16 November 2013

James 3:1-12

“But no one can tame the tongue – a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.” (vv. 8-9)


James begins this chapter by discouraging too many people becoming teachers in the Christian community. It may be that such a variety of teaching has developed that people are being confused by it. He recognises the responsibility of teaching, in encouraging and enabling the spiritual growth of others, and includes himself in the severe judgement that teachers will undergo if they fail in their tasks. Yet he recognises that all can make mistakes, and cannot control their words. His illustrations of how horses and ships can be controlled by small bits or rudders leads into his teaching about using words correctly (verses 3-4).

Those illustrations speak of large things being controlled by small ones, and James then goes on to describe how something as small as our tongues can have an influence out of all proportion to their size. The vehemence of his teaching suggests that he has been at the mercy of others' tongues. If careless talk and gossip was a feature of the life of the early Church, then we must say that nothing much has changed. James does say something positive about the tongue - that with it we can praise God (verse 9), but he balances that by saying that we can also use our tongues for speaking abuse.

James uses two further illustrations in this passage, about the impossibility of a spring producing different types of water, or trees producing other than their own kind of fruits, to underline his teaching in verses 9 and 10 about inconsistency. The tragedy of the tongue is that it can speak both good and evil. Only a renewed heart can produce pure speech. There are links here with his earlier teaching about faith and actions. There must be consistency between words and deeds.

To Ponder

  • "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me". What experiences have you had that cause you to disbelieve that proverb?
  • How can you learn to control your tongue?

Bible notes author

The Revd Richard Bielby

Richard is a supernumerary Methodist presbyter in Stockton on Tees. He is a part-time prison chaplain and also serves as a voluntary chaplain at Durham Cathedral.