We can identify mature Christians by their attitude toward suffering in James chapter 1 and by their obedience to the Word of God in chapter 2. Now James tells us that a Christian’s speech is another test of maturity. When God gave us the faculty of speech, He gave us a tool to build with; but it can also become a weapon of destruction.
James’ gives an exhortation, “My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation. 2For in many things we offend all. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body.” (James 3:1–2) Apparently there was a rivalry in the assemblies over who would teach. It is a sad thing when immature Christians try to become teachers before they are ready. James is quick to agree that all of us stumble in many ways, especially in what we say. In fact, the person who is able to control the tongue proves that he or she has control over the whole body. Read James1:26 again, “If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain.” Peter is a good illustration of this truth. In the Gospels, while an immature disciple, he often lost control of his tongue and had to be either reproved or taught by the Lord. But after Pentecost, his spiritual discipline was evident by his controlled speech.
James next gives us some illustrations of the power of the tongue (James 3:3–12) James used three paired illustrations to portray the power of the tongue. First is its power to direct — the bit and rudder (James 3:3–4). The “rudder” steers the ship as the “bit” steers the horse. We often think that our words are unimportant, but the wrong word can direct the listener into the wrong paths. An idle word, a questionable story, a half-truth, or a deliberate lie could change the course of a life and lead it to destruction. On the other hand, the right word, used by the Spirit, could direct a soul out of sin and into salvation.
Secondly, its power to destroy — the fire and animal (James 3:5–8). “Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth! 6And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell. 7For every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind: 8But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.” The size of a thing does not determine its value or power. James also compares the tongue to a fierce and poisonous beast that cannot be tamed.
Thirdly we see its power to delight — the fountain and tree (James 3:9–12). It is impossible for a fountain to produce both fresh water and salt; and it is impossible for a tongue to speak both blessing and cursing. There is something wrong with the heart when the tongue is inconsistent. Likewise, a tree cannot bear two kinds of fruit. After considering these six examples, believers must realize that they cannot permit Satan to use their tongues. The wrong word at the wrong time could break a heart or lead a person astray.
James makes it clear that false wisdom comes from earthly thinking (James 3:14–16). When we have bitterness and envy in our hearts, our tongues will express these things. It matters not how spiritual our teaching might be: if the tongue is not controlled by the Spirit from a loving heart, then we are imparting false wisdom. To their shame, Christians often believe this false wisdom and even glory in it! They know this “wisdom” contradicts the Bible, so they lie even against the truth of God’s Word! False wisdom belongs to the world (earthly), the flesh (sensual), and the devil (devilish) — the three great enemies of the believer (Ephesians 2:1–3).
You can always tell when a church or a family follows false wisdom: you will find jealousy, division, and confusion. Instead of humbly depending on the Spirit and the Word, they look to the world for ideas and to the flesh for strength, and by so doing play right into the hands of the devil.
Finally, true wisdom is from above (James 3:17–18). Truly wise believers do not need to advertise the fact that they are wise; you will see it expressed in their daily life (edifying conversation and good behavior) and attitude (meekness). Knowledge puffs up (1 Corinthians 8:1), but spiritual wisdom humbles us and keeps us from being arrogant. While the false wisdom has its origin in the world, the flesh, and the devil, the true wisdom “comes down from above” (James 1:17).
If your tongue is not under control, you are not walking in Godly wisdom. One of the key themes in the Book of James is wisdom, or practical living directed by the Word of God (see 1:5). It is tragic when Christians lack practical wisdom to direct their affairs, both personally and in the church. Far too many people have the idea that to be “spiritual” means to be impractical — and nothing is farther from the truth! When the Holy Spirit guides us, He uses our minds and our tongues, and He expects us to get the facts and weigh issues in the light of the Word of God before speaking. James indicates that there are two sources of wisdom and that the believer needs to be discerning as to which source he/she will draw from.
Dr. Bill Helton is a professor at Clear Creek Baptist Bible College in Pineville.