Meditations in James: 31 : Inability to Tame the Tongue
Jas 3:7,8 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
There is often perceived in men or women a pride that says, “We are the peak of evolution and we can do anything. We can harness energy, use technology, bring health and longer life. We can manipulate atoms and genes and even create life. We are the lords of the universe.” They may not say it in so many words, but those are the sentiments that the pride of man brings out. In daily life, especially when we are young, we wake up in the morning feeling good, the sun is shining and everything is going well, and we feel invincible. And then we speak unwisely and harshly, and the world turns grey as the ugly truth is revealed: I can’t even control my tongue!
So far we have observed James’ descriptions of the tongue as he shows us that although it is small it can determine our path. He’s also pointed out that although it is small it has the power to wreak havoc and destruction. The warnings are clear: if only we would learn to harness our tongue we could use it to bless and build, encourage and energise, congratulate and create. But there is the problem and it is that which James focuses upon now; we can’t control it! He will go on to suggest what needs to happen but for now he focuses on this terrible truth.
People use their minds to train themselves to be able to do great things. They discipline and stretch their physical abilities to be healthy and strong, but when it comes to focusing on harnessing something as small as the tongue, we find it is a different thing. Singers can control their vocal cords. Ventriloquists can produce words without apparently moving the mouth, but when it comes to the words themselves and the emotions that are behind them, we seem so often completely unable to be in control. Words come out we wish we’d never said, feelings were expressed that cause hurt and upset, and once out cannot be put back in the box. James makes us think about the natural world. We can capture and train wild animals that seem so large and aggressive, but when it comes to something as small as the tongue, we are helpless it seems. The tongue seems to have a life of its own at times and it seems impossible to tame it.
There are so many self-help books on the shelves of bookshops today, even books on how to say things nicely, but however many books we read, on a bad day we realise we are still not in control of this small part of our body which, as James says, seems so full of restless evil. We can start the day out, full of good intentions. We can make New Year resolutions, but it doesn’t take very long for a situation to arise where we find our mouth speaking out strongly and hurtfully. If we had a hidden TV camera team filming us all day and every day for a month, how many of the words that were recorded would we be happy to be seen on the small screen? In seeing it being replayed, how many times would we regret the words and wish either that we had said nothing or had said it differently? Perhaps it takes a wider judging audience to face the truth about ourselves. That is what James is trying to do, to get us to think about our speech and face the truth about ourselves, because until we do that we will not see the need and if we don’t see the need we will not turn to the Lord for His help.
That’s what Scripture does so often: show us our need, show us our potential in God, so that we go to Him for His life changing power. That is James’ aim, and that is why we continue to consider these things. But focussing on two verses gives us a limited view. Yes, it helps us see our need but it doesn’t explain WHY and it doesn’t give us answers. For the ‘why’ of our tongues actions we have to go back again to what Jesus said about our mouths: “For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Mt 12:34). Yes, this is the truth. The mouth reflects what is in the heart, what is there deep inside us. The heart is our state of mind and will. It is the innermost reach of our personality, the cause of what we think and feel. It is in many ways a mystery. Why do we have these inner inclinations, which sometimes conflict with what outwardly we’d like to be? Yes, when we think about it, we’d like to be cool, calm and collected, able to answer every unkind word from others with graciousness, able to respond to every hostile question with wisdom. Yet, we find, so often it isn’t like that. Why is that? It is because our heart has not been changed.
At the centre of the New Testament teaching is the recognition that to be Christians we have to die to ourselves, we have to die to self. The call is to put God first, then others next and ourselves last. It sounds a good theory and when it works we find we are most blessed, but so often self pushes to the front. The difficult truth is that the heart is only changed by difficulties. ‘Character’ is another expression of what the Bible refers to as the heart, the way we truly are. Paul said, “we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character;” (Rom 5:3,4). Our character is formed as we learn to endure in difficulties. You’ll know how much the Lord has formed your character, how much He has moulded your heart, by the words that come out of your mouth when the circumstances are difficult and people are not being nice. At that point, your mouth will reveal what God has been able to do in you. Now there is a strange thing. It is only as He is able to do things in you, and that is determined by your willingness to let Him do it, and that is a matter of will. Don’t focus on the tongue. See it as a revealer of what you’re like inside, but having done that, ask the Lord to transform you on the inside. That’s what this is really all about.