James, The Tongue, and Christian Speech

In mid-June I was involved in a very important meeting with some old buddies, during which I felt that I spoke far too often and for far too long (at one point, I even inadvertently spilled the beans on a secret). Though the meeting ended well, I awoke the following morning with a great sense of personal failure–as though my participation was not as valuable as it could have been had I said less.

Since that time, I have been trying to read through James’ epistle daily (and failing at least twice a week, I might add) given his admonitions about the tongue. This is perhaps the most well-known portion of James, and I have taken the liberty of posting the entire portion below:

 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, and set on fire by hell. 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. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.

Where to begin, right?  Well, I am sure that many a lengthy commentary has already been provided on this passage, and I’m also relatively certain that the exegesis provided in them is better than any I could offer here; nonetheless, I want to point out 3 powerful aspects of Christian speech that strike me when reading this passage.

1. Given the power of speech, we should be mindful of its care and use. Bits in horses mouth, a ship’s rudder, a small fire: these are things that we would not assume have the power that they do, and yet, once we realize their importance, our perception of them changes and rightly so. Based on our knowing their use, we ensure they are in good order and used appropriately. If we are tracking the analogies, we should carry the same concern over our tongue (our speech).

2. Because of this power, speech left unchecked can do an immense amount of damage. The analogy of fire burning down the forest is appropriate. Consider a rumor. Started amongst a small party, it seems a small thing, but it spreads and tears reputations to pieces, leaving ruins in its wake. Or perhaps another useful comparison may be the Christian who speaks as the world does and uses the obscenities the world uses, whose language is no different than that of others. Is not his or her testimony tainted, not only in regard to initial hearers but also those to whom those hearers speak? According to James (as well as my personal experience), this is simply the nature of things: we talk too much and say much that can damage. This is why our mindfulness in regard to speech is so important: our default setting is toward sin, and a lack of vigilance will ultimately produce bad fruit.

3. The Christian’s speech should inherently bless, and be guarded so as not to destroy. James’ composition on this point is interesting. He first focuses on the damage of the tongue, then contrasts it with what he assumes is already taking place: blessing. He moves into saying that blessing and cursing cannot come from the same person, because he believes that we are blessing one another in our language already. The implication here is that the Christian tongue is one that inherently blesses and encourages others by virtue of the Spirit’s presence. I’ve read this passage dozens of time, but until recently I did not glean this insight, that the assumed language of the Christian is that of encouragement, admonition, and blessing, which is why poor speech is doubly dangerous (and convicting), not only does it do something poor (destroy others) but it also does the opposite of what it ought to do.

So there you have it. Bottom line: Know the inherent power of your words to build up and tear down; mind what you say, for your words can have extended collateral damage; and if you claim to follow Christ, your language should bless; this is an assumed attribute in the Christian life.

Things to consider as we enter a new week, encounter others throughout our day, and seek to be salt and light.

Thanks for reading,
“Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”


  1. me too, and I would add that I need to continually hand the reigns, the helm, and the matches to my Lord.

  2. So true. How often I have tripped up the horse, crashed into stoney cliffs, and lit the fire around me! Thanks for adding that thought, friend.