How do we apply scripture: the tongue

We have noted previously that applying scripture seeks to answer two very fundamental questions. When we read a passage, we are seeking to understand: Why does this matter? What do I do now?

Let’s consider some thoughts about the subject of the tongue. James writes:

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. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. 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. So also the tongue is a small member, yet hit boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! 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. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water. – James 3.2-12

Let’s break this down using the suggestions made previously.


Who are the people in this passage: – James says “we all stumble in many ways“. Who is the ‘we’? The book was written to Christians (1:2), so ‘we’ must be a reference to the collective first person: all of us. So it applies to us today just as it did to the people James wrote to. They are like us, because they have the same trouble taming their tongues as we do.

What is the setting of this passage: James is clearly trying to encourage people who were struggle with their oral communication – it might have been profane, it might have been destructive, it might have been untruthful. But clearly he is addressing the power of the tongue in whatever avenue is applicable, i.e., wherever human speech is used.

What is happening, what action is there in the text: It is not a narrative (a story), but an instructional writing. So there is no real “action” but instead instruction about circumstances where there is action. And there are several of these.

  • The tongue is compared to the bridle used to guide horses, and to the rudder that guides ships – the comparison suggests that a small member can have tremendous influence.
  • The tongue is viewed as destructive, a small fire (a match) that can start a forest fire.
  • By comparison, man has tamed the most vicious animals in the world, but cannot tame his own tongue.
  • The tongue is viewed as having a deadly poison. How beautiful are some plants and flowers, and yet they are deadly.
  • The tongue is a paradox: it blesses and reveres, and then curses and stains.

What is the primary message, what were they supposed to learn, and what can I learn: James illustrates the inconsistency of man’s attention to his own vessels and abilities: we can use them for such good things, and then turn around and use them destructively.

Is there foundational truth revealed here: The tongue must be constantly guarded. Most people have uttered many times the phrase, “I can’t believe I said that.” We must respect its daunting influential power, and realize that it reflects what is in the heart, as Jesus said,

But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. – Matthew 15.18

How is this relevant to my situation in the world: Our tongues get us in more trouble than we often care to admit. As James said elsewhere:

Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger. – James 1.19

It’s pretty easy to understand that verse.

What situations in my life could this apply to: This is where self-examination is a must. Only we know ourselves and we must be honest with ourselves. Do we have a problem being harsh in our language? Do we use profanity? Do we talk about other people? Do we gossip? Do we slander? Do we speak damning judgment against others?

What adjustments can I make in my life: James says our tongues have great power – we ought to recognize that and use them for great things, like encouraging, edifying, teaching, comforting, praising. These things contribute to good in us, and in others.

How can I make this adjustment: It takes hard work. James clearly says that no man can tame the tongue. That is not an admission that we ought to stop trying, but rather an indicator of how hard this is. We’ve all heard the old grandmotherly advice: “If you can’t say something good about someone, don’t say anything at all.” Those are good words to live by, and a great place to start. Pray for God’s patience. Pray to see the good in every situation. Pray for self-control. And recognize the awesome power of words – both spoken and written!

Other Lessons

There are so many ways we can offend with our tongues, it’s almost impossible to list them all. This is the point James is making: the human communicative gift is one of God’s greatness blessings to mankind. It has to be respected and controlled. We ought to think about many areas where this is difficult:

  • Slang – euphemisms are just ‘shorthand’ for profane language
  • Boasting – should be about God, Jesus, or others, not self
  • Listening – we can’t learn anything from the things we say, but from what others say
  • Bias – when talking about Jesus with a need to be impartial and unbiased about who we seek to influence
  • Argument – a hard lesson is learning how to disagree without being disagreeable
  • Slander – check our motives before we talk about other people
  • Murmuring – let’s face it, we’ve elevated complaining to an art form, and we ought to stop and think about how blessed we are

Words have enormous impact, for both good and evil. The wise man noted:

Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit. – Proverbs 18.21

Let’s choose our words carefully and judiciously, and always seek to encourage, never to destroy.

May grace reign through righteousness in your life.

– Bo Couchman

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