I still remember a former pastor paraphrasing Psalm 141:3, “Set a watch, O LORD, over my mouth” and then raising his watch to cover his closed mouth. Cheesy? Sure. But it was either good enough to remember or repeated often enough to not forget.
Taming the tongue is an ancient challenge (see the Blame Game’s origin in Genesis 3), and one needn’t listen long these days before realizing it’s still as devastating and difficult a challenge as ever.
Words are powerful. Remember, the pen is mightier than the sword. And if you got to the bottom of every sword fight, you’d find most were fueled by words, too.
Words remain. You can probably quote your favorite book, Bible verse, movie, and song. You can also probably quote the meanest and nicest things ever said to you… and maybe the meanest that you’ve ever said. Words can haunt.
So, what is the Christian to do about the tongue? This tiny member of the body, packed with the power to lift up and lay low? Here are three keys from James 3 about taming the tongue.
1. Remember that it’s impossible.
“No human being can tame the tongue.” (James 3:8)
For mere mortals it’s impossible, anyway. This is discouraging, to be sure, but as with all other human impossibilities that God has called us to, He is more than capable. To never sin with our words may be impossible this side of glory, but any Christlikeness with our words can only be credited to the Holy Spirit. We might be able to bite our tongues from time to time, knowing that if we don’t have anything nice to say we shouldn’t say anything at all, but a tongue tamed into full submission to Christ is not in our power to accomplish. Remembering our human futility in righteousness is key to all of Christianity, so it serves as a fitting foundation to taming the tongue. This truth keeps us humbled before God to rely on what only He can do and encourages us in knowing that when it happens, He has worked!
2. Know your audience.
“With [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.” (James 3:9)
Normally, tips on speaking that refer to knowing your audience drill down into really specific demographics like language, age, geography, culture, political affinity, etc. The beauty and conviction of James 3:9 is that it is as broad as possible. Are you talking to a human being? Then check yourself. ALL people have been made in the likeness of God. Every word you speak to or at someone is being spoken to or at one who bears the image of God. Ouch.
This truth should transform our posture in approaching, speaking, AND listening to others. How would political debates sound with this in mind? How would gospel proclamation sound? How would parenting sound? How would dining out sound… when the service is poor? Or “informing” the neighbor kid that you’d appreciate it if he didn’t kick your trashcan down the street? (Asking that last one for a “friend.”)
When engaging others remember that the image of God may be marred but it has not been erased, and it’s only by the grace of God that any of us are redeemed.
3. Examine the fruit.
“But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” (James 3:17-18)
Spiritual things shouldn’t be boiled down to formulas, but scripture provides us with certain litmus tests from time to time. When it comes to taming the tongue, here are James’ criteria for spirit-led communication: purity, peace, gentleness, reason, mercy, goodness, impartiality, and sincerity. Ouch, again. Why does Christlikeness always go and get in the way of a good two cents?!
This key is especially important to remember when we’re communicating God’s truth. It’s not terribly difficult to catch negative and hurtful words before we let them fly. I, however, often find it difficult to separate my desire to be right and “win” from God’s desire for His truth to be communicated in someone else’s best interest. I convince myself that I have a stake that cannot be surrendered as if being a minister of reconciliation is somehow a zero-sum game between my pride and my “opponent.” Righteousness is not what we’re looking to harvest at that point.
We are called to speak truth but to speak it in love, and love for others seeks their best even when it doesn’t benefit us.