Testing Spiritual Maturity by the Taming of the Tongue
-A Bible Study of James 3:1-12
James begins chapter three by providing us an excellent tool for measuring spiritual maturity. Think back to your high school chemistry class. A common tool for testing compounds is acid. You pour acid on something and observe the results. In our case we want to test spiritual maturity so we need to go right past the sulfuric acid, skip the hydrochloric acid, and pull off the shelf a bottle labeled “Tongue – Warning: TOXIC”. James examines the relationship between a man and his tongue and how it reveals his spiritual maturity.
1 My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.
Jesus warned in Luke 12:48 “to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much have been committed, of him they will ask the more.” This is a reminder, from both James and Jesus that being a teacher in God’s church requires both natural and spiritual gifts, appropriate character, and right living. In James day teaching was becoming popular, but for the wrong reasons, so he included this warning: God will judge us on the last day, with special strictness on account of our influence over others. When you seek to become a teacher, know that you will be held accountable for you influence over the others, and if your words or actions cause another to stumble or fall that will be held against you.
I particularly like what McGee has to say on the subject. “The Christian teacher entered into a perilous heritage. In the Church he took the place of the Rabbi in Judaism. There were many great and saintly Rabbis, but the Rabbi was treated in a way that was liable to ruin the character of any man. His very name means, ‘My great one.’ Everywhere he went he was treated with the utmost respect. It was actually held that a man’s duty to his Rabbi exceeded his duty to his parents, because his parents only brought into the life of this world but his teacher brought him into the life of the world to come. It was desperately easy for a Rabbi to become the kind of person who Jesus despised; a spiritual tyrant, an ostentatious ornament of piety, a lover of the highest place at any function, a person who gloried in the almost subservient respect showed to him in public.”
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.
The word stumble here can be translated ‘hinders spiritual progress.’ James included himself in this, noting that all men stumble. Even knowing this, we should strive to stumble less. I have two small children and it was fun watching them learn to walk. They kept stumbling, but they kept getting back up. As they have grown, they fall much less often now, but it still happens. As we grow up we learn to walk, we learn discernment for the surface we’re walking on, we learn how to navigate difficult terrain, but even into adulthood, we still fall down sometimes. That doesn’t mean we give up walking.
The perfect man James is talking about here is not the “Jesus Perfect” that is unattainable in this life. A better translation would perhaps be ‘he is a spiritually mature man.’ This is a test of maturity. As we draw closer to God, we get further and further from the world. Evidence of this will become evident in our abilities to control our words. Some men wear their hearts on their sleeves, but all men openly display the contents of their hearts in their words. If eyes are the window to the soul, then the tongue is the loudspeaker of the soul. What is written on your heart will eventually come out of your mouth.
3Indeed, 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.
James is giving examples of where little pieces of the whole can control the course of a much larger thing. The normal size for a ships rudder is between 1/60th and 1/70th of the ship’s hull center-line. Likewise, a 5 inch metallic bit can control the path of a 2000 pound horse. These comparisons really bring light to the fact that something as small as a tongue can control the course of our lives to the point of even having an impact on our final destination.
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.
James continues to compare the tongue to other things to make his point. Here the tongue is likened to a fire. Fire in a barbecue pit is a good thing. Fire in your living room is a bad thing. Controlled fire can accomplish a lot of wonderful things. You’re probably reading this on a device that is powered by fire. (69% of USA power comes from coal or gas). Runaway fire is a tragedy of epic proportions, capable of destroying everything in it’s path for hundreds of acres. James goes so far to call the tongue a world of iniquity, which is the absence of moral and spiritual values and synonymous with evil.
The part I find most evocative is the last phrase, “it is set on fire by hell.” Just imagine yourself in an argument with a sibling, spouse, or friend when all of a sudden a great one liner or zinger pops into your head. You aim and let it fire, watching the damage register on their faces. This probably isn’t too hard to imagine since we’ve all done this, probably more often that we’d care to admit. Now ask yourself, where did that zinger come from? You know you’re not that clever. James seems to be invoking an image of demons whispering in our ears, setting our tongues on fire. I find it particularly disturbing and will often conjure this image in my mind prior to letting those one liners loose. It helps me to examine my words before I say them, before I say something in the heat of battle that I will live to regret.
Consider you words like your credit score. It takes very little to cause lasting damage, and it can take a very long time to repair. The old sticks and stones line is wrong, very wrong. Every man should carefully weigh his words before he speaks. Proverbs 26 puts it this way: 18 Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows and death, 19 is the man who deceives his neighbor, and says, “I was only Joking!”
Having fully explained why the tongue is evil, James now begins to broach the subject of subjugating the tiny beast trapped between our teeth.
7For 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.
The human spirit has incredible capacity for sacrifice and self-control. Sometimes we hear a desperate survival story of someone who cuts off their own leg to get free from a tree that has fallen on them, and then they drive to a hospital for medical treatment. Yet that same man can’t tame the tongue perfectly. No man can tame the tongue. So after many verses of telling us how we need to control our tongue, James hits us with the fact that we can’t. That hardly seems fair. Tame your tongue, tame your tongue, tame your tongue, Oh, by the way, you can’t tame your tongue. Is this a contradiction? No. Give it to God. Man cannot tame the tongue with his own power, but only through Jesus Christ living IN you will you gain control. This takes us back to spiritual maturity. As you draw closer to God, you will draw further from the world. The more Christ there is in your heart, the more you can wield your tongue’s power from love instead of hate, from wisdom instead of foolishness.
9 With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude 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? Thus no spring yields both salt water and fresh.
James finishes this section with another set of comparisons, highlighting the way things are versus the way they should be. There is no such thing as a half salty spring, it’s either fresh water or it’s not. James believes the same should hold true for our tongues. Either we have Christ in our hearts, controlling our tongues, or we don’t. You cannot be half a Christian. If Christ is in us, it should be evident in our words. Continuing to draw closer to Christ and further from the world will produce good fruit in your life, including a greater control over your tongue. Think of how to talk to your friends at church. Now compare that to how you talk with your co-workers. And again with how you talk to your wife. And finally contrast that with how you speak to your children. If you notice a large disparity between them, then your tongue test of spiritual maturity has indicated a need for improvement. Continue studying the Word, and drawing closer to Christ until there is no discernible difference in the way you speak to all of the people in your life. With Love.
Take the time to watch the video below. It says more powerfully with no words at all, what I’ve tried to say in many words.