The Iniquity of the Tongue

The call to be a teacher

In chapter three, James turns to a subject that he has already touched on briefly, but now he devotes a long passage to it. In chapter one, he warned a professing Christian with an unruly tongue that his religion is vain. Now he develops a long series of graphic comparisons to illustrate just how dangerous an unruly tongue can be.

He starts by addressing his readers as "my brethren." This expression and the expression "my beloved brethren" recur throughout the epistle. He uses them when he wishes to stress that his counsel comes from love. Here he is entering a subject that will require words of rebuke and censure, so he builds a foundation of love before proceeding. His approach is a good example for us when we practice discipline. Discipline should always take place in a loving context.

James’s first admonition is not against an evil use of the tongue, but against a legitimate use without good results. He says that not many should seek to be "masters" (v. 1). The actual Greek word should undoubtedly be translated "teachers." He is advising the churches that the role of teaching others should not be shared by all. By implication, he agrees with Paul that teaching is a special gift that God imparts to a few (Rom. 12:6–7; 1 Cor. 12:7–10, 28–30 ). James continues with the warning that whoever stands up and teaches will face a stricter "judgment," the meaning of the word translated "condemnation." In other words, with responsibility goes accountability. The more you undertake in God’s service, the more you will answer for when you stand before the divine Judge.

A teacher’s words will then be thoroughly sifted. Good words will gain a reward. Words that are careless through lack of study, or false through lack of belief, or unkind through lack of love, or self-serving through lack of humility, or merely tedious and empty through lack of understanding will cause a loss of reward. God expects anyone who fills the vital office of teacher to do well. He must know his Bible. He must be well educated by the Spirit of God. He must be pure in his motives, without a self-seeking agenda. He must be humble and moderate in his conclusions, restrained in his words, faithful in making applications to real life, fearless in taking unpopular but Biblical positions, and full of love for his hearers. Obviously, then, teaching is not for everyone.

We must remember, however, that James is thinking mainly about teaching as a regular ministry to adults. The counterbalancing truth is that we all should be teachers in a broader sense (Heb. 5:11–14). We all should instruct those under our authority. A man instructs his family. A woman instructs her children. Older men instruct younger men, and older women instruct younger women (Titus 2:3–5). We all can help in one-on-one discipling of new believers, or in the many ministries to youth that a church conducts. Finally, we all should be taking opportunities to reach the lost with the gospel. When sharing the gospel, we are teaching truth. Yet even teachers in the broader sense will be accountable for their words. Thus, before we open our mouths to speak, we must first cleanse our hearts of wrong motives and prepare our minds with understanding.

The power of the tongue

Next, James anticipates a problem universal among teachers. The problem is this: teachers have a tendency to be self-satisfied. Some enjoy getting up in front and talking even when they are doing a poor job. To counter this common failure to practice self-criticism, James reminds us that we all fall short of what we should be (v. 2). We all give offense all the time in many things. Recognizing that the tongue is especially prone to give offense, a teacher must continually monitor his own performance, being careful to stay close to the mind of the Spirit in everything he says. To say only what is true and profitable is a nearly impossible feat for fallen man, but by the help of the Spirit it is possible. The ability to control speech is a mark of a "perfect" man—that is, of a man who is spiritually mature.

A man with enough spiritual strength and discernment to control the small organ in his mouth called the tongue can easily control the whole body with its multitude of surging impulses. To underscore this principle, James uses a series of striking metaphors (vv. 3, 4). The bit in a horse’s mouth is small enough to hold in your hand. But if you pull on the reins attached to the bit, you can make the horse turn however you like. Likewise, the rudder of a ship is a small thing compared with the whole vessel. (An ancient ship actually had two rudders, one on either side of the stern.) But the man at the helm can, by operating a fitting of insignificant size, control the whole vessel’s direction, even when the ship is buffeted by raging winds and towering waves.

What exactly does James mean when he speaks of the tongue? The correct interpretation must explain how controlling the tongue is the secret to controlling the entire man. James is, I believe, building on a basic fact of psychology. At some point in the unfolding of every reaction to life, the mind must speak, and what it says shapes conduct afterward. If we feel abused, we normally respond by expressing anger with our mouths, and as a result our anger builds, perhaps to the point of fueling violent behavior. But, you say, it is entirely possible just to seethe inside, with no venting of anger through audible words. Yes, but then we speak inflammatory words to ourselves. When James refers to the tongue, he is thinking generally of the role that words play in our conduct and character. If we can control our words, whether silent or spoken, we can control the whole body.

When angry feelings surface, we must think and speak words of forgiveness. What helps us forgive? To remember that God has forgiven us, who are sinners as bad as any in God’s eyes. When lustful feelings invade the mind, we must think and speak words of duty to God and of compassion for anyone our lust could victimize. We must persuade ourselves against any wrongdoing, just as Joseph did when he was tempted by Potiphar’s wife (Gen. 39:8, 9). When fearful feelings paralyze us, we must think and speak words of courage and of trust in God.

Just as we can put down every sin by well-chosen words, so we can use words, whether silent or spoken, to stir up every good deed. Words of compassion for the needy will produce charity. Words of love for our brothers will provoke us to encourage them, comfort them, and show hospitality. Words of indignation for injustice will motivate us to exercise our Constitutional powers as a free people to stop abuses in society, such as abortion. Words of concern for the lost will arouse us to support evangelism.

The evil in boasting

Yet the power of the tongue is too often employed for the wrong purposes. It is indeed a small member, but because it has the ability to speak, it can serve as a powerful tool of sin. What sin in particular does it make easier and more damaging? The tongue is no less than the chief instrument of pride (v. 5). There is no ambition or pretense or conceit that the tongue cannot express through boasting. Much of what people say is to lift up self, and often the means chosen to accomplish this goal is to put others down, perhaps in ways that do them incalculable harm. The Nazis bolstered their claim of racial superiority by denouncing the Jews and others as worthy of destruction. Although the boasting we encounter in our daily lives may not be so vicious, it still has the usual effect of hurting or demeaning other people. Then what do they do? They often fight back. Thus, James compares the tongue to a little fire, or even a spark, cast into a dry stack of lumber or into a dry forest ("matter" can refer to either). The matter ignites and the fire spreads until it becomes a great conflagration, reducing the whole to ashes and ruin.

The tongue as a fire

Having shown that the tongue is like a fire in this sense, James is ready to bring his indictment of the tongue to a climax with two stinging charges (v. 6a). First, he makes his point explicit. He says that the tongue is indeed a fire. Then he draws another comparison. The tongue is also a world of iniquity. In other words, although the tongue is a small member, there is nothing in the vast realm of evil that it cannot reproduce in some measure.

The effect of evil words is to defile the whole body (v. 6b), just as Jesus also taught (Matt. 15:16–20). The meaning is that a man who sins with his mouth is, in God’s eyes, a sinner through and through, for what a man says shows the character of his heart. No word appears on the tongue that the heart has not conceived. A man’s words are generally a clear window to his inner being, even the very depths of his soul.

Yet the damage a tongue can do is not limited to its own body. Returning to the image of fire, James says that the tongue can inflame the very course of nature (v. 6c). Literally in the Greek, the phrase is, "the wheel of nature." By "nature" he means the whole complex of events that make up the history of the world. In his choice of the word "wheel" we see that he is thinking of history as a machine that is moving ever onward. He is conveying the idea that one little tongue can kindle a blaze so destructive that it causes history to take an evil turn. How many horrendous wars have issued from the cruel commands of a single demonic tyrant?

James now furnishes another reason why he equates the tongue to fire. The reason already evident is that both are destructive. But the reason he gives now is that when the tongue speaks wickedly, it is doing the bidding of hell, here used as a figure of speech to represent Satan and all his hosts (v. 6d). The tongue is fire because the source of its wickedness is hell fire, or, as James says, "It is set on fire of hell"; that is, "by" hell. He is trying to instill in his readers a realization that whenever they let their tongues go out of control, they are joining Satan’s rebellion against God and allowing him to accomplish his purposes through their mouths. Indeed, they might even be speaking under the direct influence of Satan or one of his cohorts. Remember what Jesus said to Peter when Peter rebuked Jesus’ announcement that He would be killed in Jerusalem (Matt. 16:23)? If Peter could become a puppet of Satan, we are also at risk of serving as Satan’s mouthpiece if we speak hastily from a proud heart.

"Hell" in the original is Gehenna, which refers to the Valley of Hinnom outside Jerusalem, whither all the refuse of the city was carted and burned. When people within the city walls looked in the direction of this garbage dump, they saw perpetual flames ascending on the horizon. The fires were never quenched. No doubt for this reason Gehenna was the name Jesus often used for the eternal lake of fire (Matt. 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5).


1. Have I tried to fill a teaching role that God has not gifted and called me to fill?

I must quickly add that I do not wish to discourage anyone from teaching simply because they lack self-confidence. I merely wish to urge a sober examination of God’s true calling in your life. How can you know if He wants you to teach? You must first consider whether you have or can acquire the necessary Bible knowledge, spiritual maturity, and speaking skill. You must consider also what your spiritual leaders think and what the people who hear you think. Another test is whether God blesses your efforts with spiritual fruit. Last but hardly least, you must have an inner assurance of what God wants. It is perfectly natural to have doubts about your ability. If all the other signs of God’s will point to a teaching role, pay no attention to doubts. They merely show a desirable humility that will increase your dependence on God’s help. Humility is never a disqualification from a role in serving God.

2. Am I doing the kinds of teaching that do not require a special gifting or call?

You are conducting a vital teaching ministry if you are instructing children under your authority, giving counsel to younger people in the church, or witnessing to the lost.

3. Am I teachable?

If you are under someone’s authority, do you heed his or her instruction? If you are younger, do you prize and seek the wisdom of older saints? In our society, respect for the wisdom of older people has all but vanished. But do not play the fool by supposing that there is no advantage in experience (Lev. 19:32).

4. Do I understand that control of my tongue is the secret to moral victory in my life?

Do you check your thoughts if they are going in a bad direction? Do you consciously cultivate a thought life centered on praising God and designing good deeds for others? Do you monitor your words before you speak and squelch those you would be ashamed to hear on the Day of Judgment? Do you make an effort to say things that are constructive and encouraging?

5. Do I ever fall into the trap of abusive speech?

Remember that abusive speech can destroy a home by ripping apart the fabric of family love. It can even destroy a life if it causes the targeted person to plunge into suicidal despair. One great evil in abusive speech is that you cannot take it back. If you tell someone that he is worthless, how can you truly apologize? You can say that you did not mean it, but your attempts at erasing your previous outburst will not be very convincing. What you said first will be remembered as the true expression of your heart and mind.

6. Have I ever, like Peter, served as Satan’s mouthpiece?

Perhaps you have heard someone in a rage or in a fit of abusive speech make statements that would never have occurred to him in his right mind, or even make statements exceeding his own knowledge? Where did that extra dimension of malice or knowledge come from? Doubtless from demonic influence. Paul warns that losing your temper puts you at risk of becoming a tool of Satan (Eph. 4:¬26–27).

Study Questions

  1. What is always the right context for discipline?
  2. Why should someone be careful before entering a teacher’s role?
  3. What responsibilities do we all have as teachers?
  4. What problem is universal among teachers?
  5. In what two ways does James illustrate the power of the tongue?
  6. What does James likely mean when he talks about the tongue as an unruly member?
  7. What sin in particular does the tongue make easier and more damaging?
  8. To what especially does James compare the tongue when used wickedly?
  9. To what else does he compare a wicked tongue?
  10. What evil effect does someone suffer who misuses his tongue?
  11. The tongue can do damage on a scale how large?
  12. An unruly tongue can become the instrument of what forces?

Further Reading

If you have found this lesson helpful, you might want to obtain Ed Rickard's commentary on the whole Epistle of James. For a brief description and for information on how to obtain it, click here.