How to Live with a Controlled Tongue

Craig Carter

The New Testament Letter of James is filled with practical advice to help us live as Christians. As a congregation we have been studying this letter in detail since early September.

We have observed that James first introduces a wide range of subjects in the opening chapter and then addresses each topic in greater detail throughout the remainder of his letter. Today we are going to explore James’ statements in chapters one and three regarding how to live with a controlled tongue. 

In chapter one, he says, “If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless” (James 1:26 NLT) and then in chapter three he furthers his case and explains how to control the tongue.

2 Indeed, we all make many mistakes. For if we could control our tongues, we would be perfect and could also control ourselves in every other way. 3 We can make a large horse go wherever we want by means of a small bit in its mouth. 4 And a small rudder makes a huge ship turn wherever the pilot chooses to go, even though the winds are strong. 5 In the same way, the tongue is a small thing that makes grand speeches.

But a tiny spark can set a great forest on fire. 6 And the tongue is a flame of fire. It is a whole world of wickedness, corrupting your entire body. It can set your whole life on fire, for it is set on fire by hell itself. 7 People can tame all kinds of animals, birds, reptiles, and fish, 8 but no one can tame the tongue. It is restless and evil, full of deadly poison. 9 Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God. 10 And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth. Surely, my brothers and sisters, this is not right! (James 3:2-10 NLT)

Let’s look in details at the three observations James makes about the tongue:

First of all, he claims that a controlled tongue is the key to Christian living (vv. 2-5a).

James begins his discussion by acknowledging that “we all make many mistakes” (v. 2a). Without a doubt, our sins are large in number and vast in scope. But while the sins we commit may differ from person to person, we all have one thing in common: “For if we could control our tongues, we would be perfect and could also control ourselves in every other way” (v. 2b).

In the first message of this series we discussed that our goal as Christians is to be perfect – not without flaw or defect, but complete, just the way God intended us to be. And, according to James, the key to getting there is by controlling our tongues.

Why is that? Because the words we speak determine the direction of our lives.

James uses the analogy of a bit in a horse’s mouth or a rudder on a sailing vessel. To use more modern analogies, it’s like the steering wheel of a car or the controls in an airplane’s cockpit. We all know that one small mechanism directs the whole operation.

In the same way, the tongue determines the course of our lives. We all understand that principle, don’t we?

Some of us, unfortunately, have had things like, “You’re stupid…You’re worthless…You’ll never amount to anything,” said to us. And we have suffered as a result of those hurtful words. Others of us have been blessed by tongues that affirmed and encouraged us.

The words we speak can have a dramatic effect on others and they can affect our own spiritual well-being as well. In almost every case, our thoughts and feelings are formed into language which then, directly and indirectly, determines our actions.

You name the sin – the ungodly behavior almost always follows words that are spoken first. Here are examples of how this happens for two common sins. Lust begins in the mind, then is fostered by flirtatious language, and ends in adultery. Anger is an emotion, then harsh words are exchanged, and ultimately, violent acts are committed.

Remember, James teaches us we are what we do … so unless we can get the language thing right, we’ll never get the Christian thing right. Living with a controlled tongue is the key.

Second, the tongue has incredible power to harm both ourselves and others (vv. 5b-6).

According to James, the tiny spark of a word spoken unwisely can cause a gigantic firestorm. It creates “a whole world of wickedness, corrupting the whole body” (v. 6).

That’s the notion I just referred to – the examples of adultery and violence – and our words’ effect on our own lives. What is true for ourselves is just as true about the words spoken to others.

That phrase, “corrupting the whole body,” is interesting. Maybe James isn’t just speaking about the physical body, but the spiritual Body of Christ as well. How many church “wildfires” have been sparked by an ill-timed or unkind word?

This year, the western U.S. has been ravaged by wildfires – approximately 8 million acres. The vast damage of a single wildfire almost always starts small and sometimes innocently – such as a discarded cigarette butt, an unattended campfire, or even a golfer hitting a rock causing sparks to fly. In the same way, a careless word can prove destructive to countless lives and leave widespread devastation in its wake.

James says the reason the damaging power of the tongue is so vast is because it originates in hell itself (i.e. “set on fire by hell itself”).

Satan loves to use our words for his purposes, doesn’t he? The New Testament describes Satan as the “prince of the air” and once our words are out there in the “air waves,” he takes advantage of the situation.

Have you ever said something and wanted to grab it in midair? You can’t, can you? Once a word is spoken, the damage is done. You can’t take it back. It’s a fire that quickly gets away from you.

I have discovered that I can ignite an inferno, not just with what I say, but how I say it. Some of you other dads might understand what I’m talking about here. Like most of you I’ve always spoken to my kids in a calm and composed manner … or so I’ve thought. But my wife has oftentimes been quick to point out that the reason my kids raised their voices was because I first raised mine.

In other words, I struck the match, they dumped some gasoline on it and it became a wildfire.

Remember the old ad campaigns featuring Smokey the Bear? “Only you can prevent forest fires.” Centuries earlier James said essentially the same thing. That’s because our words are like tiny sparks that can set a great forest on fire.

In my mind, there’s a “forest fire” raging all across our nation right now that’s been sparked by words. Perhaps people need to hear this sound advice my wife always tells her students: “You don’t have to say everything that is in your brain.”

Even if you and I think it, we don’t have to verbalize it … because the words that roll off our tongues have incredible power to do great harm. Conversely, I can think of no problems I’ve ever caused when I kept my mouth shut!

That leads to a third observation James makes – no one can control the tongue (vv. 7-10).

Other animals can be tamed and domesticated, but not the tongue. That’s because the tongue is “restless and evil, full of deadly poison” (v. 8).

“Restless” reminds us of a wild animal, like a lion or tiger, pacing and on the prowl. “Poison” is used in Romans 3:13 where words are compared to snake venom.

If you and I think we can control the tongue, we’re just fooling ourselves. It’s why one moment, we’re praising the Lord and the next minute, we’re cursing one of the persons He made.

But James says it shouldn’t be that way. If we’re good and pure, what comes out of us should be good and pure. If we’re a righteous branch of God, we shouldn’t produce unrighteous fruit. Sure, sometimes we can keep our tongues under wraps, but just about the time we think we’ve got a handle on it, it gets loose and does great damage.

I recently saw a follow up story on Charla Nash. Remember her? A decade ago she was the recipient of one of the first facial transplants in the U.S. She needed the transplant after she was attacked by her friend’s pet chimpanzee. Her friend, Sandra Herold, kept Travis, a 200-pound chimpanzee, in her home for 14 years and always thought he was tame. But then she discovered he wasn’t a docile pet but a wild animal when he viciously attacked Charla, tearing off her face and both hands.  

In the same way, we may gain the upper hand temporarily and think we have our tongue under control. But sooner or later, it will show itself for who it really is – an unconquerable wild beast that is restless, evil and full of deadly poison.  

So, if no one can tame it, how can we live with a controlled tongue?

Here’s what we need to realize: Being able to control the tongue is not a self-control problem, it’s a spiritual problem. Controlling the tongue is not a matter of self-will (trying harder). If we could, we would. But we can’t, so we won’t.

It reminds me of a story I heard a comedian tell about being arrested for public intoxication. After a night of drinking, the cops were called. They informed him that he had the right to remain silent. He said there was just one problem … although he had the right to remain silent, he didn’t have the ability!

In the same way, we may want to control our tongues, but we don’t have the ability. In fact, James contends it’s impossible because no one can tame it.

That’s the bad news, but here’s the good news: what is impossible for us, God can do … because all things are possible for Him. Remember what James says at the beginning of his discussion about the tongue?

If we could control our tongues, we would be perfect…” (James 3:2a NLT)

Or, stated another way, “If we were perfect, we could control our tongues…” But we aren’t perfect…only God is. So only God can control the tongue.

In James chapter one we’re told, “Whatever is good and perfect is a gift coming down to us from God our Father…” (James 1:17 NLT). Therefore the conclusion to James’ argument is implied and goes like this:

Since only a perfect person can control the tongue, and since only God is perfect, then only God can control the tongue and so we need to ask Him to control ours.

We learn how to live with a controlled tongue when we realize how powerful and harmful it can be, acknowledge how powerless we are to command it, and then invite the Lord to do for us what we cannot do ourselves.

Sure, it’s a cooperative effort and we have a role to play … but God initiates the action and is the prime player.

I know that is true, not just because James says so, but because I’ve experienced it. During my second conversion experience at Blue Lake at the age of 25, I didn’t have control of my tongue and my speech was fairly vulgar (okay, very vulgar!) But I gave my life and everything in it to the Lord and asked Him to take over.

I got up from the altar and didn’t feel any different. And then about a week after the retreat I began to question whether anything really happened. I sensed God asking, “What about your speech? Notice anything?” I then realized I hadn’t used any foul language since the retreat! He said, “See I changed that and give me time, I’ll change the rest.”

Since that retreat I’ve been different, very different. For awhile I could still think some pretty awful language, but it just didn’t come out of my mouth. And there are some areas of my speech that God is still working on (I’m definitely not perfect yet), but I have experienced His ability to do for me what I cannot do myself.

For that to continue to happen, I have to give Him permission: “Lord, I want to but I can’t control my tongue. But I believe You can, so will You?”

Remember what James said in the first chapter: “If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless” (James 1:26 NLT).

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my religion to be worthless and empty. But I also can’t control my tongue, how about you?

So, what are you going to do about it?

Might I suggest praying this short prayer each morning….

Lord, show me how to live with a controlled tongue today. Help me to be quick to listen and slow to speak. Amen.

Ask God to control your tongue and believe that He will. To Him be the glory!