any other writer of Scripture speaking about the tongue.  There are many reasons for that, no less than the first sin after eating the fruit was a sin of speech—where Adam decides to slander the name of God blaming him for his sin.  In Proverbs 18.21 21 Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.  In the 1st chapter, he warned his readers to be slow to speak, AND, he identified the first trait of a truly religious individual as one who “controls their tongue”. 


The Power of Words

In chapters 2 - 4, James fleshes this out.  In the book of Proverbs, the WISE MAN and the FOOL are often identified by what comes out of their mouths.  Specifically, in Proverbs 10, the WISE MAN controls his mouth and is blessed and blesses because of it.  The FOOL, however, is known as a babbling idiot whose heart is evidenced by the fact that he never shuts up, and when he does speak, his words create ruin, violence, slander, and confusion.  David is so aware of this power of Words, and his inability to control his tongue, that he prays for God’s help to not become a fool: Psalm 141.3  3   Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips!   With a few words, men can start and stop wars, men can influence the economy, men can create or destroy relationships, break or build hearts, bring fear or comfort.  Words are works, verbalized actions, that do something once they leave our mouth.


How we minimize the tongue

Christians woefully underestimate the sins of the tongue. Pornography, alcohol, gambling are preached as the icons of evil to avoid, while the sins of the tongue are ignored.  The truth is, Jesus says that our tongues, that which comes out of our mouths, reflect the genuineness of our faith more than anything else.  It makes sense then that restrictions placed on the tongue are one of the greatest ways we “pretend” to be righteousWe make lists. Man well-meaning people think being “religious” means we stop using dirty words and start using clean righteous words.  Which ones?  Once we create lists, we free ourselves from discerning whether the “clean” words we are using are building up or breaking down. Unfortunately, the Bible does not provide us a list of words to abstain from using.  It can be hard to determine because language is fluid.  Language changes from culture to culture, gender to gender, from family to family


Redeeming the Tongue

I am not suggesting that there are NO LINES to draw with regard to language.  I am actually arguing that drawing lines isn’t as helpful as we might think.  We minimize the problem when we become lawmakers or remain lawless with our language—it ignores what sin has done to us. Sin makes our tongues sinful, and has the potential to make any words we speak sinful.  And I don’t need “bad words” to do that.  According to Genesis 1, our tongues are tools and words are the materials of creation.  By words God created.  God spoke into existence.  The image of God in us imbues us with the ability to create or de-create, to build up or tear down, to bless or curse. 


Redeeming our tongue is about understanding that glorifying God with our tongues is less about the words, and more about how they are used. It is less about spending time thinking about what to AVOID and more about what we want to ACCOMPLISH.  In short, it is about how our hearts are connected with our tongues.



V. 1-2  Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2 For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.


Don’t be a Teachers

As James launches into his holy diatribe against the tongue, he begins with a warning to teachers, of which he himself is one.  There are other passages in the Bible (Heb. 5.12) that rebuke people for not being teachers.  While the writer of Hebrews is concerned about the immaturity of “older believers”, James here is warning people not to be EAGER to become teachers.  Unlike our day, where teachers are almost pitied for their lot, the teachers in the church had great prominence and influence.  And James warns that TEACHERS WILL BE JUDGED MORE STRICTLY.  I am not convinced that there is a separate RUBRIC by which teachers will be judged, rather, that their job is to speak and thus they expose themselves to the dangers of the tongue more than any others.  Perhaps this is why James makes a point throughout this letter to BE DOERS of the WORD– always leading his people toward Scripture and not just his opinion.


Teachers who stumble

But in some sense, we are all teachers.  We all have family, friends, co-works who listen to us espouse all kinds of things.  Though James is probably denouncing those formal teachers (telling them to deal wrongly with their trials), any time we share an opinion, take a stand, or speak truth we are in fact teaching.  There is always the potential that your “students” are learning truth or falsehood.  The question is, what are you teaching your children, your bride, your family, your friends?  Perhaps you are not teaching them directly, what by your words, are you teaching them indirectly.  We cannot afford to be carless with something that brings life or death.  


Far from sinless, he includes himself in the group, admitted that he “stumbles in many ways.” While he admits that a mature Christian controls his tongue but that it is nearly an impossible task.  Regardless, the principle is clear-- controlling our words will enable us to control our lives.  It is NOT ONLY evidence of spiritual maturity—it is the means to it.  


V. 3-5  3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. 4 Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!


POWER for GOOD:  Bit for a Horse and a Rudder on a Ship

The Tongue is such a small little part of the body and yet, it has so much power to control the entire course of one’s life—for better or worse.  Both of the illustrations speak to the same idea, but I wanted to focus for a moment on the bit of a horse.  Though I am as bow-legged as they come and look like I was born to be a cowboy, I don’t know horses so I asked a few horse people about this small tool.  What they said really intrigued me.  The bit is the means of control for the horse in all its movement including stopping the horse.   The bit is used, or pressure is applied, to train the horse to obey.  The application of the bit can be more forgiving or severe based on how teachable or stubborn the animal is.


My friend also wrote, “When a horse submits to it, they learn to completely accept and at some point forget it's presence, listening to it's master's verbal and physical cues (touch legs on either side of the horse to turn it, squeeze it to go faster, remove legs to stop, etc.).  As well, through the use of certain metals, they actually bring pleasure to the horse inducing slobbering and licking (a sign a horse is happy).  However, even the most well behaved horse will at times rebel against the bit.  If a horse can lock their teeth on the bit and dive their head down, they try to blunt the affect of the bit.  It will take a strong rider to regain control of the horse when such an event happens.”


With either illustration, there are three things at work.  The ANIMAL/SHIP, the BIT/RUDDER, and the RIDER/CAPTAIN.  The question is not whether there is something to direct (A LIFE), nor is there a question of whether there is something directing it.  The question is WHO is DIRECTING IT.  Who is driving your speech?  What is governing when you speak and what you speak? Is your intent as you speak to glorify God, whether that be through REBUKE or ENCOURAGEMENT—because both or loving—is it with the intention to glorify God or glorify yourself?  How do we change?  Training.  1Timothy 4.6-12   6 If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. 7 Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; 8 for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. 9 The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. 10 For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.

11 Command and teach these things. 12 Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.


When we begin to submit to the Lord’s direction with our Words, we arrive at a place of pleasure in speaking God’s truth.  At first, it is training, doing what we don’t want.  After a while, I feel like we begin to sense the Lord’s cues that are painless.


Power for HARM:  Unbridled Boasting Tongue

5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!


If not bridled we boast

When we rebel with our tongue, not only does it hurt, our lives grow out of control and misdirected.  Though it feels “free”, it is in fact the worst thing for us and for those around us.  Similar to a ship without a captain isn’t free—it is in danger of running aground.  What does an unbridled “tongue” look like?




Self-Indulgence & Self-Glory (Perversion) – jokes


Self-Analysis/Judging (Cynicism) – criticisms


Self-Defense (Gossip) – rumor, innuendos, false truth


Self-Promotion – lies, self-praise, bragging


Self-Deprecation – victim talk, weaknesses



Bridling not Silencing

James does not speak to “bridling” so that the tongue will be silent.  We don’t control the tongue by muzzling it.  A ship is not built to stay in the harbor.  The question is, WHERE DO YOU WANT TO GO?  Where does God want you to go? Where do you want this person to go?  What are your natural tendencies?  What is your BREED of HORSE?  (INITIATING FATHERMen and Women We all need to be controlled in different ways.  Men need to bridle their tongue AWAY form SILENCE:  Teach, train, rebuke, exhort, encourage, and defend.  Women need to bride their tongue TOWARD SILENCE:  Respect, Not Gossip, and Trust. 


v. 6-10  6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. 7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.


James describes the destructive path of an unbridled tongue, comparing it to an uncontrolled fire and an untamed beast.  Many of us have experienced the power of an unbridled tongue, and some of us have unleashed destruction through harsh words.  Proverbs 12.18 There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.  James denies that “Sticks and stones break bones and words never hurt.”  According to Scripture, unbridled, uncontrolled, unrestrained, unmeasured Words hurt and they leave a mark. Words hurt.  Of the seven deadly sins, three are specific to the tongue (Prov. 6.16-19).  Every list in the N.T. of detestable sins includes the sins of the tongue.  


The destructive nature of the tongue

  • The Tongue is a fire (not a warming one) one full of so much unrighteousness it is called a “World” of it
  • The Tongue possesses power to stain the whole body
  • The Tongue can set on fire the entire course of life
  • The Tongue is set on fire by HELL
  • The Tongue can start a forest fire – one spark
  • The Tongue is never resting
  • The Tongue is full of poison
  • The Tongue CANNOT be tamed


It cannot be tamed.

James doesn’t give us much hope to control our tongues, in fact, he says the tongue cannot be tamed; the poison cannot be completely eradicated from it (2.7-8).  I don’t believe James is suggesting that it is hopeless, it can be controlled, but only that our work is never done and IS NOT DONE by us!  We can’t make LISTS of words thinking that will protect us—that is legalism.  And we can’t do nothing, or our tongue will run wild into self-indulgence.  We have to discern, always, every moment, wherever we are.  A word about technology as a growing percentage of our communication is now online.  Our tongue extends to all of our communication, especially the written word.  And now, with cyberspace venues like email, facebook, blogs, etc.  our words are not GLOBAL, INSTANT, and PERMANENT.  We have to confess we cannot tame, repent from our self direction, and commit our tongues to the Lord.


V. 9-12. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.  11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.


Blessings and Cursings

James ends his Holy TIRADE with the sobering truth that our hypocritical tongues speak BOTH blessing and cursing.  In other words, we’ll sing a Sunday song for our Savior then Slam someone for Satan in the next breath.  If we think about our week, some of us probably did that today!   


At the heart of not controlling our tongue is more than the failure to love people.  We could leave here and just work harder to avoid all the negative words, slander gossip, and cynicism. Of course, if you don’t speak truth, encouragement, joy into people’s lives…they will still not be love.  Doing either, however, will only leads us into a place of moralism where we measure our spirituality by how nice we talk.


Conclusion: the OUGHT

James says that this “OUGHT” not be so—because they claim to believe the gospel. We are not expected to direct our tongue to God’s glory because he will love us more if we don’t swear or curse people, we OUGHT to control our tongue because of how he has changed us by HIS WORD.  A bridled tongue, a tongue directed by the Lord Jesus, is evidence of true faith.  It is fruit from the good tree that he has made us to be.  I don’t curse anyone because, in doing so, I deny that I am worthy to be cursed.  And I deny that Jesus hung on a cross, became a curs so that I might be blessed.  I speak Gospel Truth.   


The only fruit we have to offer is out of the treasure of my heart.  The only GOOD thing in my heart is Jesus.  Our words, therefore, become the words of God. 

  • When we dare speak to God, we speak through the cross
  • When we speak to ourselves, we speak through the cross
  • When we speak to others, we speak through the cross
  • When someone speaks sinfully to us, we speak through the cross


ALL OF OUR WORDS are directed by THE WORD, held captive by Jesus our rider, captain, King:





Self-Indulgence & Self-Glory (Perversion) – jokes


We confess God’s Beauty and proclaim God’s Way


Self-Analysis/Judging (Cynicism) – criticisms


We speak of our trust and hope in God faithfulness


Self-Defense (Gossip) – rumor, innuendos, false truth


We speak Grace, we speak Mercy of God

Self-Promotion – lies, self-praise, bragging

We admit our weaknesses and praise the goodness and holiness of God


Self-Deprecation – victim talk, weaknesses


We speak God’s love and his sufficiency

The words that speak power into our lives are God’s Words. There is lie that is perpetuated especially in Christian circles. You see it ion thoe lettered signs in front of churches –Preach the gospel and use words when necessary.  Now, I realize the intent is to get people to move to action . What we need to understand is two things: 1) Word are works, they are active, they have effects.  2)  The only words that have true purifying power are God’s Words. 

More in James | Retro-Faith

January 17, 2010

James 5.19-20: Wandering and Finding

January 10, 2010

James 5.13-18 Praying and Healing

January 3, 2010

James 5.12 Oaths and Vows