The Tongue and how to control it : James 3:1-12 

In chapters 1-2 we have seen how James explains the two characteristics of the mature Christian: patient in trouble (James 1) and practicing the truth (James 2). In chapter 3 he shares the third characteristic of the mature believer: power over the tongue.

The power of speech is one of the greatest powers God has given us. With the tongue, we can praise God, teach God’s Word and lead lost sinners to Jesus Christ. But with that same tongue we can tell lies that can ruin a reputation or break someone’s heart. The ability to articulate truth is one of the most powerful ways we influence others; and yet so often we take this ability for granted. In order to impress on us the importance of controlled speech, and the great consequences of our words, James gave us six pictures of the tongue: the bit, the rudder, fire, a poisonous animal, a fountain, and a fig tree. You can put these six pictures into three meaningful classifications that reveal the three powers of the tongue.

1. Power to Direct : The Bit and the Rudder (James 3:1-4)

“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. When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. 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.” (James 3:1-4)

Apparently, several people in the assembly wanted to teach and lead, for James has to warn them: “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers” (James 3:1).This is because those who teach the Word face the stricter judgement. Teachers must use their tongue to share God’s truth, and it is terrible when those appointed to teach God’s Word, sin with their tongue. Furthermore, teachers must practice what they teach; otherwise, their teaching is hypocrisy. But teachers are not the only ones who are tempted and sin; every Christian must admit that “we all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2). And sins of the tongue seem to head the list. Control of the tongue is a sign of spiritual maturity.  Is James making a mistake connecting sins of the tongue with sins of “the whole body”? No, because words usually lead to deeds. During World War II there were posters that read ‘Loose lips sink ships’.  But loose lips also wreck lives. Make an unguarded statement and you may find yourself involved in a conflict. Our tongue may force the rest of our body to defend itself.  In selecting the bit and the rudder James presented two items that are small of themselves, yet exercise great power, just like the tongue.

A small bit enables the rider to control a horse, and a small rudder enables the pilot to steer an entire ship.
The tongue is a small member in the body, and yet it has the power to accomplish great things. Both the bit and the rudder must overcome contrary forces. The bit must overcome the wild nature of the horse, and the rudder must fight the winds and currents that would drive the ship off its course. The human tongue also must overcome contrary forces. This means that both the bit and the rudder must be under the control of a strong hand. When Jesus Christ controls the tongue, then we need not fear saying the wrong things—or even saying the right things in a wrong way! “Death and life are in the power of the tongue,” warned Solomon (Prov. 18:21). No wonder David prayed, “Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips. Incline not my heart to any evil thing” (Ps. 141:3-4). The bit and rudder have the power to direct, which means they affect the lives of others. A runaway horse or a shipwreck can mean injury or death to pedestrians or passengers. The words we speak affect the lives of others. A judge says “Guilty!” or “Not Guilty!” and those words affect the destiny of the prisoner, his family, and his friends. Never underestimate the guidance you give by the words you speak or do not speak.  The power to direct: The bit and the rudder.

2. The Power to Destroy: The fire and the animal (James 3:5-8)

“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.  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. 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.” (James 3:5-8)

On the night of September 2, 1666, a small fire broke out in the premises of a baker's shop in Pudding Lane, London, perhaps started by the carelessness of a maid.  In the close-packed streets of London, where buildings jostled each other for space, the blaze soon became an inferno. Fanned by an east wind, the fire spread with terrifying speed, feeding on the tar and pitch commonly used to seal houses. Our best account of the Fire comes from the diaries of Samuel Pepys, Secretary of the Admiralty. He watched the course of the destruction from a safe position across the Thames, and called it,

"a most malicious bloody flame, as one entire arch of fire... of above a mile long. It made me weep to see it. The churches, houses, and all on fire and flaming at once, and a horrid noise the flames made, and the cracking of houses at their ruin ...Over the Thames with one's face in the wind you were almost burned with a shower of firedrops."


After four days while helpless citizens stood by and watched the destruction of their homes, the wind mercifully died and the fire was stopped. When a dazed populace took stock of the damage, 80% of the city was destroyed, including 13,000 houses, 89 churches and 52 Company (Guild) Halls. The spiritual hub of the city, Old St. Paul's Cathedral, was nothing but rubble. It was a disaster of unprecedented proportions. Our words can start fires just as terrifying.


“Without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down. As charcoal to embers and as wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife”. (Prov. 26:20-21).


Have you ever had that experience? Of course you have! A hot head and a hot heart can lead to burning words that later we will regret. David had a temper, and he had to have God’s help in controlling it. No wonder Solomon wrote, “A man of knowledge uses words with restraint, and a man of understanding is even-tempered.” (Prov. 17:27).  Fire not only starts small and grows, and creates heat; it also defiles. A friend recently suffered a fire in the entrance to her house, and the smoke and fire damage so soiled the house that she has had to move out while the house was redecorated. Fiery words can defile a home, a Sunday club, a church. The only thing that can wash away that defilement is the blood of Jesus Christ. Fire burns and hurts, and our words can burn and hurt. One of the sorrows our Lord had to bear when He was here on earth was the way His enemies talked about Him. Because He graciously accepted invitations to dine with people the Pharisees did not like they called Him a “glutton and a drunkard” (Matt. 11:19). When He performed miracles, they said Jesus was in league with Satan. Even when He was dying on the cross, His enemies could not let Him alone but threw vicious taunts into His face. Fire spreads, and the more fuel you give it, the faster and farther it will spread. The tongue “sets the whole course of his life on fire” (James 3:6). James suggests that all of life is connected, and therefore, but for the grace of God, we cannot keep things from spreading.

Sunday was VE day - the day we celebrate 60 years ago that the Nazi leaders surrendered and war ceased in Europe. For every word in Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf, 125 lives were lost in World War II. Our own words may not have caused wars or wrecked cities, but they can break hearts and ruin reputations. How important it is for us to let our speech “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” (Colossians 4:6).


Not only is the tongue like a fire, but it is also like a dangerous animal. Some animals are poisonous, and some tongues spread poison. On Monday on our walk we came across this adder - the only indigenous poisonous snake in Great Britain. A couple of folk on the walk stood between the other walkers and the snake as we all passed by safely.


The deceptive thing about poison is that it works secretly and slowly, and then kills. How many times has some malicious person injected a bit of poison into your conversation and you didn’t notice initially? James reminds us that animals can be tamed; and, for that matter, fire can be tamed. When you tame an animal, you get a worker instead of a destroyer. When you control fire, you generate power. The tongue cannot be tamed by man, but it can be tamed by God. Your tongue need not be “set on fire of hell” (James 3:6). Like the Apostles at Pentecost, it can be set on fire from heaven! If God lights the fire and controls it, then the tongue can be a mighty tool for the winning of the lost and the building up of the church. The important thing, of course, is the heart; for it is “out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34). If your heart is filled with hatred, Satan will light the fire. If your heart is filled with love, God will light the fire.

1. Power to direct : The bit and the rudder
2. Power to destroy : the fire and the animal

3. Power to Delight: The Spring & the Tree (James 3:9-12)
“With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God's likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 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)

In hot countries like Palestine the natural spring provides beautiful cool refreshing water people need to stay alive. Water is life-giving, and our words can give life too. “The words of a man’s mouth are deep waters, and the fountain of wisdom is a bubbling brook” (Prov. 18:4). The tongue is also delightful because it is like a tree. In Bible lands, olive trees are vitally important to the economy: they help to hold down the soil; they provide beauty and shade; and they bear fruit. Our words can help to shelter and encourage, and can help to feed a hungry soul. “The lips of the righteous feed many” (Prov. 10:21). Jesus said, “The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life” (John 6:63).

1. Power to direct. 2. Power to destroy. 3. Power to Delight.
I don’t think any of us would deny that we have problems with our tongues. Some of us struggle more than others, but each of us needs to find a way to tame that beast. Let me give you five practical steps to consider in this process:

1. Be quick to listen and slow to speak
“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” (James 1:19)
"It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt" (Abraham Lincoln).

2. Bite your tongue more often
”If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.” (James 1:26)

3. Refuse to tear other people down
”Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another… Don't grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged.” (James 4:11, 5:9)

4. Speak only what is true
”Above all, my brothers, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Let your "Yes" be yes, and your "No", no, or you will be condemned.” (James 5:12)

5. Surrender your tongue to God
”but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” (James 3:8) We cannot tame our tongues without supernatural help. To help you surrender your tongue to God, let me encourage you with a little speech therapy. Before you speak something that may be harmful ask yourself these five questions:

Is it true? Is what I’m going to speak the truth? If not, stop. If it is, second ask,
Is it necessary? Jesus said we are going to be judged for every careless word. There are so many things that we say that are not necessary. Third ask,
Is it beneficial? Is what I’m going to say going to build someone up or tear them down?  Fourthly,
Do I have permission to share it?
Before you speak think about what kind of friend you’re being. Finally, ask yourself,
Is my motive pure? Why am I saying this? We all struggle with our tongues to varying degrees. There’s something we can all do about gossip. Remember gossip is when I share with you something about a third person and neither you or I are part of the problem or the solution.

Will you listen more, bite your tongue more, refuse to tear others down, and surrender your tongue to Jesus Christ? This is not some extra thing that God is requesting of us. This is a mandate for being a Christ-follower. Yes, the tongue may be the smallest and largest troublemaker in all the world. It has the 1. Power to direct. 2. the Power to destroy, but also 3. the Power to delight. God can use our tongues to guide others into the way of life, and to sustain them in the trials of life. Give God your tongue each day and ask Him to use you to be a blessing to others. Lets pray.







With grateful thanks to Warren Wersbie for material used in this sermon - taken from James: Be Mature (Scripture Press, 1988) and to Keith Manry, pastor of Belfast & Caneadea United Methodist Churches for his sermon on this passage found on