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Taming the Tongue September 9, 2015

Posted by flashbuzzer in Books, Christianity.
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Here are my thoughts on James 3:1-12.

Summary: James begins by warning his readers that they should not let everyone be a censorious reprover – since censorious reprovers will be judged and condemned by God. He bolsters his argument by noting that all believers sin with their tongues; if anyone could always charitably say what is known to be true, then they would:

  • have made progress in their faith
  • be able to govern all of their actions.

James then asserts that little things can guide great bodies by citing the following examples:

  • a bridle for a horse
  • a rudder for a ship.

Thus, although the tongue is a little part of the body, it can guide it; in particular, the tongue serves pride, just as a small spark kindles much wood. Indeed, the power of the tongue to hurt is very great, as it:

  • infects the whole man with sin and guilt
  • devours and destroys the wheel of human life
  • draws its malice and mischief from the devil.

Now James demonstrates that it is very difficult to check the power of the tongue to hurt. In particular, nothing is so wild in nature that human skill and hard work has not made it serve human use. Yet no man can bridle their own tongues by themselves, as the tongue is:

  • an evil that cannot be controlled
  • as deadly as a venomous beast.

James then observes that the tongue can be used to either bless Christ or to censure others – who have been made after God’s own image. This is an absurd situation; it should be quite different. James concludes by asserting that one cause can give birth to only one sort of thing by citing the following examples:

  • water flowing from a spring
  • fruit from trees.

Thoughts: In this passage, we see that while man has been able to tame various animals, he cannot tame his tongue by himself. Manton offers some insights on this point in his commentary on verses 7 and 8:

The list is long so that he can show how far human skill has reached. Stories abound of how lions have been tamed and used to hunt like dogs or draw a chariot like horses (see Pliny in his Natural History) and about how birds have been tamed and so on…Observe the tractableness of the animals to man, and the disobedience of man to God. Wild animals are tamed, snakes are charmed by our skill, but we are not charmed by all the enticements and allurements of heaven…

The account of lion-taming that Manton furnishes in the above quote is intriguing; if I ever come across a copy of Pliny’s Natural History, I will definitely peruse that account. Now I have never attempted to tame an animal, but I assume that some animals are relatively difficult to tame. In particular, the thought of taming a wild elephant is daunting. How can one capture a wild elephant who is accustomed to:

  • roaming freely through a forest
  • eating fruits, including durian
  • stripping the bark off trees

and train it to perform tasks such as:

  • carrying large logs
  • performing circus skills
  • giving rides to tourists?

Yet James wants us to see that taming the most intractable animal is infinitely easier than taming our tongues. Thus, we must depend on God to battle our inherent tendency to misuse our tongues on a daily basis; if we attempt to do this by our own strength, we will fail.

In verses 9-12, James exhorts believers toward the proper use of their tongues. Manton offers some insights on this point in his commentary on verse 9:

The correct use of the tongue is to bless God…Since God gives the gift of speech, he must have the glory; we owe it to him…Speech, being the most excellent faculty, should be consecrated to divine uses…

James illustrates this point by citing examples from nature, including springs of water and fruit-bearing trees. When I read this passage, I thought, “this analogy is flawed, as the behavior of springs and trees is governed by the basic principles of biology and chemistry; thus, it would be impossible for them to arbitrarily vary the salinity of their output or the types of fruits that they bear, respectively. Humans, though, can choose to use their tongues for praises or curses.” Later, though, I pondered the notion of God designing all things according to His purpose and will. As time has passed, I have experienced the benefits of living according to His will and purpose; while I still often seek to satisfy my own desires, I have repeatedly observed that in the long run, I have found more satisfaction in satisfying God’s desires. Clearly, God desires that each of us live a Purpose Driven Life; in particular, we should view our tongues as an essential component of that life.

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