Open up and say “Ahhh.” Regardless of the symptoms, a doctor’s examination begins in your mouth. It is one of the best ways to identify your condition. If your tongue is white, you may have a fever. If it is yellow, your digestive system might be troubled. If red, you might have vitamin deficiencies. A blackened tongue might suggest disease. Deviations in your tongue’s appearance is a sign of concern. So physicians turn to the tongue for initial indications of bodily trouble.
In a similar way, James says that you can tell a lot about your spiritual condition by looking at your tongue. Justin Martyr, a second century theologian, said, “By examining the tongue of a patient, physicians find out the diseases of the body; philosophers find out the diseases of the mind; Christians find out the diseases of the soul.” This is the idea behind James 3:1-12. By examining the tongue, we can test the validity and maturity of our faith because a transformed heart produces a transformed mouth.
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. (James 3:2)
Of the twelve verses in which this one resides, there is little good said about the tongue. It is as if James wants to leave a bad taste in our mouths (pun intended). There is, however, a glimmer of hope in this single verse. It contains three truths that, when properly fastened to our heart, can give us the motivation we need to tame the tongue.
Your Inclination to Sin
Athletic coaches are the sages of High School. I remember a proverb colorfully articulated to the basketball team on my account: “Excuses are like butts—everyone has them and they all stink.” It was deep, and humorous. Probably more humorous than deep. I had to hear it again. Everyone has excuses, and everyone’s excuses stink. I was beside myself. The coach had a whoof of my apology, and assured me it was generic and malodorous.
The same could be said about our human habits. They are generic and malodorous in most cases. This is how James positions us. “We all stumble in many ways” (Ja. 3:2). Our stumbling is generic, universal, and undeniably common. It is also stinky. The sage was using hyperbolic language to describe the status quo of teen apologies. James, however, could have used more imputing language.
In our contemporary context, the word “stumble” lends itself to a kind of staggering without a complete fall. We can imagine ourselves accidentally losing our balance, but preventing the plunge. We would say that we slipped, but didn’t fall. Then, we might view James as saying that we have a tendency to unintentionally lose our balance, but not sin. This would be a mistake. James understands stumbling as the motion of falling. Although the consequences of our falling might be prevented, we have fallen nonetheless. In other words, to stumble is to sin—not almost sin.
It is a kind of refurbished use of Paul’s words from Romans 3:23, “all have sinned and [stumbled] short of the glory of God.” Everyone sins and everyone’s sin stinks. Everyone stumbles because stumbling is our natural swagger. King Solomon asked a rhetorical question, “Who can say, ‘I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my sin’?” (Prov. 20:9). The expected response is an emphatic, “No one.” But in case you might wonder, the same king answers, “there is no one who does not sin” (2 Chron. 6:36).
Everyone sins. James includes himself, “we all stumble” (Ja. 3:2, emphasis mine). John Calvin commented that James was encouraging meekness. In light of the “greater strictness” with which teachers are judged (Ja. 3:1), we should be keenly aware of our own inclination to sin. He says, “there is nothing which serves more to moderate extreme rigour than the knowledge of our own infirmity.” We are to do as Paul said in Galatians 6:1:
“Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.”
Before we wage our war on the tongue, we should first recognize our own inclination to sin. For we all sin “in many ways” (Ja. 3:2). This prepositional phrase comes from a single word in the original Greek. Moreover, it is the primary emphasis. The word is like a two-pronged fork. It means “much” in terms of quantity as well as “many” in terms of diversity. Both meanings apply from a theological standpoint. It may be that James intended for us to think in both senses. We don’t just sin, we sin frequently and multifariously. “Remember,” a preacher said, “your tongue is in a wet place, and it can slip easily.”
Have you ever noticed how other sins are generally limited to circumstances and situations? For instance, you cannot steal something beyond reach. Nor can you commit adultery in the midst of responsible company. These kinds of limitations don’t exist with the tongue. This is probably why God caged it behind two layers of reinforced fences—your teeth and mouth.
Is it any surprise that the first expression of sin came from the mouth? When God confronted the first man, Adam sinned by accusing God while simultaneously blaming his wife. It was a double whammy. “This woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate” (Gen. 3:12). Sinful speech is eager to let loose. In fact, Paul described sinful humanity by the works of their tongues:
“Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness” (Rom. 3:13-14).
The point is this: Sinners are inclined to sin. Sin is inclined to speak. This reality ought to position us for waging war on the tongue. By recognizing our disposition to sin with the mouth, we make ourselves more vigilant. Sin is only one breath away. It comes easy and often, so be on high alert.
Your Ability to Mature
With your spiritual senses on high alert, James infuses reinforced hope. “And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man” (Ja. 3:2). In the first-ever animated G.I. Joe motion picture, we were introduced to Sgt. Slaughter. He was nothing short of what his name implies. As soldiers were found irresponsible, they were sent to Slaughter’s bootcamp for reconditioning. Falcon was one of those unfortunate souls.
After thrown out of an airplane and rolling on the snow covered ground, he came face-to-face with the Sarge. “There’s only two ways out of my command,” he said to Falcon, “on your feet like a man, or in a ditty bag, an itty-bitty ditty bag.” Pointing his thumb back to his small group of renegades, he gave a short introduction. “They’re not dependable now, but when I get through with them, what are you going to be?” They stood upright and saluted, “Perfect!”
It’s good to know that under the right circumstances, as well as some brutal discipline, we can be perfect. The “perfect man” in James 3:2 is not the man without sin, but the man who has been put through speech bootcamp. He is a mature man, trained to be a soldier when it comes to the tongue.
In the first chapter of James, he explained how trials are used by God to mature our faith. He said, “the testing of your faith produces steadfastness,” and when steadfastness runs its course, “you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (Ja. 1:3-4). When God drops us into trials, it is like we are dropped into Slaughter’s bootcamp. When God finishes with us, we will be perfect.
I understand James to be establishing hope for a sin-lessened life. We are washed by the word of truth (Ja. 1:8) to become cleaner, but not dirt-free. In my home, we do something most people call “Spring Cleaning,” only we do it far more often. Essentially, we target one room at a time and perform a purification process—throwing old stuff out, wiping down tops, rearranging furniture, and more. Similarly, our lives are like a large house full of filthy rooms. The Spirit of God is the Spring Cleaner. He purifies us room-by-room, making us more perfect and complete.
Someone might object. “If we all continue to stumble, perfection is unattainable.” In one sense, this is correct. We will never have a perfectly clean home until we move into our heavenly one. Some commentators have argued from this perspective, suggesting that James is wagging the carrot before our eyes. If we all stumble, then there is no one who “does not stumble in what he says” (Ja. 3:2). However, this complicates the language following immediately after. John Calvin gives a more consistent interpretation:
“After having said that there is no one who does not sin in many things, he now shows that the disease of evil-speaking is more odious than other sins; for by saying that he who offends not with his tongue is perfect, he intimates that the restraining of the tongue is a great virtue, and one of the chief virtues.”
I can’t tell you how much I like a well-trimmed yard. When my son grew into his small man-body, I reluctantly turned the yard work over to him. He manages to keep it tidy for the most part, but there are usually spots where he forgets to trim, edge, or blow away the dead blades. He isn’t perfect, but he is getting it done. By taming the tongue, or not stumbling in what we say, we prove that we are able to get it done. We are being perfected, matured, complete.
Taming the tongue is not an elusive goal for the Christian. In fact, that is the point of the greater passage, a transformed heart produces a transformed mouth. If it were not possible, then James would not have pointed to the mouth as an indicator of genuine faith. Consider his remark just a few verses later, “No human being can tame the tongue” (Ja. 3:8, emphasis mine). If he meant that the tongue was untamable, he would not have to use “human being” to clarify. Rather, it is what he doesn’t say that makes the point evident. Taming the tongue is impossible with human beings. However, it is possible, even plausible, with God.
The Holy Spirit works in believers to keep evil speech behind bars. In Christ, we have the power to mature. The perfect man is attainable. Maturity is a reality. The tongue can be tamed. We are dispositioned to sin. However, Christ has positioned us not to.
Your Promise to Conquer
As a young boy, few Bible stories captured my interest like David and Goliath. It was so easy to imagine—the tiny underdog versus the giant warrior. “Goliath of Gath” was chosen from among the Philistine camp to single-handedly challenge the best of the Israelites. Scripture describes him this way:
“And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail, and the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of bronze. And he had bronze armor on his legs, and a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders. The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron. And his shield-bearer went before him.” (1 Sam 17:4-7)
Having a “coat of mail” that weighed “five thousand shekels of bronze” is no joke. It must have been fan mail. Lots of fan mail. Whatever the case, you don’t need to know what half of this stuff is on his body to know that he was a goliath (pun intended). He was the Philistine champion, heavy and large, very intimidating.
The story says that Goliath arrogantly stood before the Israelites declaring this challenge, “Kill me, and we all will surrender to you” (1 Sam. 17:9). Appreciate his point. If you can kill the strongest, then you can surely kill the weaker. In other words, take out the big guy and the little guys will tap out.
This is a colorful illustration on which to hang out next point. The man who can tame the tongue is “able also to bridle his whole body” (Ja. 3:2). What Goliath is for the Philistines, the tongue is for the body. If you can tame the tongue, which is the greater member, then you can tame the body, which are the lesser members. The Achilles heel of the body is the tongue. What a game changer!
As the story goes, Goliath’s defeat was nothing short of a miracle. The young boy hurled a small stone from a sling nailing the giant directly between the eyes knocking him out cold. While unconscious, David drew Goliath’s sword from his sleeping body and severed his massive head. He killed the giant and the weaker members surrendered.
Taming the tongue will also require a miracle. It is the work of God. Recognize your inclination to sin and humble yourself before Christ. Pray that He will bridle your tongue as you keep yourself on high alert against its evils.