Friday of the 18th Sunday after Trinity – James 3

| October 27, 2011 | 3 Comments More

Friday of 18th Sunday after Trinity – James 3

Now that James has taught about faith and works, belief and deeds, he turns his attention to our words.  What James has to say, though it is in keeping with the wisdom of the Old Testament and even if it is familiar, is startling.

“The tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity.”

“No man can tame the tongue.  It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.”

Who would have thought that such a small part of our body could merit such dire warnings?  Isn’t James exaggerating a little bit?

If true, why don’t we just cut out our tongues and be done with it?

The potential for evil for the tongue is so important to James that he not only devotes an entire chapter to it but also employs an amazing picture book of images to help us see its true nature:

We put bits in horses’ mouths so we may control them, but the tongue is


Large ships are turned by small rudders, but the little tongue controls the larger man.

A little fire kindles a great forest, but the little tongue sets a soul ablaze.

Every kind of creature has been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue.

Springs do not send forth both fresh and bitter water, but the tongue both blesses and curses.

Figs don’t bear olives, and grapevines don’t bear figs, but the tongue produces two very different things.

Get the picture?

It’s interesting that in graphically picturing just how evil the tongue is that James spends very little time actually describing the specific ways in which the tongue may be evil.  Apparently, he thought his audience would already know this!

And, in fact, we do.  We all know firsthand the devastation that is wrought upon a soul, a family, or a church by the sin of gossip, which is a sin of the tongue.  How often do our tongues become serpentine and spread “news” of someone that we later find out isn’t true?  Most of the time, we are even aware that we don’t have all the facts, but that doesn’t prevent the Mighty Tongue from leaping into action.

With the tongue we lie and become like the Father of Lies.  With the tongue we distort and misshape the truth.  With the tongue we manifest our hatred and anger towards one another.  Maybe we should just cut out our tongues!

If only it were so easy!  Just as James showed us how faith and good works are connected, he also begins to show us how the tongue and our words are connected to our hearts.  In verse 14 James tells us that out of bitter envy and self-seeking in the heart come boasting and lies against the truth out of the mouth.  Where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing also exist (verse 16), and if they exist, they will come out of the mouth for “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks (Matthew12:34.)

The tongue is connected to the heart, and so the real problem is not the unconscious, literal tongue but the figurative spiritual tongue that resides in the heart.

Do you want to tame your tongue and stop using it for evil?  Then seek a cure for your heart.  Why is it that we lie?  Judging from experience with my own children, it is so they won’t get in trouble.  We as adults lie for the same reasons.  The baldest, most brazen lie I’ve ever witnessed was when President Clinton wagged his finger at a nation, squinted with righteous indignation, and told us to our faces: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman!”  Of course, he was lying.  But why?  So he wouldn’t get in trouble.  But we also lie to get those we don’t like in trouble, and we lie so that we may illegitimately get good things that we haven’t deserved or earned.  Sometimes we lie out of envy.

We gossip and belittle and tease to make ourselves feel good and strong by making someone else smaller and weaker.  We boast so that people will look at us and think more of us.  We express our anger with our words because we don’t get our way, and like kids we throw fits, only in an adult way, of course.

But the source of all of these is our own pride or selfishness.  The reason the tongue is such a restless evil is because our hearts are relentless in wanting to serve themselves.  It is the master sin of pride, or selfishness, therefore, that is the real root of the sins of the tongue.  Cure your pride, and you will be able to control your tongue.

So what is the cure?  The wisdom that is self-seeking and envious and proud is the wisdom that is earthly, sensual, and demonic (verse 15), but the wisdom that is from above is pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy (verse 17.)  These are the very things that are the substance of James’ letter, and for this reason the letter of James is sometimes seen as wisdom writing.

If our tongues and our hearts are full of such pride and evil, how shall they be cured?  James would say, “Turn to wisdom.”  Not to just any wisdom, but to the Wisdom of God that is Jesus Christ Himself.  How shall we mortify the flesh and crucify ourselves that we would sin no more?  Take up the Cross of Christ, which is your life in Him.  How shall we be gentle and willing to yield?  By having the same mind which was in Christ Jesus, who ruled by serving, and who humbled Himself for our good.  How shall we be pure and without partiality or hypocrisy?  By seeking Jesus Christ and His righteousness, and not your own things.

The tongue is a restless evil and no man can tame it.  But Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, has conquered not only the tongue but also the heart that governs the tongue.  If you want to control your tongue, stop seeking yourself and seek God instead.  If you want to be wise, stop seeking the earthly wisdom and find instead the Wisdom that comes from God.

Prayer:  O God, who created all things good, I pray that You may redeem my tongue.  Help me to use it for good and not evil, and for blessing and not cursing.  Where I speak too much, make me silent; where I speak out of selfishness, make me humble; and where I speak from envy, make me content and silent.  Give to me Your heavenly wisdom that I may use my heart and tongue for the blessed purposes for which You created them.  

Resolution and Point for Meditation:  I resolve to honestly examine my use of my tongue today, including the motivations of my heart.  I resolve to look for one particular misuse of my tongue, examine my sins regarding it, and find the corresponding cure.  For example, if my sin is anger that comes from not getting my way, I will seek Jesus in His humility and peace. 

© 2011 Fr. Charles Erlandson


CC Image courtesy of Librarian by ohai_spackwood on Flickr.jpg

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  1. darby logan says:

    This is the second time this week that James 3 has been put before my eyes. I know this has meaning. I am challenged with a huge sense of righteousness, and when nurtured with prayerful consideration my choice of words are carefully chosen, but when I am reduced to the highly critical, I fall far below the acts of humility that Christ’s worship calls into service. May I always be reminded, a Biblical perspective filters through the self-righteousness of my spirit and gently(or not) closes my mouth. Darby

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