The taming of the tongue

I encourage you to read James 3 this week. (I have posted it below.) As with all of James, his teaching is straightforward, warning us about the power of the tongue in a clear and sobering way. We have probably all experienced the truth of his warnings by being the victim of hurtful or gossiping words. I still remember overhearing gossip about me while I was a student at law school over 30 years ago! And if we are honest with ourselves, we have also experienced the pain and conviction of knowing our own words have caused great hurt to others. Regretfully, I have said so many things that moments later I have wished I could take back. I remember reading long ago that every one of us is carrying around a concealed weapon— our tongue. All we have to do is open our mouths and it is unconcealed, ready to unleash harm. 

At first glance, James seems to give us further discouraging news about our tongue. He says “that no human being can tame the tongue.” (James 3:8) But he then follows up with a discussion on wisdom from above. In other words, what we cannot do, God can. He wants to give us His wisdom to communicate words that are “pure, peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.” (James 3:17) God wants us to use our tongue for His purposes to heal a hurting world. And I have come to realize that the best use of our tongue is when it is used to speak not our words, but God’s.

My dad was in the hospital with a kidney infection, one that would ultimately lead to his death several weeks later. My mom, my sister and I had been with him the entire day and finally left to get something to eat and to assure that my mom got some rest. We had just begun eating when a call came from the hospital that my dad was very irritated and upset. We decided that I would go back alone, so my sister could take care of my mom. I returned to my dad’s room to find him sitting up trying to get dressed to leave, despite the fact that he was attached to IV tubes. Irritable is an understatement. He was extremely angry and confused. I tried to talk him through what was happening, and why he needed to stay. He said some unkind things. While I tried to listen and show compassion, nothing I said made a bit of difference. Finally, I said, “Dad, why don’t you sit back, and I will read your favorite Psalm.” He had no retort. I quickly grabbed my phone and pulled up Psalm 91 on my Bible app.

Several years earlier, at the age of 85, my dad had memorized Psalm 91. It contains the only verses he had ever committed to memory. At the time I had no idea why these were the verses he had chosen:

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”  For He will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler...


I read all 16 verses, and he said, “Read it again.” He pulled his legs up on the bed and laid back. I read it again, and when I finished he said, “Again.”

“Really, again?” I replied.

An interesting thing happened at that moment. A young man had entered the room to clean up and empty the trash can. He looked at me and said, “You heard him, read it again.” And so I did. Again, and again, and again, until my dad fell asleep. The young man quietly slipped out of the room with a smile on his face. It was a great reminder—my words alone were insufficient to comfort my dad. God’s Words were not. My tongue, speaking God’s Words, had the power to bring him the comfort and peace that I alone could not. And that is what He wants us to do, to use our tongues not for our words, but for His.


Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 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 it 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.

Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. James 3 (ESV)