Posts Tagged 'Tongue'

James, Part 3


The third chapter of James is all about minding your P’s and Q’s. A verse in the Old Testament book of Proverbs gives us the theme of this wonderful chapter:

The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. (Proverbs 12:18 NIV)

Dr McGee has written a book on James 3 with the provocative title, “Hell on Fire,” describing the nature of “the tongue.” That’s a good title, and I wish I had thought of it first. As Christians, minding our P’s and Q’s should not be taken as putting a limit on free speech. I’m a free speech absolutist, after all. But what James says about the tongue has nothing to do with curbing free speech, but rather he is intent on showing us the power our words have and the responsibility believers have in taking care of what they say, how they say it, and even to whom it is said.

To be fair, the people in James’ crosshairs aren’t just church members, but rather teachers within the church, or wannbe teachers within the church. That being the strict contextual case, however, doesn’t mean the rest of us can just skip James 3. What James has to say about the tongue is applicable to all believers, not just teachers or wannabe teachers. In fact, here in chapter 3, James is picking up on a thought he introduced back in the first chapter:

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. (James 1:19, 20 NIV)

And those verses were addressed to all members of the church, not just teachers. True religion should always influence a person’s life, especially what a person says. Donald Burdick in his commentary on James offers the perfect division of James 3:

The responsibility of teachers, 3:1, 2

The influence of the tongue, 3:3 – 6

The perversity of the tongue, 3:7 – 12

Control your speech

Controlling your tongue is part of Christian works, which James had been talking about through most of chapter 2. The mark of a mature Christian is proper control of one’s speech. R. Kent Hughes, pastor emeritus of College Church wrote this –

The true test of a man’s spirituality is not ability to speak, as we are apt to think, but rather his ability to bridle his tongue.

True enough. By introducing the tropic of “teachers,” James is giving us a glimpse into the workings of the early church. We get the impression that some or many of his readers were wanting to become teachers within their particular congregation. Verse one, then, is a kind of warning against that. It’s not that James doesn’t want more teachers within a church, but he wants the right people to be teaching a congregation for the right reasons.

Churches need to have teachers, and the Holy Spirit sovereignly gifts certain people within a congregation with the gift of teaching.

And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets,third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. (1 Corinthians 12:28 NIV)

Paul taught that when a church looks for people to fill certain positions, they should choose elders who are “able to teach,” among other things.

Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach… (1 Timothy 3:1, 2 NIV)

However, both Paul and James stress that those wanting to teach within the church should understand their motives and recognize the awesome responsibility that comes with such a position.

We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check. (James 3:2 NIV)

In the Greek, verse 2 begins with the tiny word gar, meaning “for.” James is giving us the reason for what he wrote in verse 1. The teacher’s responsibility is heavy because the tongue is so hard to control. This applies to those wanting to teach, but also to all believers. We all have to keep a watch on our speech. All believers will “stumble,” points to the universality of sin. Even the best teacher in a congregation will inevitably misspeak. That’s not an excuse, but a statement of fact. It behooves all Christians, but especially teachers and those seeking to become teachers, to recognize this fact.

The tongue is so important – speech is so important – that if a person is able to control it 100% of the time, then he is a “perfect man.” This is a clever way to say that if a church can find a man who never sins with his tongue, he would never sin any other way, either.

Bridling the tongue

Verses 3 – 5 show us how little things can have far-reaching effects. James brilliantly uses the bridle as an example. A small thing in the mouth of a great big horse is able to control the whole animal. A ship’s rudder is tiny (and invisible) when compared to the overall size of ship, yet it controls where the ship goes. The third illustration is the one James uses to expose the damage that can be done by the tongue.

Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. (James 3:5 NIV)

The destructive nature of the tongue

The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. (James 3:6 NIV)

The tongue can either be controlled or it can destroy. Like a fire, the tongue is potentially dangerous and destructive if it is not controlled. Curtis Vaugn wrote this of the tongue –

It can sway men to violence, or it can move them to the noblest actions. It can instruct the ignorant, encourage the dejected, comfort the sorrowing, and soothe the dying. Or, it can crush the human spirit, destroy reputations, spread distrust and hate, and bring nations to the brink of war.

He’s right about that. And as Steve Camp wrote, “The tongue is a fire. It’s an evil that no man can tame.” That’s what James suggests in the following verses –

All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. (James 3:7, 8 NIV)

Anybody who has ever struggled with over-eating or breaking any bad habit knows how difficult self-control is. And this is especially true of the tongue. “No man” is able to control his own tongue because it’s motivation to evil comes from powerful impulses originating outside of itself: The tongue is set on fire by hell. This doesn’t mean that God is unable to bring it under control. The tongue can’t be controlled by the person, but the tongue of the saved person can be controlled by the Holy Spirit, who resides in all believers. Fact is, the natural state of the tongue is that of a “restless evil,” that is, it’s always looking for trouble to drag its owner into. Tasker’s observation tells us that the whole tongue problem goes all the way back to the very beginning –

Because of the Fall, man has lost dominion over himself.

I can tell you that never a truer word has been written!

Previously James wrote this in regards to asking God for wisdom –

But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do. (James 1:6, 7 NIV)

He picks up this thought of man’s double-mindedness when it comes to the tongue and the worship of God –

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. (James 3:9, 10 NIV)

The problem with a Christian who doesn’t mind is P’s and Q’s isn’t just that he’s probably hurting other believers, but that he’s treating God shabbily indeed. He’s the quintessential double-minded man. And, as James noted, that kind of person shouldn’t think he’ll get anything from God.

A double-talking tongue is out of place among Christians. It’s as incongruous in a believer as a fresh-and-salt water spring in the earth or as a fig tree bearing olives. It’s just ridiculous. In James’ mind it’s as simple as this: A good man speaks good words, and a sinful man speaks sinful words.

Speak and live wisely

Speaking wisely and living wisely require wisdom – the right kind of wisdom. James has already alluded to the fact that believers are probably short on wisdom and that they need to seek it from the Lord. There are all kinds of wisdom floating around on earth; just walk into any bookstore and see all the self-help books on the shelves and you’ll see what I mean. Earthly wisdom is good as far as it goes, but the Christian needs more. He needs wisdom from above.

But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. (James 3:17 NIV)

When we are obsessed with our own ideas instead of with the Lord and His, then we will always be finding a way to foist our ideas on people rather than exalting Him. When we are always seeking to advance our wills – like trying to become teachers in church – we can easily get into the nasty habit of using our speech to belittle or otherwise hurt others. Instead of being the peacemakers God wants us to be, we run around leaving strife and anger in our wakes.

Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness. (James 3:18 NIV)

And we assume the opposite is also true. When a believer doesn’t allow the Holy Spirit to reign in his tongue, he’s not only a disturbance to the Body of Christ, he’s a disturbance to himself. He’s like that double-minded man James warned about: A guy unstable in all he does; completely untrustworthy.

James’ warning about the power of speech is important. Our tongues can build others up or tear them down. We may be born again, blood bought children of God, but that doesn’t automatically result in a tamed tongue. Like so many areas of the Christian life, it’s within our power to clean up our speech or not. God won’t do it for us. All believers, from the Pastor to the teacher on down the line, should strive to seek help from God to put into practice the admonitions from James and the words of Paul –

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. (Ephesians 4:29 NIV)

Shut My Mouth!

Shocked Senior Man on Telephone

The Power of the Tongue

The Bible has a lot to say about the power of the tongue.  The Hebrew word for “word” (dabar) means both “word” and “deed.”  Words are connected to deeds; in Hebrew thought, the two are inseparable; words cannot exist without corresponding deeds.  We see this in the very first book of the Bible:

Then God said, “Let there be light.” And light appeared. (Genesis 1:3 TLB)

The power of the tongue!  God spoke everything, even light, into being.  How about this in John’s Gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.  (John 1:1—3  NIV)

When you think about it, words can do great good or irreparable harm.  Solomon understood this, and his book of Proverbs is full of observations and good advice on the subject.

Use words properly, Proverbs 18:21; 20:25; 27:1, 2, 5, 21

In addition to words, Solomon was keenly interested in propriety.  That’s an old fashioned notion that means “appropriate behavior.”  Remember, “there is a time for…” all kinds of behavior.  Sometimes it’s appropriate to laugh, other times it’s better to cry.  And so it is with words.  There is the right time to use certain words, and a wrong time.

The power of words, 18:21

Those who love to talk will suffer the consequences. Men have died for saying the wrong thing!  (TLB)

Death and life are in the power of the tongue: and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof.  (AV)

Words are serious things!  What people say can lead to life or death.  Think about that; if you are a Christian, you are able to speak life to the lost by speaking salvation to them.  Careless words, though, can lead someone down a destructive path.  If you aren’t careful in choosing your words wisely, you can actually hurt a person so much as to turn them from their faith!  Some might say that the tongue is the most powerful weapon on earth.  The idea Solomon is putting across in this verse is that for people who love to talk, they must bear its fruit, whether that fruit is good or bad.

Outside of the Bible, Jewish teachers had this to say about the tongue:

The evil tongue slays thee, the slanderer, the slandered, and the listener.

Soren Kierkegaard, a fairly smart man, made this observation (in the 19th century!) worth noting:

If I could prescribe just one remedy for all the ills of the modern world, I would prescribe silence.  For even if the Word of God were proclaimed in the modern world, no one would hear it; there is too much noise.

Vow?  What vow?  20:25

It is foolish and rash to make a promise to the Lord before counting the cost.  (TLB)

In other words, be careful what you promise another person!  Never make a rash vow.  Don’t make a promise until you are sure you can keep it.  Sometimes we get trapped by our words and find ourselves in deep trouble.  This is incredibly practical advice to be sure, but there is a spiritual dimension to it.  Don’t—DO NOT—publicly dedicate your life to God until you have counted the cost.  God doesn’t want an emotional decision; He wants you to carefully consider what it means to follow Him before you make the decision. These days, people seem to make decisions based on how they feel instead of using their reasoning minds.  Yes, there’s a lot feeling but not a lot of thinking going on today, and we can see the mess that way of doing things has left!

Flattery, 27:2, 21

Don’t praise yourself; let others do it!  (verse 2  TLB)

The purity of silver and gold can be tested in a crucible, but a man is tested by his reaction to men’s praise.  (verse 21  TLB)

Verse 2 may bring a smile to your face, but it actually makes complete sense, and when you grasp what Solomon was trying to teach, it will revolutionize how you live.  What he is saying is this:  live your life so that others will praise you.  Now, that’s actually good advice; something your grandmother might have told you.  But, there is a warning that comes along with that advice, and that’s verse 21.  Living a good life is all well and good, but you should never believe your own press!   Be wary of the praise of others; don’t let it go to your head and keep their opinions in perspective. Dr. Ironside’s comments are priceless:

There is no hotter crucible to test a man than when he is put through a fire of praise and adulation.  To go on through evil report, cleaving to the Lord and counting on Him to clear one’s name is comparatively easy; but to humbly pursue the even tenor of his way, undisturbed and unlifted up by applause and flattery, marks a man as being truly with God.

Rebukes and boasts, 27:5, 1

Open rebuke is better than hidden love!  (verse 5  TLB)

Don’t brag about your plans for tomorrow—wait and see what happens.  (verse 1  TLB)

Now here’s some good advice. A “rebuke” seems painful at the time, but a good rebuke can make the world of difference in your life.  For example, Paul publicly rebuked Peter when he refused to eat with some Gentiles.  Peter was wrong in his actions and he needed that rebuke.  The fact that there were no bad feelings after the rebuke proved Paul was right and Peter’s heart was right.

Getting a rebuke is hard, but issuing a rebuke is even harder!  However, if we would honor our friends in the Lord, we’d “speak the truth” in the His name when appropriate.  In this, measuring our words is vital.

Verse 1 is what happens when we put off timely actions.  It’s foolish and potentially dangerous to be presumptuous about the future.  Why?  Because nobody can predict the future with any kind of accuracy.  Solomon isn’t talking about not planning for the future; we should all be doing that!  He is talking about not bragging about those plans.  Nobody should be overconfident about tomorrow.  Humility is essential.

Avoid destructive words, Proverbs 26:17—28

We’ve already put forth the idea that words are powerful and words mean things.  There is no such thing as a “casual word.”  Behind every word is a thought and after every word there is some kind of action.  But there is another reason why the book of Proverbs spends so much time the topic of words. Solomon’s culture was word-based.  It was not a culture of the written word, but of the spoken word.  Much of the Old Testament was not written to be read but to be heard and memorized.  It is estimated that only 5% of the Hebrew population was literate at this time.  So the spoken word carried a lot of weight.

Stop quarreling, verses 17, 21

Yanking a dog’s ears is no more foolish than interfering in an argument that isn’t any of your business. (verse 17  TLB)

A quarrelsome man starts fights as easily as a match sets fire to paper.  (verse 21  TLB)

Some people just love to argue; they’ll argue about anything and everything.  Solomon gives some expert advice here.  Sometimes it can be dangerous to interfere in a verbal fight between two other people.  It may be dangerous, but it also qualifies as “meddling.”  It makes no sense to willfully step into another’s argument.  It makes as much as much sense as yanking a dog’s ears.

Along the same lines, verse 21 suggests that quarrelsome people—those people who love to argue—start fights.  It’s easy for them, and more often than not, they are unaware just how flammable their words are.

There are people who just cause strife wherever they go.  They’re the ones who flit from church-to-church, apparently unaware of the trouble left in their wake.  These people aren’t really interested in anything other than causing problems.  Evangelical Anglican clergyman Richard Cecil wrote—

If a man has a quarrelsome temper, let him alone…He will soon meet with someone stronger than himself, who will repay him better than you can.


Pretty words may hide a wicked heart, just as a pretty glaze covers a common clay pot. A man with hate in his heart may sound pleasant enough, but don’t believe him; for he is cursing you in his heart. Though he pretends to be so kind, his hatred will finally come to light for all to see. The man who sets a trap for others will get caught in it himself. Roll a boulder down on someone, and it will roll back and crush you.  Flattery is a form of hatred and wounds cruelly.  (Proverbs 26:23—28  TLB)

This paragraph is an arraignment of hypocritical speech and character.  Speech descends from character, and you have to watch out for “honey coated” words.  By definition, “doublespeak” means:

…language that deliberately disguises, distorts, or reverses the meaning of words. (

Basically, any time a politician opens his mouth, you may witness a fine example of what Solomon is talking about here.  People who engage in doublespeak say one thing but mean another.  In other words, their words are hypocritical, if not the person themselves.

Hypocrites are all around the Christian; they pretend to be believers but in reality, they are not.  Their words flatter, but hate fills their hearts.  A perfect example of this kind of person is Haman.  He was a flatterer extraordinaire!  He plotted to take down an entire empire even while he flattered the king, pretending to be the most loyal subject.

When dealing with flattering words, we should all take heed of Thomas Watson’s words:

God has given us two ears but one tongue, to show that we should be swift to hear but slow to speak.

Listen carefully to what a person says about you.  You aren’t as good or as bad as they say you are.  And avoid practicing doublespeak. Just be honest.

Avoid gossip, verses 20, 22

Fire goes out for lack of fuel, and tensions disappear when gossip stops.  (verse 20  TLB)

Gossip is a dainty morsel eaten with great relish.  (verse 22  TLB)

Speaking of argumentative people, nothing fuels strife like gossip!  Gossip is a huge problem in society, especially in the church, and yet as destructive as it is, it is very simple to stamp out…stop fueling it and it will burn out.  But, as the Teacher noticed, people love gossip like they love a “dainty morsel.”  Not matter how it tastes, though, gossip is anything but a “dainty morsel”; it’s poison.

Choose life-giving words, Proverbs 15:1, 2, 4, 7, 23, 28; 16:23, 24

According to Hebrew thought, words create life.  We see this in the six days of creation and we also see it the healing ministry of Jesus.  Words bring life.

Gentle words, 15:1, 2, 4

A gentle answer turns away wrath, but harsh words cause quarrels.  A wise teacher makes learning a joy; a rebellious teacher spouts foolishness. (verses 1, 2  TLB)

Gentle words cause life and health; griping brings discouragement.  (verse 4  TLB)

It’s just Common Sense 101:  the way you answer somebody will determine their response.  This is a proverb that we should all remember.  Choose your words carefully and be careful how you speak them.  The idea behind verses 1 and 2 is that the wise person ought to assume an almost conciliatory attitude in answering some people.  Instead of using words that “beat the chest,” sometimes it’s better to be humble and choose gentle words.  The story of Nabal and Abigail from 1 Samuel 25 is a classic illustration of this.  Foolish Nabal should have chosen better words!

Thoughtful words, 15:3, 28; 16:24

The Lord is watching everywhere and keeps his eye on both the evil and the good.  (Proverbs 15:3  TLB)

A good man thinks before he speaks; the evil man pours out his evil words without a thought.  (Proverbs 15:28  TLB)

Kind words are like honey—enjoyable and healthful. (Proverbs 16:24  TLB)

As Christians, we must understand the truthfulness of 15:3.  God sees everything you do and He hears everything you say.  So, with that in mind, 15:28 and 16:24 become much more than mere proverbs; they are imperatives!  Not only will choosing our words carefully keep us in good standing with God, which is always important, it will benefit other people in the long run.  The words we use demonstrate the state of our souls and they can go along way in lifting up and soothing others.

Smart words, Proverbs 15:7; 16:23

Only the good can give good advice. Rebels can’t.  (Proverbs 15:7  TLB)

From a wise mind comes careful and persuasive speech.  (Proverbs 16:23  TLB)

Finally, we come to one last truth:  nobody knows it all.  If you are a Christian and if you are looking for advice, be careful where you seek it out and whom you listen to.  Words are life-giving, and advice from believers should lead you to life.  Conversely, the world is full of “rebels,” and their advice may not be helpful.

Steve Camp wrote these lyrics about the tongue:

The tongue is a fire,
It’s an evil that no man can tame.

In the natural, this is true.  But for the believer, the tongue doesn’t have to be evil at all.  If our hearts are right, our speech will be, also.  Theodore Epp once remarked,

Remember that the tongue only speaks what is in the heart.

James 5


Mind Your Language!

James 3:1—12


In this group of verses, James picks up the subject he first mentioned back in 1:19 and 1:26. Genuine faith should cause a believer to control his speech.

1. The responsibility of teachers, verses 1, 2

James’s first concern has to do with a common problem in the early church and even to this day: there were those who desired to be “teachers” in the scattered Jewish Christian congregations. A similar situation is addressed by Paul in 1 Timothy 1:7—

They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm.

The Greek construction of both James’ and Paul’s observation suggests that this was a very common practice, and both of these men strongly urged these people to stop seeking to become teachers. No doubt some who were not qualified by natural ability or spiritual gift were jealous of those who had been endowed with the ability to teach and so they coveted the prestige that they thought came along with standing behind a pulpit. The warning is frightening: teachers “will be judged more strictly.” James, of course, includes himself as one of the teachers who will be judged. The Greek krima refers to the decision rendered by a judge, favorable or unfavorable. Teachers will be judged more harshly by the Lord because theirs is a weighty responsibility. Why? The answer if forthcoming: the teacher’s essential instrument—his tongue—has a great influence over others and can be easily misused.

Verse two begins with the Greek gar (“for”), showing the reader that an explanation for the previous statement is next. The reason the teachers responsibility is so weighty is because the tongue is the hardest member of the body to control. James means more than just make mistakes when he states “we all stumble.” The literal meaning of patio is “to stumble,” but Greek writings indicate that it was also used in a figurative manner to refer to evil acts or acts of sin. And so, in one single verse, James has given us his doctrine of sin: it is universal, it is found in all people, believers and unbelievers alike. The person who never speaks a false word is described by Peter as “a perfect man.” Why would this person be perfect? Simply because he who never commits a sin with his tongue would never sin in any other way, either. Since sins of the tongue are the hardest to avoid, anyone who could control his tongue could easily “keep his who body in check”—ie., keep it from being used as an instrument of sin.

2. Taming the Tongue, verses 3—6

The ability of a small bit in the mouth of a horse is James’s illustration of the power the tongue has over the entire body. Just as that small bit “can turn the whole animal,” so a man who can control his tongue can control his whole being.

Similar is the ability of the rudder to direct the ship. James vividly introduces the illustration by saying, “Take ships as an example.” There were three factors which made ships of his day difficult to control:

  • They were “so large”
  • They were “driven by strong winds”
  • They were “steered by a very small rudder.”

The rudder was a small blade on the end of a tiller, extending through a form of oarlock from the rear of the ship. When compared to the overall size of the ship and the power of gale-force winds, that tiny rudder indeed seemed very small, and yet it guided the boat “wherever the pilot [wanted] to go.”

Likes bits and rudders, the tongue is a small thing, yet, also like them, it is powerful. The tongue “makes great boasts,” does not refer to empty claims. The tongue can sway great multitudes; it can alter the destinies of entire nations. Since megala auchei (“makes great boasts”) is usually used in a derogatory sense, it is likely James uses the expression to apply the first two illustrations of the tongues influence and to introduce the third one. A forest fire serves to further illustrate the destructive potential of the tongue. Think about it: thousands and thousands of acres of valuable timber can be decimated by one single, tiny spark. In the two previous illustrations, animals and ships are controlled by small objects; in this last illustration, a huge forest is destroyed by a tiny spark. What a graphic illustration of the power of the tongue: it can either control or destroy.

That’s why James likens the tongue to a fire. The tongue can be inflammatory, and has turned friend against friend, brother against brother, nation against nation. The tongue is also a “world of evil,” a striking phrase suggesting all the wickedness in the whole world is wrapped up in that little piece of flesh! As one commentator has written, “There are few sins people commit in which the tongue is not involved.”

James describes the tongue’s influence in no uncertain terms: it corrupts the whole “person.” The Greek word translated “person” is soma, and since the person resides in the body and uses the body as his instrument, James refers to the whole person, physical and spiritual. The corrupting influence of the tongue reaches out in ever widening circles, for it sets “the whole course of his life on fire.” The pronoun “his” is not in the Greek, and so the phrase should read: “the tongue sets the whole course of life on fire.” The NIV’s translation limits the sphere of influence of the tongue to one speaking, but James’s description is much more graphic: the tongue is a fire that can literally burn the whole of human existence.

But the source of the tongue’s evil nature is hell itself, a way of saying that it comes from the devil. The term geennes or ghenna comes from the Greek form of the Hebrew name of the valley of Hinnom, an area south of Jerusalem where the city’s garbage was burned. This continual burning of rubbish became a figure for eternal punishment.

3. The Perversion of the tongue, verses 7—12

Given the fact that the tongue gets its power from Hell, James proceeds to tell his readers how perverse it is and can be. The fact that man can’t seem to control his tongue shows just how perverse it is. “No man can tame the tongue” is James’s way of saying that by himself, no man can control it. Of course, it goes without saying that one that is born again can be controlled by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, present in all believers. The tongue in its natural state is “a restless evil” and “full of deadly poison.” The tongue seems always ready to strike and inject it’s venom into its victim.

With verse nine, James shows how inconsistent the tongue is, another aspect of the tongue’s perversity. On the one hand, it can praise God, on the other hand it curses God. Notice that he is speaking to fellow believers here (“My brothers”). Even though all believers have the Holy Spirit living within them, many of us are not appropriating His power. That is why James insists that “this should not be;” the mouth should be used consistently to praise God and express love and kindness to others.

Always ready with a homey illustration, James turns once again to the world of nature. He asks, “Can both fresh water and salt water spring from the same spring?” The word bryei (“flow”) is a poetic term describing water gush forth from a geyser, as being under pressure. The water is described by James as “fresh,” but the Greek can also mean “sweet,” water that is refreshing and quenches thirst, and “bitter”, or “salty,” unfit for drinking.

Concluding his discussion of the tongue, James goes right to the real source of speech. He asks, “Can a fig tree bear olives?” The answer is no, of course, for a plant produces according to its nature, whether it’s figs, grapes or any other fruit. So it is with a “salt spring” which cannot “produce fresh water” because it is not a fresh water spring.


For James, it is simple. Out of the mouth of a good man come good words, and out of the mouth of a sinful man come sinful words. Is it really that simple? Is James speaking of a life that is possible for us to live? The answer is yes. Each one of us, who claim to be born again, is filled with the Holy Spirit. And that Spirit lives and moves through us. If we are seeking first God’s kingdom and His will, we will learn to yield ourselves to Him. Nobody ever said living the Christian life would be easy. Just as we exercise our bodies to build muscle and stay in shape, so it must be with our spiritual bodies. It takes practice to gain control of our tongues and it takes commitment. But if we are to live lives that please God, it is something we must do.

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