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Taming the Tongue: Personal Discipline in Action

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Taming the Tongue: Personal Discipline in Action
2 For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is mature, able also to control the whole body. 3 Now if we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we direct their whole bodies. 4 And consider ships: Though very large and driven by fierce winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5 So too, though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts great things. Consider how a small fire sets ablaze a large forest. 6 And the tongue is a fire. The tongue, a world of unrighteousness, is placed among our members. It stains the whole body, sets the course of life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. 7 Every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and fish is tamed and has been tamed by humankind, 8 but no one can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With the tongue we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in God’s likeness. 10 Blessing and cursing come out of the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, these things should not be this way. 11 Does a spring pour out sweet and bitter water from the same opening? 12 Can a fig tree produce olives, my brothers and sisters, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a saltwater spring yield fresh water.
This passage is primarily addressed at teachers; however, you do not have to be on this earth long before you recognize that your speech matters. It tells people who you are, what you stand for, and to whom you have faith in. Our speech can demonstrate our intelligence or stupidity.
You know in preparation for this sermon I looked up some verbal mistakes that I thought were funny.
· My fellow Americans, I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.Ronald Reagan, about to go on the air for a radio broadcast, unaware that the microphone was already on.[1]
· Smoking kills. If you’re killed, you’ve lost a very important part of your life.Brooke Shields, during an interview on being named spokesperson for a federal anti-smoking campaign[2]
· I would not live forever, because we should not live forever, because if we were supposed to live forever, then we would live forever, but we cannot live forever, which is why I would not live forever.—Miss Alabama, in the 1994 Miss Universe contest, when asked “If you could live forever, would you and why?”[3]
Our tongues can absolutely build and destroy, and yet one of the biggest lies we repeat in our culture is the old saying “sticks and stones may break my bones, yet words can never hurt me.” How wrong that is. Words can hurt…words do hurt.

1. The Test of Self-Control (3:2-5a)

The first thing I want to look at is how taming our tongue is a test of our self-control. This passage really is less about deliberate sin, but more about falling short of the goal. James is quick to point out that we ALL fall short of this goal.
However, just because we might mess up does not give us an excuse! We have to be thoughtful about EVERY word that comes from our mouth. We must be DELIBERATE about what we mean and what we say!
James in verse 2 is telling us that the person who controls what they say is mature, and some of your translations even say “perfect.” This word tĕlĕiŏs in the Greek can mean both “perfect” and “mature” because at its core it means complete. And the idea behind this is that the person who can control their tongue is one that is completely following God, they are completely in the will of God and are not falling into the temptation that this world can bring. He is saying that if you can control the small things of our lives than the big things fall in line behind them.
Look at the examples that James uses in verses 3 and 4. The first being a bit in the mouth of horses. Have you ever seen a bit for a horse’s mouth, it’s like 5 inches long… have you ever seen a horse…? Those jokers are HUGE! A small bit controls those giant animals.
Look at his other example, the rudder on a ship. You know, some rudders can be huge! Take for example the rudder on a double-hull oil tanker, the rudder is 30-feet high and 18-feet wide![4] That’s more than twice as tall as this building. Yet they are steering a ship that is longer than a 4 football fields. A rudder is one-eightieth as long as the ship, yet controls all its movements.
James is very deliberate in his own language here, he is telling us that our mouths are small things as well, yet they can control not only our bodies but also our futures.

2. The Danger of an Uncontrolled Tongue (3:5b-8)

This leads us to have to recognize the danger of an uncontrolled tongue!
Have you ever heard the expression that, “Your mouth is writing a check that your Body can’t cash?” This was a favorite expression of my Dad’s. But it kind of helps us get the idea around James words.
He is saying that there is hardly any difference between the strength of positive or negative words. Words can:
· Bring Light – Words can reveal truth or blind us
· Create Enthusiasm – For good or for evil.
· Be part of Creation – By building up or demolishing.
In fact, our words have a greater effect than our actions a lot of times. Our speech can encourage and grow evil on our lives, especially when we are not paying attention.
If you think about verse 6 from the perspective of a first century Christian than you can really get the idea behind James words. Fire was necessary for life in the ancient world since it was the only way to keep warm. Yet fire was dangerous, you see, this was a time before fire extinguishers, fire departments and 911. The same fire that kept you warm could just as easily kill you. And if there was a fire that broke out in a house than it could easily burn down a neighborhood.
Look at the “Great fire of Rome,” in A.D. 64. This fire destroyed two-thirds of the city of Rome and took 6 days to put out. Or closer to our own time think of the “Great Chicago Fire” of 1871. “The fire killed up to 300 people…and left more than 100,000 residents homeless.”[5]
Have you ever seen a forest fire? I was born in raised in California and as you all know from watching the news we Californians are good at two things; earthquakes and burning our state up.
There’s lots of hills in California, so unless you’re the one starting the fire—and we can talk about arson later—you start seeing the fire as faint glow beyond the horizon... you’re not even sure you see it at first. Then you know for sure there is something over the horizon as that glow gets brighter and brighter. And as you watch every once in a while, you might see a few flames shooting towards the sky. But then it crests the hill and there it is in all its power, a roaring inferno.
Let me tell you when that raw power is coming your way it’s relentless, it advances destroying everything with no impunity, until it is stopped by another force… it never has enough, it never stops on its own.
When you start a fire with your words you don’t have any control over who those words hurt. The idea here is that you are starting a fire by your house hoping it will burn down your neighbors and you have zero control whether it burns down yours as well. If we say something mean or wrong, it can travel faster than a wildfire destroying your witness and people’s respect of you as fast as lightning. James is warning us that we should treat or words as carefully as we do fire, because like fire they are naturally bent towards destruction or sin.

3. The Tongue is a Snare (3:9-12)

Just as soon as James is done talking about the general danger of the tongue he starts warning us against being self-contradictory with our speech. We can be so double-minded, expressing love and lies at almost the same time.
James is basically saying that taming the tongue is truly the first challenge for our faith! Think about it, we cannot succeed in any other kingdom work without first taming the tongue.
Talking about that act of faith look with me at
7 A fool’s mouth is his devastation, and his lips are a trap for his life.
The word here “trap”, can also mean a snare. A snare is a nasty piece of business that gets the job done with brutal efficiency.
You know, like most of you, I never really have been all that big on primitive hunting. Really the closest thing to it I have ever been to it is watching television. This reminds me of one of my favorite TV shows ever, Survivorman. You know there is no shortage of survival T.V. shows out there nowadays. However, one thing always set survivorman apart was the lack of a TV crew or safety net. It follows this guy called Les Stroud who carries all his survival equipment and film equipment and films himself for a week in a hazardous condition. That means that everytime you see him walking towards a camera or climbing down a hill, he has already done it once so that he can set up the camera and then walk back to film it. Amazing!
I didn’t really understand a snare until I watched survivor man. I thought a snare was like a trip-line, something to slow you down, but that’s not right at all. You see a snare is a wide-open noose, that the animal walks into and gets caught in like any other trap. But the the thing that kills the animal is actually the animal itself. You see once the animal realizes it is caught it panics and tries to run away and tightens the noose itself and yet the noose only stays tight as long as the animal panics, if it keeps cool and still the snare loosens, and they can get out of it, yet instead usually the animal ends up killing themselves trying to save themselves.
~ Share story about lying to not go to school
So, when it says snare don’t think trip, think trap. Your mouth can choke your soul almost to death. Your words and thoughts have consequences both good and bad.


The thing that has always stood out to me about this passage is that, like our tongues, it is a double-edged sword. On the one hand it warns us that our tongues bring about evil and destruction. However, there is also hope in seeing how much creation one can bring about with only their words.
You know even though we have talked a lot about what we say or don’t say this morning, ultimately, the words we say are irrelevant compared to the heart behind them. Jesus makes this clear in Luke’s Gospel.
45 A good person produces good out of the good stored up in his heart. An evil person produces evil out of the evil stored up in his heart, for his mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart.
Ultimately, the message that James and Jesus are giving us is that condition of our speech reflects the condition of our soul. Take time this week to do some self-reflection to ask yourself whether your words build or destroy and what they reflect as the condition your soul is in.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
[1] Robert J. Morgan, Nelson’s Complete Book of Stories, Illustrations, and Quotes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000), 573.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Seattle Times staff, “Mysterious Cracks Appear in Rudders of Double-Hull Tankers,” The Seattle Times, May 20, 2005,
[5] “Great Chicago Fire,” Wikipedia, July 30, 2018,
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