Taming the Tongue

Session 6: Taming the Tongue: James 3:1-18

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.

How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life,[a] and set on fire by hell.[b] For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers,[c] these things ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.

Wisdom from Above

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.

I am often asked about my early life. In thinking about those first eighteen years the key moments had to do with my three pastors (teachers): David, Claude, and Bill. All three were pastors who nourished and supported me through the trials of adolescence. I learned how to be a pastor through their example–to listen, to care, and to support. None of them pretended to be perfect, they showed their faults, their weaknesses, but each one continued to love, and show an example of the face of Jesus. All three are in that Great Cloud of Witnesses now, and I hear their voices, see their smiles, and feel their love.     For each one loved me in season and out of season.  Each one taught me that when  someone you trust says one or two sentences, doors to new worlds can be opened.


How have one or two teachers had a significant impact on you, perhaps even affecting directions you have taken?


1.  Read James 3:1-12.  Having begun with a somber warning about how difficult it is to come up to the mark as a teacher, James expands the point of taming the tongue in general: taming the tongue in general, for anyone, is so difficult as to be almost impossible. Get that right and you’ve obviously got your entire self under control. The tongue, it seems, is the last bit of a human being to learn its lesson.

How does James say in verses 3-4 that the tongue is like a bit and a rudder?

Each time I read this passage I feel guilty, for the times I let stuff slip, the items written on social media when I was sick, depressed, or angry, and the reality we will continue to slip, and the tongue will burn like a fire. In my dealings with others and with myself I am reminded of Matthew 18:21-22: “Then Peter came to Jesus. “Master,” he said, “how many times must I forgive my brother and sister, when he or she sins against me? As many as seven times” “I wouldn’t say seven times”, replied Jesus. “Why not seventy times seven?’

2. We know only too well how the tongue is a fire (v. 5), ready to set things a blaze, from the way the media, social media, fake mail, eagerly trips up people in public life.

We know that one word out of place can ruin a career, or bring down a government. One unwise remark, reported and circulated on the internet and through social media can cause riots on the other side of the world. So, says James, the tongue is like a little world all of its own, a country within a country: the larger area, the person as a whole, may well be governed, but in this smaller region corruption and wickedness reign unchecked.

When have you seen or experienced significant damage by words?

3. How does James explain the outrageousness of the inconsistencies of the tongue? (vv. 9-12).

4. What James is after, then, is consistency. He wants people to follow Jesus through and through, to be a blessing- -only people rather than blessing–and–cursing people. It is a high standard, we should expect no less if the gospel is indeed the message of salvation. The danger, as always, is that people will take the bits of the message they want, and quietly leave the real challenges to one side. But it can’t be done. The spring must be cleansed so that only fresh, sweet water comes out. For this we need help. That, fortunately, is what the gospel offers.

In what specific ways could you bless friends, enemies, family, coworkers, fellow Christians, those of other faiths, and those who do not believe more consistently?

5. How does this passage motivate you to be more careful about how you use your tongue?

6. Read James 3:13-18. Why does James connect humility and wisdom?

7. How does James distinguish the wisdom that is earthly and the wisdom that comes from demons?

8. When have you experienced the results of bitter jealously and contention with your community? Within yourself?

9. It is no accident that James follows his teaching on the tongue with a teaching on true and false wisdom. When he talks about “bitter jealously and contention”, a spirit which is always carping and criticizing, he speaks of one which cannot let a nice word go by without adding a nasty one. This problem goes deeper. He has already said that the tongue is a fire set aflame by hell; now he says that a mindset like that comes from the world of demons.

How might such an attitude of cynicism give the appearance of wisdom?

10. The challenge for God’s people that James lays out in verse 17 is to be able to tell the truth about the way the world is, and about the way wicked people are behaving, without turning into a perpetual grumble, and in particular without becoming someone whose appearance of “wisdom” consists in being able to find a cutting word to say about everyone and everything.

Offer some examples of speaking in a way that lights a candle rather than curses the darkness.

11.  Why would this wisdom that comes from above produce the fruit of righteousness that is sown in peace?

12.  What needs to happen for this fruit of righteousness that is sown in peace to thrive in your community? What is necessary in this time of distancing  for this fruit of righteousness to thrive? What in particular can we do to nurture this fruit of righteousness at this time?


James paints a picture of the tongue and the evil that comes from it. He takes the tongue seriously and says that it is impossible for us to tame our tongue. He also describes the horror of false wisdom and the beauty of true wisdom. Ask the Holy Spirit to impress upon you the sin and damage that comes from the tongue. Now confess the sins to God that the Holy Spirit has brought to mind.

Talk to him about “false wisdom” that is in you.

Take time now to work slowly, one by one, through the characteristics of true wisdom that James mentions. Review your life in light of them.

Humbly ask the Holy Spirit to grow in you true wisdom.

Finally, praise God for his love and forgiveness and for the fact that you are always invited to turn to him to be forgiven.


Father River Damien Sims, sfw, D.Min., D.S.W.

P.O. Box 642656

San Francisco, CA 94164



“Keep alert, stand firm in the faith, be brave, be strong!

Whatever you do, do it with love.” I Corinthians 13: 16


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