Jamesby Douglas Estes
As Christians, we should never underestimate the power of our words to harm others and ruin ourselves. Our ″tongue″ is like the bit in a horse's mouth or the rudder of a ship-a small, simple thing that controls the direction of the whole entity-and like a fire that can consume our lives (James 3:3-6). Its power is deceptive, because it seems so small; yet it causes so many problems.
To illustrate this, James points out that ″all kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures″ have been tamed, and to this day can still be tamed by mankind (v. 7), thus reminding readers of humanity's general dominion over the world. Yet even though people have dominion over the world and can subdue all kinds of animals, no person can subdue his own tongue (v. 8)!
This last illustration by James is the most extreme, though it may not be obvious to modern readers. In the ancient world, subduing an animal meant approaching it on foot with a weapon in hand. Only great heroes could subdue wild beasts, an extremely dangerous task. But even the greatest hero cannot subdue the little thing in his mouth.
The reason, James reveals, is that the tongue ″is a restless evil, full of deadly poison″ (v. 8). The reason why the tongue is untameable is suggested in the word ″restless″, which is the same word as ″unstable″ in James 1:8, where the ″double-minded″ man is described. The ″tongue″ is ″restless″ in that it is often used without forethought, purpose, or logic.
The tongue of a person is entirely unpredictable. It is out of control, which is why it is untameable. It is a poison, a corrupting influence that, if we are not careful, will be the means of our destruction.
Remember, James' point so far is not that our tongues burn other people or poison larger communities (though that is also true; see Proverbs 12:18; 15:1); his point is that our tongues burn and poison ourselves. And once they burn us, they then go on to burn others (James 3:5).
Our modern society permits people to use their tongues in unwise ways-ways that people in authority in the ancient world would not have tolerated. As a result, our situation today is even more dire than when James was writing; we can do a great deal of damage with our tongues, but the consequences are delayed.
As believers, however, our call is to possess real faith and real deeds, and the first and most obvious deed that will reflect Christ in our lives is to bring our tongues into obedience to God.
How have you experienced the unpredictable poison of the tongue?
What are some practical steps we can take to limit the damage our tongues can do?