The Untamable Tongue

The tongue as a beast

The overriding purpose of the Epistle of James is to help believers get beyond religious posing—going to church with a clean face and a smile, spouting Christian lingo, promising to pray for everybody and everything—to real spirituality. A central message has been that real spirituality requires control of the tongue. The tongue, as James said in the previous passage, is "a fire, a world of iniquity" (v. 6). It not only defiles the whole body, but sends wickedness to wherever it is heard in the world beyond. The tongue is the chief tool the heart uses to make trouble, the chief weapon that people employ to destroy their families and friendships, the chief source of problems in the church, even the chief cause of evil twists and turns in the course of history.

In the next block of verses, James continues his lament for the tongue when used as an instrument of sin. He calls us to notice how hard it is to tame the tongue. It is harder to manage than a monstrous wild animal (v. 7). He points out that no kind of beast has escaped being subjugated by man. In his list of animals he uses the same categories that we find in the account of creation. He mentions beasts, birds, serpents, and sea creatures. In Genesis 1:26, we read that when God created man, He bestowed upon him dominion over fish (an example of sea creatures), birds, cattle (an example of a land-dwelling beast), and creeping things including serpents. Therefore, in affirming that man has tamed all these creatures, James wants us to see that man’s power over nature has attained the level of dominion intended by God from the beginning. James does not mean that man has made pets out of all these animals, or domesticated them for some economic use. Rather, he means that no kind of animal can prevail against man if man hunts it down, whether to kill it or capture it.

But the little tongue, a hardly significant bit of flesh compared with a lion, for example, has been tamed by "no man" (v. 8). The statement is absolute. No one is perfect in his speech. James is repeating the sober warning given earlier in the chapter, "For in many things we offend all" (v. 2).

The tongue as a source of venom

To enlarge his picture of how wicked the tongue is, James says it is "an unruly evil, full of deadly poison" (v. 8). He has already told us that it is evil and unruly, but now he adds that it is like the fangs of a poisonous snake. The reader should allow James’s words here, as elsewhere in the book, to paint a picture in his mind. He gives us one striking image after another so that we will not only hear the truth as conveyed by words, but also see vivid pictures illustrating the truth. The picture in this verse is a man lunging like a serpent and biting his enemy, using his tongue to inject deadly venom. James is teaching that although hate and anger seldom lead to actual murder, they often lead to deadly violence of another kind—to the use of words that assassinate reputation or demolish self-respect or trash another person’s desire to be loved rather than hated.

Blessing or cursing

Next, James reworks this picture of man’s wickedness by adding some even darker hues (v. 9). The same man who employs the tongue to destroy also uses it to bless God. So, besides being cruel, he is false and deceptive. When it suits him to seem religious, he will intone words that make him look like a saint. But as soon anyone stands in his way or makes him feel the pinch of opposition or criticism, he casts off pious pretense and stands forward in his true character as a vindictive sinner. He takes his tongue out of its velvet sheath, where it could only speak words of blessing, and uses it as a steel sword to slash and strike his enemy with injurious words, words of cursing rather than blessing. Such a man in his essence is a hypocrite. All the evidence needed to convict him of hypocrisy is furnished by his tongue.

But, sad to say, we are so accustomed to bless and curse with the same tongue that we do not see the glaring self-contradiction. If we bless God, how can we curse a man? Man is God’s creature made in God’s image (v. 9). There is consequently so much value inherent in one soul that when we look upon a wicked man, or a man we think is wicked, we should desire only his salvation, preserving his soul from eternal destruction. However wicked a man may be, he is not beyond hope until he dies. When we curse a man, we become, as it were, cheerleaders for the destruction of his soul.

If we use the tongue to curse a fellow believer, our offense is even greater. The person we are targeting is not only made in God’s image; he is also God’s child. Thus, if we feel that he has wronged us, we should have no desire to retaliate with harmful words. Far from it. Our only desire should be that he will repent of his sin and regain the path of God’s blessing. To curse him is a terrible sin, for it puts us in league with the lion who is seeking to devour him (1 Pet. 5:8).

Now James comes down from the heights of generality and makes the necessary application (v. 10). He again addresses his readers as "my brethren." This term introduces love to soften the rebuke that follows: "These things ought not so to be." In other words, fellowship among brethren in Christ should be free from the monstrous kind of hypocrisy that employs the tongue for both blessing and cursing.

Harmony in nature

Such a mixture of uses is so bizarre and inexcusable that even the world of nature witnesses against it. A mere fountain can be depended on to always provide the same kind of water (v. 11). It does not gush sweet water for a while, then bitter water for a while.

When James repeats the same thought in the next verse, he explains the intended contrast (v. 12). He is referring to fresh water and salt water. For a given fountain, either its underground sources have been invaded by brackish water from the sea or they have not. Salty outflow from contaminated springs represents nasty speech from a hateful heart. The imagery is appropriate because salt water is a disappointing find when looking for pure water, good for drinking and other uses that meet human needs. If put to any of these uses, it is harmful in its effects, not helpful. Likewise, just as drinking too much salt water can sicken the body, so listening to evil words can damage the soul.

The world of nature gives many other examples of things consistent in what they produce. Any natural tree, for instance, always bears fruit true to type, an olive tree olives and a fig tree figs. James’s view does not take in horticultural novelties, such as a tree with branches of one kind grafted into the rootstock of another. In the works of God, there is always a harmony between the various parts. The fruit always maintains the identity of the whole plant. So in our speech, our words should always express our identity as children of God. From our mouths should come only words of blessing. Words of cursing should be utterly foreign to our lips.


The self-test in the previous lesson has already covered the evil uses of the tongue, so this self-test will concentrate on the good uses.

1. When someone frustrates me or does me harm, how do I react?

Do you strike back like a snake, delivering venom with your tongue, or do you make your tongue an instrument that returns good for evil? Even under the greatest provocation, the tongue should be a fountain of blessing, not cursing. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you" (Matt. 5:44). Think of the last incident in your life when someone brought you to grief. Did you bless your enemy? Did he hear you bless him? Are you blessing him now in your heart, or are you nurturing bitterness? Bitter thoughts yield bitter words, words which in their essence are curses.

Of course, to have a spirit of blessing and forgiveness when you are hurt does not mean that you must go around all bubbly, with a grin for everybody you meet. To hide emotional pain under a smiley face is not possible unless your emotions are shallow or you are good at putting on a show. But even in the midst of inner suffering, you can let people see that trouble has not destroyed your joy as a heaven-bound child of God (Gal. 5:22), and you can be kind to your enemy. You can even take opportunities to minister to his needs.

Our example is Jesus. At the Last Supper He knew that Judas would go out to betray Him, yet He washed Judas’s feet (John 13:4–5). Later, when Judas led a mob through the dark to arrest Jesus, he identified the man they were seeking by greeting Jesus with a kiss. Jesus responded by calling Judas "friend" (Matt. 26:50). But I do not think for a moment that Jesus spoke the word with a smile on His face. No doubt His face showed grief at Judas’s decision to throw his life away.

To feel hurt by someone is not a sin. The sin is to be hateful.

2. How do I deal with the wounds of life?

The temptation is to cease blessing God with the tongue and to curse Him instead, as Job’s wife prodded him to do after God had allowed tragedy to rain upon his life (Job 2:9). The right response is not to feel mad at God, but to seek God’s help. For any hurt, however painful, there can be healing through the Holy Spirit, whose primary role is to serve as the Comforter in a world that is always placing God’s children in need of comfort (John 15:25–26; 16:6–7).

How does the Spirit help us with the wounds of life? Back when my wife was going through her battle with cancer, I remember sitting one day feeling rather discouraged. Discouragement is a kind of hurt. I reminded myself of the three secrets to gaining comfort through the Holy Spirit.

  1. Surrender. We must say to the Lord, "I will accept without complaint whatever trial you have appointed for me, because I know that your will is best." By saying this, we echo Jesus’ own prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:42).
  2. Faith. We must believe that God’s purpose in everything we endure is to achieve something good (Rom. 8:28). It helps to remind ourselves that someday when we see the good that hardship has wrought, we will thank Him that our lives were governed not by chance, or even by our own preferences, but by His wise plan.
  3. Hope. We must believe that God is a loving Father whose purpose is by no means to make us unhappy. On the contrary, He is helping us to attain real happiness. The full realization awaits our entrance to a better world, but we must always be grateful that even in this world He delights in giving us good things, increasing our joy (Jas. 1:17).

Surrender, faith, and hope are your resources to deal with any hurt, whether the cause is circumstances or people. If it is people, divine comfort through these resources enables you to speak words of blessing rather than cursing.

3. Are words of blessing the normal product of my mouth?

As you go through your day, what do the people around you hear? Do they hear complaining words, belittling words, words driven by selfish desire, words gloomy and hopeless, words of merciless criticism, words that ignore God or even question God, words that seek to escape responsibility, blaming words, slanderous words, nit-picking words, words that justify compromise and obscure what is wrong, vulgar words, words of rejection and disdain? All these verbal expressions of your heart and mind are forms of cursing, since they attack others or attack God Himself.

The alternative is words of blessing. The people in your daily world should hear encouraging words, affectionate words, complimentary words, words praising God, words constructive for solving present problems and hopeful of future remedies, words highlighting the best in others and minimizing the worst, words of willingness to help and work, words of comfort and cheer at moments of trial, words exhorting what is right and warning against what is wrong, words of wise counsel, words of unconditional and unfailing love.

What do people hear from your mouth?

Study Questions

  1. How bad is unbridled use of the tongue?
  2. The tongue is harder to tame than what?
  3. How does Scripture shape James’s view of the natural world?
  4. How great is man’s dominion over nature?
  5. To what does James compare the tongue?
  6. Besides being cruel, what other wickedness marks an unruly tongue?
  7. Why is cursing never right?
  8. How does James show that it is unnatural to combine blessing and cursing?
  9. What then illustrates evil speaking?
  10. What shows that in the works of God, there is always harmony between the various parts?

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.