III. The Untamed Tongue and the Way of James Wisdom (3:1-18)


III. The Untamed Tongue and the Way of Wisdom (3:1-18)

3:1-2 In the absence of good works, there’s often an abundance of worthless words. So James addresses the necessity of controlling our tongues. This is practical, down-to-earth Christianity. He begins with teachers in the church: not many should become teachers. Why? Teachers influence the thinking of others and have the power to lead them astray. Therefore, teachers will receive a stricter judgment (3:1). Heaven notices what you say. We all stumble in many ways; none of us is perfect. But the one who controls his tongue is mature (3:2). The tongue is a crucial—and often deadly—part of the body. It’s like a master switch. Take command of it, and you have the potential for bringing your spiritual life under control.

3:3-6 James delivers two insightful illustrations. When you direct the bits in the mouths of large horses, you control their movement (3:3). Similarly, steering a small rudder will direct the course of a large ship (3:4). As the bit is to the horse, and as the rudder is to the ship, so is the mouth to the saint. The tongue is small, but it can do great damage (3:5).

Some spouses have hurled insults that their mates have never forgotten. Some individuals started gossip fires years ago, and the flames are still burning. A mouth can set the whole course of life on fire (3:6). It can destroy self-esteem, devastate relationships, ruin a career, and kill a ministry. As sure as a tiny match can set a forest ablaze, the mouth causes harm that is out of proportion to its size.

3:7-8 Mankind has tamed every kind of animal (3:7). We have seals that clap, dolphins that talk, birds that flip, and dogs that jump through hoops. We can do with beasts what we can’t do to the human mouth: No one can tame the tongue (3:8). The only successful tongue-tamer is God. Remember, whatever is inside will come out. This is why you need to be filled with Scripture and the Holy Spirit.

3:9-12 James isn’t writing to the world. He’s exhorting Christians. Brothers and sisters (3:10), he says, the tongue is polluted. Our air and water become polluted when they include contaminants. It doesn’t matter if a poisonous contaminant comprises only a small percentage of the whole. If you breathe polluted air or drink polluted water, you can become seriously ill or die. The mixture is deadly. With our tongues we can bless our Lord and also curse people who are made in God’s likeness. Blessing and cursing come out of the same mouth (3:9-10). When this happens, our mouths have become polluted. After singing hallelujahs, some families start tearing each other down before they’ve even departed the church parking lot. But to verbally attack another human being is to attack God because people are made in his likeness.

A fig tree can’t produce olives. A saltwater spring can’t produce fresh water (3:12). Why? Because production is based on what’s inside. Therefore, if criticizing, gossiping, and swearing come out of your mouth, the content of your heart needs to be addressed. So if you want to change the course of your life, you need to ask God to help steer that little rudder called your tongue.

3:13 When it comes to negotiating the twists and turns of this highway called life, wisdom gives us the ability to press the brake, flip the turn signal, turn the steering wheel, engage the accelerator, and navigate through heavy traffic. Wisdom is the application of heavenly knowledge to earthly living.

James asks his readers, Who among you is wise and has understanding? Notice what he does not answer. He doesn’t say that it’s the one who has read widely, attained advanced degrees, and can wax eloquently about any subject. Rather, the wise person shows that his works are done in the gentleness that comes from wisdom. In other words, wise deeds are the proof of a wise life.

Few believers need a change in their circumstances half as much as they need wisdom to manage their circumstances. For instance, a Christian man doesn’t need a new spouse; he needs God’s wisdom to love and live with the spouse he has.

3:14-15 The hearts of some people are characterized by bitter envy and selfish ambition (3:14). Such attitudes may enable them to go places in life, but this kind of “wisdom” does not come down from above. It’s demonic and comes straight from hell (3:15). Remember, mere human wisdom is an expression of Satan’s agenda. To convey heavenly wisdom, you must communicate with heaven.

3:17-18 Human wisdom is rooted in selfish ambition, and its fruit is bitter envy. Contrast that with the root and fruit of heavenly wisdom. True wisdom comes from above; the Lord is its source. What does it look like? It’s pure, then peace-loving, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without pretense (3:17). Whereas human wisdom tears others down, godly wisdom builds others up. It’s authentic and leads to peace rather than strife. Do you want to bear the fruit of righteousness? Then you must sow and cultivate peace (3:18).