An old Chinese proverb is telling, “The tongue is the sword of a woman, and she never lets it become rusty.” It has often been said that women speak more than men. Most cite the same statistic: women utter an average of 20,000 words each day while men vocalize only 7,000. There are, however, many studies that prove otherwise, showing evidence of a more equal paradigm. David Lazer, a Northern University Professor, used a device known as a “sociometer” to measure social interactions and discovered that it depends greatly on the “interplay between the setting and gender” and that their results varied.
No matter the study, it is evident that men and women have a lot to say. In fact, we probably spend one-fifth of our life talking. This doesn’t account for the multitude of words shared through emails, texts, and handwritten notes. To give you a good perspective on just how much we say, someone suggested that men could develop a small each week and still enjoy a good three-day weekend in solitude. Women, depending on who you ask, could triple and even quadruple that. Mind you, this is considering the lowest accounts of words spoken.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to us that Scripture has a lot to say about our words. Proverbs has a slew of cautions. Consider this short nugget, “Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble” (Pr. 12:23). It also reminds us that “a soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Pr. 15:1). Psalms captured the dangers of the tongue. One asks of God, “Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth, keep watch over the door of my lips” (Ps. 141:3). While the Old Testament is riddled with warnings, commands, and truisms on the tongue, the New Testament is not silent. Paul was particularly helpful. “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29).
Most of what the Bible says when it comes to our speech is rather tough to swallow. Pastor John MacArthur gave a staggering list of adjectives used in Scripture when describing the tongue. Here is his list: “wicked, deceitful, perverse, filthy, corrupt, flattering, slanderous, gossiping, blasphemous, foolish, boasting, complaining, cursing, contentious, sensual, and vile.” You almost need to pause to catch your breath somewhere in the middle! And, “that list is not exhaustive,” he said while finishing.
Scripture is not just abundant with admonition on the tongue, it is abundantly cautious. There is a strong sense of danger when it comes to the words we speak. “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Pr. 18:21). But, maybe the most sobering thing said about our speech came from the mouth of Christ Himself:
“The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:35–37).
When it comes to our words, God speaks. This is where we find ourselves in the third chapter of James. God wants to speak to us about our tongue. The epistle of James, like the whole of Scripture, is rife with truth about our mouth. James mentions our speech at least 10 times, at least once in all five chapters.
In chapter one, he tells us that we should be “slow to speak” (Ja. 1:19) since one who has a worthwhile religion is able to “bridle his tongue” (Ja. 1:26). In chapter two, he repeatedly describes the person with dead faith as one who pays lip service without action (Ja. 2:14-15, 18). Chapter four is cut and dry, “Do not speak evil against one another” (Ja. 4:11) and chapter five tells us not to “swear an oath” but stay true to our words (Ja. 5:12). However, the single most enduring passage in the New Testament on the tongue is found in James 3:1-12. Here, James leads his readers through what we will call, The Trial of Speech.
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.” (Ja. 3:1-12)
Figuratively Speaking Painstaking Words
In most cases, figurative language is easily understood. I’ve never met an adult who took cover under an awning when someone cried out, “It’s raining cats and dogs.” We take this phrase to mean that it is raining heavily. Otherwise, there would be some nasty messes to clean up around town.
James utilizes figurative language as well, but he’s not talking about the weather. He attributes blame to the tongue as if it acted autonomously. This kind of language was common among Jewish literature and thought. They communicated with concrete ideas. Paul, who was also a Jew, said that “their feet are swift to shed blood” (Rom. 3:15). Peter wrote “they have eyes full of adultery” (2 Pet. 2:14). The poetry of the Old Testament employs this device often. “Their tongues are like swords,” which sounds strangely like the origin of the Chinese proverb mentioned earlier (Ps. 18:21).
In James, we read about stumbling with words (Ja. 3:2), bits in the mouth controlling bodies (Ja. 3:3), and a tongue boasting of great things (Ja. 3:5). It sets a forest on fire (Ja. 3:5-6), is a “restless evil, full of deadly poison” (Ja. 3:8), and used to bless and curse others (Ja. 3:10). In other words, “the tongue made me do it.”
My son had a strong tendency to blame his body parts when he was young. When he took the hammer that was off limits, he said his hand made him do it. He forgot his chores because his brain made him forget. He kicked the dog and stomped his foot because, you got it, his foot made him do it. He was Jewish at heart.
Blaming the tongue, however, is James’ way of pointing to something far deeper in a person. I think it is captured best in the words of Jesus, “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person” (Matt. 15:18-10). Think of your tongue like a speaker on an old phonograph. As the record spins, it vibrates the playback stylus causing sound waves to lift into the air. Your tongue is a stylus tracing the grooves of your heart from which your ideas originate. Your heart is the culprit.
A Transformed Heart Produces a Transformed Mouth
As goes the heart, so goes the mouth. This kind of logic permeates the epistle of James. In fact, it is the very foundation from which he reasons, “count it all joy when you meet trials of various kinds” because they prove the validity and maturity of your faith (Ja. 1:2-4, 12). He is saying what Paul eloquently put:
“Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” (2 Cor. 13:5)
Jesus is “the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:1-2). He gives and grows faith in us (Eph. 2:8; Gal. 2:20). Therefore, the “testing of faith” is truly an examination to see if Christ is indeed working in you (Ja. 1:3). In essence, God uses trials to reveal Christ in us and conform us to His likeness.
For this reason, we are to find joy in our trials. “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him” (Ja. 1:12). “Of his own will [God] brought us forth by the word of truth that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures” (Ja. 1:18). So, “let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (Ja. 1:19-20). Unlike unbelievers, we ought to “be doers of the word, not hearers only” (Ja. 1:22) because “the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres” will be blessed by God (Ja. 1:24).
God promised, “I will give them a heart to know that I am the LORD, and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart” (Jer. 24:7). The evidence of a new heart is returning to God with all your heart. This is what we call faith. It is invisible to the eye, but evidenced by our actions. Or, in this case, our speech. A transformed heart produces a transformed mouth.
I wonder, with all the books we are writing with our words, what are people discovering about our heart?