5. Attaining Tongue-Taming Wisdom (James 3:1-18)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Audio (26:30)

Detail from Edward Hicks (American Quaker painter, 1780-1849), 'The Peaceable Kingdom' (c. 1834)
'Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness' (James 3:18). Detail from Edward Hicks (American Quaker painter, 1780-1849), 'The Peaceable Kingdom' (c. 1834), oil on canvas, 74.5 x 90.1 cm., National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.

Have you ever had to correct your child about a fault -- the same fault that you constantly struggle with yourself? It's tough. It makes you feel like a hypocrite. I think James is having difficulty talking about taming the tongue for the same reason.

The Peril of Teachers (James 3:1-2)

James begins this section somewhat apologetically:

"Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check." (James 3:1-2)

Why should teachers be judged more strictly? Because they can't claim, "I didn't know any better." They've been teaching others how to behave; God and everyone else expects them to practice what they preach. They are held to a higher standard since they know better!

James is humbled by this realization. As I read the Letter of James I get the feeling that James is the kind of person who has strong opinions and a quick tongue. He castigates the rich relentlessly, for example. The Letter is pretty hard-hitting; James isn't working to phrase his words diplomatically so they don't offend. He just says them outright -- and I'm sure God wanted him to, so we couldn't miss the point.

But I get the feeling that because James is plain-spoken, he also sometimes struggles with controlling his words. Earlier in the letter he had cautioned his readers -- notice, with gentleness,

"My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man's anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires." (James 1:19-20)

Q17. (James 3:1-2) Why does James discourage people from aspiring to be teachers of the Word? Why is greater strictness appropriate? Should you set higher standards for your pastor than you do for yourself?

Remedy 1: Bridle the Tongue -- Self Control (James 3:2)

"We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check." (James 3:2)

James concedes, "We all stumble in many ways...." (James 3:2). The word used is difficult to translate in English: "We all stumble in many ways" (NIV, NASB, ESV), "in many things we offend all" (KJV), "we all make many mistakes" (RSV). The Greek word is ptaiō, literally, "to lose one's footing, stumble, trip," then figuratively, "to make a mistake, go astray, sin."35 The word indicates a trip, as stumble, rather than a complete fall (cf. Romans 11:11).

Then he defines maturity or perfection:

"If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check (chalinagōgeō)." (James 3:2)

This is similar to a statement he made earlier:

"If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein (chalinagōgeō) on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless." (James 1:26)

In both verses he uses the Greek verb chalinagōgeō, "guide with a bit and bridle, hold in check."36 Just as a person would be liable for the damage incurred for not restraining a runaway horse, so we must restrain or bridle our tongues. This is the essence of our "religion." It is a hallmark of the "perfect man" or "mature man" (James 3:2).

He's talking, of course, about exercising careful self-control, the first remedy for an out-of-control tongue. Later we'll be looking at the second remedy to taming the tongue, but the first element is self-control.

"Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord;
keep watch over the door of my lips." (Psalm 141:3)

We are careful to train our children to control what they say. And we can force ourselves to "mind our tongue," even though it's very hard!

Small Cause, Big Effect (James 3:3-5)

"3 When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. 4 Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. 5 Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark." (James 3:3-5)

Now James continues with his analogy of bridling. Whereas we differentiate between bits and bridles, the Greek term apparently treats them as a single item: chalinos, refers to both a bit and bridle.37 In these verses he gives several examples of small objects with large effects:

  • Bit - guide a horse
  • Rudder - steer a ship
  • Tongue - great boasts
  • Spark - start a forest fire

Destructive Power of the Tongue (James 3:6-8)

James' analogy of a spark starting a forest fire leads into his next section about the terrible destructive power of the tongue.

"6 The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

7 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, 8 but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison." (James 3:6-8)

The tongue almost takes on its own persona in the next verses. He calls it "a world of evil" (Greek adixia, "unrighteousness") among the parts of the body." He sees it as a corrupter of the whole person. The word translated "corrupts" (NIV), "staining" (RSV) or "defiles" (NASB, KJV) is Greek spiloō, "stain, defile," from the noun spilos, "spot," figuratively "stain, blemish."38 The tongue stains and defiles the body. It doesn't have to, but so often our tongue defiles and mars the work of God in and around us.

This is reminiscent of Jesus' reply to the Pharisees who were so worried about ceremonially dribbling water on their hands before eating food.

"Don't you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man 'unclean.'" (Matthew 15:17-18)

Carrying on the idea of the spark igniting a great fire, James continues that the tongue "sets the whole course of his life on fire" (James 3:6). You've probably experienced that. One slip, one irretrievable word, and a relationship is ruined, a job is lost, a career is short-circuited.

I had a friend who was better than anyone I've ever known at securing work. But he seldom lasted more than a few weeks on any job. He didn't have his temper and tongue under control. In one twelve month period I once counted that he obtained -- and lost -- 14 different jobs. His and his family's lives have been set on fire by his tongue. You have your own set of examples, I'm sure.

Set on Fire by Hell (James 3:6b)

Finally, James observes that the tongue "is itself set on fire by hell" (James 3:6b). The noun translated "hell" is Greek gehenna is a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew word for Valley of Hinnom. This is the ravine that runs to the south of the city of Jerusalem. Here child sacrifices had been made to the false god Molech. It was written of evil King Ahaz:

"He burned sacrifices in the Valley of Ben Hinnom and sacrificed his sons in the fire, following the detestable ways of the nations the Lord had driven out before the Israelites." (2 Chronicles 28:3)

"The fire" was identified early with the Valley of Hinnom. It was also a place where the prophet Jeremiah pronounced terrible curses of God's judgment and slaughter of the wicked (Jeremiah 7:31-32; 19:1-6). Isaiah saw the judgment of the wicked in terms of burning:

"And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind" (Isaiah 66:24)

There is some evidence that the Valley of Hinnom was the refuse dump of Jerusalem. The Prophet Jeremiah identifies the location of the Valley of Hinnom as "near the entrance of the Potsherd Gate" (Jeremiah 19:2), that is, the place where broken pots were discarded. New Testament scholar Joachim Jeremias observes, "It was still in modern times the place for rubbish, carrion, and all kinds of refuse."39 Jeremias also cites an ancient Jewish document that identifies the Dung Gate as leading to the Valley of Hinnom.40 It is logical, then, that it was a place where garbage burned continually.41

By the second century B.C., the Valley of Hinnom had come to be equated with the hell of the last judgment.42 If Gehenna also has the connotation of burning refuse and garbage and uncleanness, then James' comment, that the tongue "is itself set on fire by Gehenna" is particularly apt.

The Untamable Tongue (James 3:7-8)

"7 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, 8 but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison." (James 3:7-8)

Now comes the part that James struggles with, that he cannot fully understand. Human beings have been able to tame all kinds of animals, birds, reptiles, and sea creatures, he says but not the tongue. Why is that? A couple sentences later, he is appalled that with the same tongue we both praise God and curse men. It should not be so.

He concludes that the tongue is untamable. He personifies it again, calls it a "restless evil full of deadly poison." "Evil" here is the common Greek word kakos, "'evil, wrong,' what is contrary to law or custom."43 "Restless" (NIV, NASB, ESV) or "unruly" (KJV) is akatastatos, "unstable, restless,"44 James uses the same word earlier: "He is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does" (James 1:8).

So the tongue is a fire, a world of evil, a corrupter, an unstable evil, a deadly poison. Untamable. Is there any hope?

Q18. (James 3:7-8) Read Matthew 12:34 and 15:18. In light of these verses, why is the tongue untamable? What has to happen before it can be tamed?

Out of the Same Mouth (James 3:9-12)

"9 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God's likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water." (James 3:9-12)

Now James struggles with the ugly truth that out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. On the one hand he acknowledges that our mouths say evil, corrupt things. On the other he strongly protests and uses several pairs in nature to demonstrate that this is an anomaly:

  • Praising God vs. cursing men
  • Fresh water vs. salt water
  • Fig tree vs. olive tree
  • Salt spring vs. fresh water

He doesn't resolve the discrepancy. He merely points out its incongruity and then says, "My brothers, this should not be" (verse 10).

Remedy 2: Purify the Heart -- An Inner Humility

Remedy 1, as we have discussed is self-control. That is important, but that alone isn't adequate, since evil words begin in the heart.

What we say begins in the heart. Jesus observed,

"Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks." (Matthew 12:34)

The second remedy for a runaway tongue he suggests is a humble, purified heart. Where the heart has been changed, the triggers that used to set off our mouths become disabled and gradually disconnected.

Humility, Envy, and Selfishness (James 3:13-16)

"13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. 14 But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 15 Such 'wisdom' does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. 16 For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice." (James 3:13--16)

Here is a repeat of James' theme of faith being demonstrated by works. It is also a preview of the theme of submission to God that forms the core of chapter 4. The key is humility.

Set against humility is "bitter envy and selfish ambition" (James 3:14). The Greek word eritheia in verse 14 is translated as "selfish ambition" (NIV, ESV, NASB) and "strife" (KJV). Before NT times the word is found only rarely, "where it denotes a self-seeking pursuit of political office by unfair means." Danker, et al. conclude that "for Paul and his followers ... the meaning 'strife, contentiousness' [as if the word were derived from eris, "strife, discord, contention"] cannot be excluded. But 'selfishness, selfish ambition' in all cases gives a sense that is just as probable."45

When we're in the midst of a political season we can get pretty cynical. What kind of person aspires to political office? we wonder. What kind of ego is necessary to put up with all the garbage one must endure to become elected? Is it just raw ambition?

First, I don't believe that ambition itself is a bad thing. If we didn't aspire to something better, something higher, no progress at all would be made in society. Ambition is a dogged persistence towards a goal to accomplish something. We are ambitious for our families, to make a better life for them. We are ambitious for noble causes of all kinds. We should be ambitious for God, to see his Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. Ambition is essential. Ambition is a good thing.

But second, ambition is too easily entwined with other motivations. We wrap ambitions in our own sense of self-worth, and so achievement of our goals is no longer pure. It is no longer to accomplish lofty goals. It is also to vindicate our own selves, and to highlight our own achievements. And so it becomes selfish, self-serving. Lofty ambitions become convenient blinds from which to further our own objectives of popularity, power, and prosperity.

I don't think we should be cynical just about politicians. We should be distrustful of our own motivations. Why are we working so hard to achieve? How much of this is pure selfish gain? If we would be honest, a good deal of the noble causes we're involved with have selfish tentacles wrapped around our souls feeding the pride, the fear, the lust, the greed that lies within.

And it is just this pride and fear, lust and greed that slip out when we speak. Others often hear it before we do. "Freudian slips," we call them. Our words betray our hearts. So why do we have strife and verbal sparring? Why do we come out with a critical spirit and put-downs of our opponents at work and at home? Because of the selfishness that is in our hearts. James says this kind of so-called "wisdom" is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil" (verse 15). It is the root of "disorder and every evil practice" (verse 16). Purify your heart, implies James, and you'll tame the tongue.

Q19. (James 3:13-16) In what ways are "bitter envy" and "selfish ambition" (verse 14) direct opposites of "humility" (verse 13)? How does denial of "bitter envy" and "selfish ambition" prevent healing? How does boasting about these prevent healing?

Heavenly Wisdom (James 3:17)

"17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.
18 Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness." (James 3:17-18)

We know more than we want to about the "wisdom" that comes from the devil (verse 15). In its place James suggests a different kind, "the wisdom that comes from heaven" (verse 17).

Look at the words that describe this heavenly wisdom, and then compare them to words from the famous "love chapter" in 1 Corinthians 13.

James 3:17

  • Pure
  • Peace-loving
  • Considerate
  • Submissive
  • Full of mercy and good fruit
  • Impartial
  • Sincere

1 Corinthians 13

  • Patient
  • Kind
  • Does not envy
  • Does not boast
  • Not proud
  • Not rude
  • Not self-seeking
  • Not easily angered
  • Keeps no record of wrongs
  • Does not delight in evil
  • Rejoices with the truth
  • Always protects
  • Always trusts
  • Always hopes
  • Always perseveres
  • Never fails

Contrast such words with bitter envy and selfish ambition and you see that the kind of wisdom James is talking about is love. Taming the tongue requires changing the heart, so that we are no longer filled with selfishness, but selflessness -- in a word, love. We can "put a guard on our lips" and exercise self-control, but until love displaces selfishness in our hearts we will still have mouth eruptions. Love never fails.

Q20. (James 3:17-18) With what tool do peacemakers sow peace? Why does this produce a ripening crop of righteousness? In whom does this crop grow?

Peacemaking Words (James 3:18)

James concludes with a word about peacemakers:

"Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness" (James 3:18)

James: Practical Discipleship, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Available in paperback, Kindle, and PDF formats.

Compare that to Jesus' beatitude: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God" (Matthew 5:9).

Peacemakers are people who insert peace in the midst of strife, rather than continue the dispute. Peacemakers are often misunderstood as weak. Jesus certainly was. But the seeds sown in peace bring a harvest of righteousness.

Fighting starts with the flaming tongue of anger, which, James says, "does not bring about the righteous life that God desires" (James 1:20). But fighting is put to an end when we speak peaceful, unselfish words that produce the righteousness that God does desire.


Lord, work in us so that what we say will consistently honor you. Give us self-discipline, and even more, displace our self-absorption with your out-flowing love. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.

Key Verse

"Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly." (James 3:1, NIV)

"The wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere." (James 3:17, NIV)


References and Abbreviations

[35] Ptaiō, BDAG 894, 1.

[36] Chalinagōgeō, BDAG 1076

[37] Chalinos, BDAG 1076.

[38] Spiloō, BDAG 938.

[39] Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (Fortress Press 1962, translated 1965), p. 17.

[40] Ibid., p. 310.

[41] Both David John Wieand, "Hinnom, Valley of," ISBE 2:717, citing Lightfoot; and Leon Morris, Matthew (Eerdmans, 1992), p. 115; see this as a possibility.

[42] Joachim Jeremias, "gehenna," TDNT 1:657-658.

[43] Kakos, BDAG 501.

[44] Akatastatos, BDAG 35.

[45] Eritheia, BDAG 392.

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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