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Taming the Tongue - James 3:1-12

What do you know about the taming of the tongue? Do you need to tame yours? Do you frequently find yourself trapped in gossip, talking too much, or interrupting? What about swearing? Are you too shy to challenge somebody who is doing wrong, or do you stand up for what is right? Do you speak boldly, or timidly? Abrasively, or gently? Do you insist that you need to know more before you say anything at all, or do you act like your thoughts are the only ones that matter? Do you harshly criticize, or do you seek the good in what you see? Do you diminish what is good by claiming to seek what is better? Are you afraid of confrontation, or do you confront all the time? Are your words encouraging, or do they bring people down? Are you so nice that you do not correct, or so excusing that you continually lower the bar? Do you hold people to Jesus’ standard and inspire them to step out in faith, or do you make excuses for God’s failure and inaction and persuade others to remain quiet and timid?

No one can tame the tongue, but we all need to bridle our tongues.

James 3 “1 My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment. 2 For we all stumble in many things. If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body. 3 Indeed, we put bits in horses’ mouths that they may obey us, and we turn their whole body. 4 Look also at ships: although they are so large and are driven by fierce winds, they are turned by a very small rudder wherever the pilot desires. 5 Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things.

See how great a forest a little fire kindles! 6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell. 7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and creature of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind. 8 But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God. 10 Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring send forth fresh water and bitter from the same opening? 12 Can a fig tree, my brethren, bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salty spring produce fresh water.”

Let’s break this down into a few parts, starting with ships and rudders.

The tongue is like the rudder on a ship: it steers the whole course of your life. Now if nobody is at the wheel of the ship, the rudder is free to turn however it likes, and the ship could go anywhere, most likely not where you would want to go. The same goes for the tongue: if you don’t control it, you will find your words poorly thought out and ineffective. Your life could be aimless and haphazard, with no clear direction, because you’ve chosen not to do anything with it.

What if instead you had someone steering the ship, but that someone wasn’t trained well. If the helmsman is untrained, inattentive, overconfident, excitable, or won’t follow orders, the ship will be tossed by the waves, water will pour all over the deck, and you’ll end up hitting an iceberg and sinking to the bottom of the ocean. Likewise a tongue controlled by the flesh will lead you to fleshly desires, trouble, loneliness, and everything else that comes from not knowing God.

But, if you have a good helmsman, your boat will go exactly where you want it to go. If you bridle your tongue and make Jesus the helmsman of your life, you, the real, saved you, will be in control rather than your flesh. Your speech and your life will be filled with God’s presence, and springs of living water will flow from your mouth.

Part 2. The trouble of the tongue.

It is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks. The way we speak betrays the sin within us: our fear, timidity, pride, false humility, dishonesty, impatience, desperation, loneliness, inferiority, fascination with darkness, indifference toward righteousness, yearning for attention, cowardice, anxiety, self-reliance, unbelief, anger, distrust, feelings of abandonment, lack of faith, unforgiveness, and on and on and on.

What is your sin? Most likely your speech betrays you, either declaring your sin or avoiding attention to it. What are your words like? Whatever you say, that is what is inside of you. What we speak is a projection of the reality inside of us. When we seek to understand who someone really is, we listen to their words or read their writings.

Here’s a thought. Jesus is the Word of God, what does your word look like? What would your words look like if they took human form? Would they look like Jesus?

Part 3. Let’s look at James’ horse analogy.

When you ride a horse, either the horse is in control, or you are. If you do not bridle the horse, it will go its own way, and you’ll be along for the ride. If you don’t bridle your tongue, same deal.

But if you do bridle the horse, you can travel huge portions of the world on that horse. In the same way, bridle your tongue. Take charge of what you say. Force your tongue to work for you, not against you. Do not allow the sin in your heart to express itself and act out, but teach your flesh to be free from sin forever, and declare your allegiance to Jesus Christ. Take the reins of your life and tell it where to go. Step out in faith, and be bold in Jesus Christ.

Part 4. So how do we bridle our tongues?

Luke 6:45 “The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.”

Jeremiah 17:9 “The heart is deceitful above all things, And desperately wicked; Who can know it?”

Proverbs 4:23 “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.”

2 Corinthians 10 “2 But I beg you that when I am present I may not be bold with that confidence by which I intend to be bold against some, who think of us as if we walked according to the flesh. 3 For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. 4 For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, 5 casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ”.

To bridle your tongue, follow these steps:

  1. Search your heart
  2. Purge the bad and embrace the good.
  3. Intercept every thought.

    Paul said, “bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ”. Don’t let a thought continue in your mind without first taking it captive. Pay attention to every thought you have and evaluate it.

  4. If it is good, continue thinking it. If it is not good, throw it out. Follow this guideline:

    Philippians 4:8 “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.”

  5. Promote the kingdom.

    “For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, 5 casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ”.

  6. Challenge those who oppose God. Challenge their words. Do not let their beliefs become the dominant beliefs in the culture where God has placed you.

Part 5. Teachers Beware

Verse 1: James 3:1:

“My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.”

Why is this verse about teachers sandwiched between last week’s segment on faith without works is dead and this week’s segment on bridling your tongue?

First, being a teacher is ultimately a role of using your tongue. A teacher with a bridled tongue will lead people to Jesus. A teacher without a bridled tongue will lead people to hell. Hence the stricter judgement for teachers.

But you might say, “That’s fine with me. I don’t want to be a teacher.”

Unfortunately, you’re out of luck. Titus 2 says:

“But as for you, speak the things which are proper for sound doctrine: 2 that the older men be sober, reverent, temperate, sound in faith, in love, in patience; 3 the older women likewise, that they be reverent in behavior, not slanderers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things— 4 that they admonish the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, 5 to be discreet, chaste, homemakers, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be blasphemed.

6 Likewise, exhort the young men to be sober-minded, 7 in all things showing yourself to be a pattern of good works; in doctrine showing integrity, reverence, incorruptibility, 8 sound speech that cannot be condemned, that one who is an opponent may be ashamed, having nothing evil to say of you.”

And Proverbs 1:8 says:

“My son, hear the instruction of your father, And do not forsake the law of your mother;”

If you are a mother or father, you are a teacher of your children. If you are older, you are a teacher of the younger. In fact, any time you open your mouth to tell anybody the way you think things are or should be, you are acting as a teacher. So we may not all be up front teachers of the whole church, but we are all teachers in our spheres of influence.

Furthermore, as we read earlier, Paul wrote, “For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, 5 casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ”.

We are called to speak up against “every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God”. This means when your culture advocates for sin, you the Christian and we the Church must speak up against it. This means when your culture exalts the university and its professors as the chief sources of knowledge, you the Christian and we the Church must declare the supremacy of Christ and His Word. When an expert teaches something that is against the Bible, you the Christian and we the Church must stand up as defenders of the truth and proclaim Christ the Truth.

Part 6. Teacher, what are you teaching?

Remember, just as faith without works is dead because works flow naturally from real faith, so godly speech flows naturally from a faith-filled heart. Whatever you truly believe will fill your speech. In order to be a good teacher, you must genuinely believe good things: real belief that transforms your life.

So then, evaluate yourself now: Are you one of the ones Paul was going to confront, who speak “as if we [still walk] according to the flesh”?

Calling out; Sorting Out; Sending Out

Once we were in an Old Testament time, when God the Father was continually calling out to Israel, calling them to return to Him and live in His kingdom and His righteousness. Then God came as Jesus the Son, sorting out the sheep from the goats, sorting out our sin, teaching the gospel of the kingdom, and saving our souls. Now, starting in Acts, God has revealed Himself as the Holy Spirit, and He is sending us out in power to teach and demonstrate the kingdom. We are no longer lost in sin. We are no longer discovering salvation for the first time. Having been saved, we have been sent to save the world.

So how do you teach? Do you point out sin or rejoice in salvation? Are you calling out to believers saying, “Yes, we are sinners, and we will always be sinners. It is normal to sin. Only Jesus can save us, and we must wait for heaven”, as if Jesus hasn’t yet come? Or do you say, “Jesus came, died, and rose from the dead! You are forgiven! You are free! You are no longer a sinner; you were found by our Savior, and He made you spectacular!”

Teach identity: you were broken, now you belong to the Father, to His kingdom, without shame, restored to honor, as priests, prophets, and kings.

Teach relationship: you were guilty and separated, but now you are innocent and reunited with your Father through Jesus Christ His Son. You are adopted. You are a real son or daughter now, and God is your Dad.

Teach dominion: you could walk in fear, feeling insufficient, but God has given you power. You have already been saved, and now you have been empowered with authority and entrusted with a mighty mission, the very words of the gospel, to take them to all nations and crush the gates of the enemy.

Part 7. Testing Your Teachers

Above all, be characterized by love.

It’s important to choose your teachers carefully. A person may sound good but not be good. Satan sounds good. You should only learn from a teacher who has a living, active faith shown by his works. Being educated does not make someone a good teacher; only knowing God intimately and experiencing Him makes someone a good teacher.

This applies to teachers, preachers, pastors, professors, experts, authors, parents, family, friends, and everyone else.

If your teacher is focused primarily on points of theology and intellectual discussion, then that teacher is not a good teacher. A good teacher spends most of his effort living a Father-filled, Jesus-filled, Spirit-filled life, and his teaching of theology and great intellectual insight is a side-effect that flows very clearly from that life. An example is David Platt, who has written some excellent books but clearly is first a pastor who lives out his beliefs and an author second. This is why it is far better to learn from a pastor you know who lives his life for the kingdom than from an expert author you do not know who lives his life in books.

Do not waste your time learning, listening, and reading from a person whose life and speech are not overflowing with personal experience of God’s kingdom, righteousness, and love.

True faith always results in works, and a person’s speech always reflects what is in his heart.

1 Corinthians 13:

“1 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. 2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.”


You cannot tame your tongue, but you can control it. Bridling your tongue is vital to enjoying your life in Jesus. The only way to bridle your tongue is to change what is inside of you, by taking every thought captive and being filled with the likeness of God. Then His presence will overflow and you will become refreshing springs of abundant life to everyone around you, and what an amazing life that will be!