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Why Taming the Tongue Is Impossible

  • Seth L. Scott Columbia International University
  • Updated Jun 24, 2022
Why Taming the Tongue Is Impossible

The world today seems to be more abrasive, rude, and disconnected than ever before. Differences in position and opinion are not just issues of perspective, but defamed through language of morality and identity. It seems easy to blame these escalating polarities on the withdrawal of civil, in-person discourse. The assumption from many is that this escalation and lack of civil discussion is because we can express our opinions and respond to the opinions of others without ever speaking face to face. 

However, James suggests that this tendency to use our words to cut down, enflame, provoke, and destroy is not unique to the age of social media, but is endemic to our sinful and fallen nature as humans. We can use behavioral modification, rewards, and reinforcement to domesticate wild animals, but we'll never succeed in taming the tongue (James 3:8).

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bible open to book of James, taming the tongue

What Does James Mean by Taming the Tongue?

The book of James is a very practical book, providing instructions for how faith should work in the lives of Christians scattered around the world because of persecution. James is interested in instructing these Christians in how to live out their faith but putting it to work through action. Chapter two provides this critical foundation for our faith in that action is necessary as the outworking and expression of faith at work in us and through us, demonstrating the life of the Spirit within us (James 2:18, 26).

Belief about God and knowledge of God is insufficient; we must put these beliefs into action. Hebrews 11 demonstrates this necessary connection between faith and action by describing the faith of Old Testament characters through the description of their lives lived in dependence and trust on the provision of God. It is insufficient to hold cognitive assent in who God is or what he expects of us. Even demons understand theology (James 2:19). We must apply this knowledge and dependence on God through our living.

James transitions from this foundational principle to the critical connection point between our belief and our action – our tongue. When Jesus stated that “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34), He was explaining how our true selves, the combined expression of our mind, will, and emotions is expressed through what we say. In the same way that miners would bring a canary to signal low oxygen in a mine, our tongues demonstrate the true environment of our hearts.

Like sleep lines on your face or the direct and blatant honesty from a toddler, our tongues betray the state of our alignment with either the Spirit or the flesh (Romans 7:19-23).

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Sparks of fire, taming the tongue

Why Does James Say No Human Can Tame the Tongue?

James describes the tongue as small, but boastful (3:5), like a spark that sets forest fires (3:5), a bit in a horse’s mouth able to turn the whole horse (3:3), or a rudder on a ship directing as the pilot wills (3:4). The tongue is small, but powerful.

The tongue is a muscle, but is unique in its exquisite sensitivity, sensing and adjusting to miniscule changes in texture and taste while also shifting and adjusting to stay away from our teeth when we eat and direct the inhalation and exhalation of oxygen to support life while coordinating with our teeth and lips to express language. Our capacity to make miniscule shapes with our tongue and lips to form complex sounds is why we can speak, and animals cannot. God provided this amazing instrument for expression, but because we cannot tame it, the tongue becomes “a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (3:8).

Why? Why is it so difficult to restrain our words, keeping back our retorts, reactions, and remarks? A bridle or restraint is necessary when the nature or character of the animal cannot be controlled. A wild horse must be restrained because its character or nature is designed to break free and run. Our tongues, as expressions of our fallen and sinful nature, will run free and unrestrained as exemplars of our nature and character, whether we like it or not, because we can’t control them. James suggests that the goal is not just to tame your tongue, but to change our nature.

Because we cannot tame the tongue, the tongue will forever demonstrate the state of our heart. The context of the whole of James’s letter is that we let faith work in and through us to purify and perfect us (James 1:3-4), being whole and consistent in our allegiance to the Lord (1:8; 4:8).

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Green leaf in a vase, taming the tongue

3 Steps for Purifying our Output

Because our tongue will always reveal the reality of our hearts, our allegiances, taming the tongue would be insufficient even if it were possible because it is the heart that needs to change. Our own desires, affections, thoughts, and actions are bent toward sin at all times (Romans 1:24; 14), but by the grace of God (Ephesians 2:8), conviction and faith by the Spirit (John 16:8), and redemption through Jesus (Romans 3:24), this natural heart state is being transformed (2 Cor. 3:18).

God’s purpose is that His Word will fill us, overflowing from us as we act out God’s love to the world (James 1:18, James 1:27; John 15:10-12). So how do we focus our allegiance on the Lord and become doers of the Word and not hearers only (James 1:22)? 

1. Be Consistent with Your Input

James asks, “Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree… bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water” (3:11-12). What is in your heart, the collection of your mind, will and emotions, will be the reservoir from which the flow of your mouth draws.

Jesus said, “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person” (Matthew 15:18-20). James’s solution is to refine your allegiances, filling your heart with pure water so that the output from your mouth is pure (James 4:8).

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bible study friends holding hands praying, taming the tongue

2. Direct Your Belief Through Your Behavior

Hearing the truth of the Word of God but not doing anything in response deceives us into thinking we believe, but James says that without action, our religion is worthless (James 1:22, 26). Paul explained to the Thessalonians that through the act of God enabling them to love one another, He is establishing their hearts as blameless and holy before God (1 Thess. 3:13). Jude commands us to “keep [ourselves] in the love of God” (Jude 21) by building on the truth of God, praying through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and waiting on the coming mercy of God.

If we know the right thing to do and we fail to do it, for us it is sin (James 4:17). The temptation is to pursue a moralism by being good or doing good. We cannot do good on our own, or even desire to be good without the intervention of the Holy Spirit (Romans 3:10). So while we should act on our belief, it is not a self-effort or betterment project, but actually the opposite as we relinquish our independence and strength, allowing God to work in us and through our weakness to conform us to the image of Christ (Romans 8:18-21; 2 Cor. 3:4-6). We live according to the Spirit that is within us, putting to death the deeds of the flesh and learning to live in reliance on the Spirit, which is life (Romans 8:11-13). 

3. Maintain a Supportive Community

The Christian life is to be lived in community, as members of one body, functioning in dependence on one another (1 Cor. 12:12, 14-27). We don’t know what we don’t know. We need other people to help us both in our arrogance and in our weakness, supporting us and challenging us to wash our hands and purify our hearts (James 4:8) because we tend to independence and sin.

James says that hearing the Word of God and not acting on what we learn is like looking at ourselves in the mirror but not fixing the problems that we see. We need the Word of God to show us who we really are, but God often does this work through people as well. We can easily deceive ourselves or rationalize our problems by projecting blame onto others. We need friends who are willing to tell us when we have spinach in our teeth and our shoes don’t match, both literally and figuratively.

Proverbs 27:6 notes, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.” Words can hurt and it is often friendship and community that are most damaged when the fire of the tongue reigns unchecked, but it is also through the work of forgiveness and restoration in relationship that the motivation for resisting our selfish ambitions rest.

“Love covers a multitude of sins” and “A friend loves at all times” (Proverbs 17:17). Character is formed through adversity and struggle and it is through our care and support for one another that we can receive healing and life (James 5:16).  

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Group holding hands, taming the tongue

Working Together

The tongue is like a small fire that can set a forest ablaze. This can be destructive or constructive. In Acts 2:2-4, the disciples received the Holy Spirit, speaking in other tongues with “divided tongues as of fire” resting on each of them (2:3). The disciples took this small flame and ignited the crowd through the power of the Holy Spirit so that about three thousand people were saved that day (2:41).

James tells us to be one-minded in our pursuit of perfection (James 1:5-8), controlling our whole body by bridling our tongues (3:3), and letting the fresh springs of blessing pour forth to demonstrate God’s love and the peace that He provides (3:18). The wisdom and purity of character that demonstrates our ability to be doers of the Word and not hearers only is available to us as a gracious gift from God, we simply need to ask in faith (1:5-6).

We also need to maintain a community of believers around us that support the input of our belief for an output of action, stifling errant fires or wayward ships through compassion, correction, and forgiveness. The Christian life is a communal race that requires cooperative relationships to maintain our focus, pace, and motivation, assisting us through the Spirit in us and one another to “lay aside every weight, and the sin which clings so closely… [to] run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2).

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Seth L. Scott, PhD, NCC, LPC-S is an associate professor of clinical mental health counseling at Columbia International University in Columbia, South Carolina and provides clinical counseling and supervision in the community through his counseling practice, Sunrise Counseling. Seth, his wife, Jen, and their two middle school children enjoy outdoor activities, reading together as a family, board games, and meeting people through Jen’s pottery business at galleries and festivals.

This article is part of our larger resource library of popular Bible verse phrases and quotes. We want to provide easy to read articles that answer your questions about the meaning, origin, and history of specific verses within Scripture's context. It is our hope that these will help you better understand the meaning and purpose of God's Word in relation to your life today.

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