The power of the tongue - James 3:1-18

This is a sermon by Lee McMunn from the Riverside Church service on 22nd February 2015.

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James 3:1-18

Show three interesting facts about the human tongue


  • Because it comes in different shapes and can have a variable number of taste buds, the human tongue is as unique as a fingerprint.
  • Thomas Blackstone holds the record for the strongest tongue. He lifted a 24 lb 3 oz weight that was hooked through his tongue.
  • The hardest tongue twister in the English language, according to the Guinness World Records, is: “The sixth sick sheikh’s sixth sheep’s sick."

Why all these facts about the human tongue? James chapter 3 is all about the human tongue. I want to show you three crucial facts about our tongues.

  • Our tongues are powerful (Vs 1-6)
  • We cannot control our tongues (Vs 7-12)
  • God can tame our tongues (Vs 13-18)

First, our tongues are powerful (Vs 1-6)


James has two groups of people in mind. First of all, he has something to say to preachers, and then, secondly, he has a number of word pictures to paint in all our heads. 

  • His word to preachers (Vs 1-2)

Look at vs 1.


A Bible teacher will be held more accountable because they are claiming to speak the word of God. So the words they utter in their position can have a very powerful effect on those who listen to them.


Do pray for those who teach the bible in whatever role they have. Pray that they get it right. I say this because it actually matters! 


Now sometimes people are surprised when those who speak the word of God make mistakes. But look at what we’re told in verse 2. 


We need to get our expectations right. Every Christian teacher will at some point be at fault. But our prayer is that they will keep on maturing and so as the years continue, we will use ours tongues in a much more edifying way.

  • His word pictures (Vs 3-6)

He starts off with two word pictures that are easy to understand. Look at verse 3. Read vs 3-4.


The first picture we are to imagine in our heads is a large powerful horse, capable of doing so much for good or so much damage. How can it be controlled? You can’t push it in the direction you want. You can’t pull it in the direction you want. You can’t wave flags at it and direct it forward like an aircraft. None of these things will work. But all you need is tiny bit placed in it’s mouth and the whole animal can be controlled. Or in other words, something tiny controls something big.


And the second word picture is similar. Think of a large ship and think about being given the task of guiding this round the sea? How can this be done? You can’t push it. You can’t stroke it. You can’t speak nicely to it. But put a small rudder on a large cruise ship and you can move it wherever you want. It’s that same truth again. Something tiny controls something big. 


Now what’s James’ point? Look at verse 5. Read vs 5a.


The tongue controls us. In what way?


Certainly, what we say to others controls how they respond to us. The words I use determine if someone treats me as a friend or as an enemy. 


More than this. What I say either to a person or about a person actually has an impact on what I think and how I live from that point onwards. 


So you see, this tiny tongue actually controls the shape of our life. Is that good of bad news? Let’s read on and discover what James says our tongue is like. End of verse 5. Read verse 5a-6.


This fire word pictures works in a slightly different way from the other two. Rather than it being about a small thing controlling a bigger thing, this word picture is about a tiny thing causing lots of damage


A small spark can devote acres of forest. Likewise, the tiny tongue can cause huge damage to others and huge damage to ourselves. 


And, in fact, it is the damage to ourselves that is emphasised here. Did you see that? 


  • First, we’re told that it corrupts the whole person. It leaves it’s mark on our souls like a dirty stain. 
  • Second, the tongue sets the whole course of a person’s life on fire. That is, the words that we speak can lead us to continually walk in destructive paths.
  • Third, the tongue can result in a person spending eternity in hell. I think that is what James means when he says the corrupt tongue is set on fire by hell. That is, a person can use their tongue to commit sins that are rightly punishable by God. And unless we receive forgiveness by Jesus for these sins, our tongues will joint the rest of our bodies in the fires of hell.


Put all this together and we are being told that the tiny tongue powerfully controls us in a negative way. So somehow it needs to be controlled. The question is, how?


Second, we cannot control our tongues (Vs 7-12)


I’m not sure I would have written this bit here. I would have been tempted to go straight to the good news of how the tongue can be tamed. But that isn’t what God in his wisdom decided. No, he decided that James would tell us that we cannot control our tongues. 


Look at verse 7. Read verses 7 and 8. Notice that is says no man


Humans have managed to tame all sorts of powerful land animals and ocean creatures. But the reality is that although we know how to tame a tiger we are not able to tame our tongues


I think this is written because when we diagnose a problem or when it is diagnosed for us, our first instinct is often to try and solve it using our own gifts or knowledge or strength, James wants us to know that we cannot control our tongues. No way. We can’t do it.


And yet we all need to. Because inside us there is this small but deadly little device that can ruin our lives.


Let me stress that when I say we, I mean everyone. Christians and non-Christians have the problem. It’s not just those who haven’t followed Jesus who have a tongue problem. It’s not as if on the day you commit your life to Jesus, suddenly your halitosis tongue becomes all sweet smelling. Not at all. Christians have a problem here as well. 


And James makes this crystal clear in the next few verses. Look at verse 9. Read verses 9-12.


In summary: We all need to control our tongues but none of us can. So what’s the solution? It’s found in the last few verses of chapter 3. 


God can tame our tongues (Vs 13-18)


I suspect this truth will not surprise you. But I think the way God solves the problem of tongues willsurprise you. And even if it doesn’t it will certainly delight you.


So let me show you how he does it. Look at verse 13. Read verses 13-18.


At first sight it’s got nothing to do with out tongues. But actually it’s got everything to do with how the problem of our tongues can be solved. 


Here’s the key to understanding it. God doesn’t battle head on with our tongues. He goes much deeper and battles with our hearts. 


Luke 6:45, Jesus says that it is out of the overflow of the heart that the mouth speaks. 


Suppose there was an apple tree in the playground. The fruit was horrible. One Sunday you saw me with a bag of apples from Tesco. I walked out to the tree and started to nail these to the tree. It isn’t going to work! We would need to deal with the problem at the heart of the tree. 


How does God change our hearts? Through his words. These are found in the Bible. So through the Bible our heart desires will be shaped and changed. And, as a result, we will find our conversation changing. And as a result, we will find the impact we have on others and ourselves changing for the better.


So what’s the application for today? It’s not wash your mouth out with a bar of soap. It’s not be careful what you say. It’s gaze again at the wisdom of God’s word. And believe that as we do this by faith God isshaping our hearts and so controlling our tongues. 


Let’s pray.


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