Taming The Tongue


“…but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (Jas. 3:8).

We see with the writer James and with the Israelites in general, that they have a way of getting down to the essence of things in a hurry.  There is little tolerance for guile in their speech or thinking.  This must be the hallmark of true Israelites.  In John 1:47, when Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him he said of him, “…Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile (KJV).” Nathanael was apparently a man who had gained great control of his tongue.  Jesus was impressed with this, and Nathanael became his disciple.

James points out that the tongue is a little fellow but it can cause a world of harm.  It can also bring about a world of good.   Let us look at this little member of the body from the negative and also from the positive points of view.


In listing tongue abuses, we need to place guile right up at the top, along with its close companion, deceit.  Both guile and deceit are forms of slyness in dealing with others.  A person accomplished in guile is able to let someone believe a total lie without actually telling him a lie.  Thus, it is a very sophisticated form of lying.

Guile certainly takes a toll, mentally, emotionally and spiritually upon all those who are deceived by it.  Strangely, it also takes a toll upon the one who is perpetrating it. In Psalm 34:12-13 the Bible has something to say about this: “Whoever of you loves life and desires to see many good days, keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking lies” (Psa.  34:12-13). Lying or guile, in some way unknown to us, places a spiritual and emotional strain upon our minds and bodies and actually shortens our lives.

After the sin of guile there comes the matter of sowing discord. This is particularly grievous to God when the discord is sown among brethren.  In Proverbs 6:19, sowing discord is listed as one of the seven things that the Lord hates most.  The Body of Christ is like a finely tuned instrument.  With just one string out of tune in such an instrument the beautiful harmony of all the other strings is spoiled. So it is in the Church.  In the Book of Acts, all God’s people were together in one accord (Acts 4:32), and God was able to do great things through them.

There are many obvious abuses of the tongue that we think of.  These include foul speech, cursing, false swearing and dirty stories.  All such speech destroys and tears down.   The Bible says that we should be careful to edify or build up one another with our speech
(Eph. 4:29).

In our listing of tongue abuses we do not want to forget gossip and slander.  With these abuses the Bible warns us saying: “Do not go about spreading slander among your people” (Lev.19:16).  Why do we do such things?  We do them because we have a basic insecurity and lack of faith.  We do not have faith to believe that God can elevate us to our proper position in life.  We feel that by assassinating the character of another person it will elevate us in the eyes of the hearer.  Actually it has the reverse effect.  People secretly despise us for relating those juicy tidbits of gossip and slander.

Then there is the sin of flattery, which is an almost opposite sin to slander.  If Satan cannot get us one way he will surely try something just the opposite.  Again, flattery like virtually every kind of sin is a lack of faith in God.   We are afraid to tell people the real truth for fear that they will think less of us, so we “butter them up” with our tongue.  Little do we know that flattery can never accomplish our desired effect.  The Bible  declares, “He who rebukes a man will in the end gain more favor than he who has a flattering tongue” (Prov. 28:23).  We need a holy boldness to tell people what they need to hear and to tell it to them in love.  They will respect us more for doing so.

So often we choose the seemingly easy road of flattery, when we ought to be rebuking those close to us, even our fellow Christians and neighbors.   The Bible tells us to rebuke and exhort as the need arises (2 Tim. 4:2), and that if we fail to do so, we actually share in the guilt of the one who is sinning (Lev. 19:17; Ezek. 3:18).

There are the sins of complaining, murmuring, “poor mouthing,” and negative talking.   These are serious sins.  In fact, it was precisely these sins that got the Children of Israel an extra forty years of wandering in the wilderness (1 Cor. 10:10).  These sins, above all others, are likely to cause us to miss the divine opportunities set before us.  It seems that when our surrounding angels begin to hear such things, that they break camp and return in dismay to their Heavenly Father.  We are left empty and defenseless and without the blessings that they were bringing.

Our tongues can also offend with threats, outbursts of anger, malicious and abusive language. The world is full of such speech, but this kind of speaking abounds in transgression (Prov. 29:22).  Saints of God, these things ought not to be among God’s elect.   The apostle instructs us: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Eph. 4:32).

Will the list of tongue abuses never end?  We cannot omit outright lying. Little “white” lies seem so necessary at certain difficult times in our lives.  Yet, the Word of God tells us: “Truthful lips endure forever, but a lying tongue lasts only a moment” (Prov. 12:19).  We also do not want to omit, arguing, proud boasting, foolish talking and jesting (Eph. 5:4).  The sensitive Holy Spirit within us will let us know when we are guilty of such offenses.

Perhaps we will end this incomplete list with one of the most prevalent tongue abuses – that of talking too much.  Every church member can probably think of one such person. Surely every pastor has at least one “telephone hog” in his congregation.  This person monopolizes the pastor’s time and subtly steals valuable hours from his ministry.  Also in the modern church there are more and more people who just seem to talk incessantly – mostly about themselves – with words, words, words!  The Bible tells us: “When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise” (Prov. 10:19).  In 1 Thessalonians 4:11, the scripture even exhorts us to be quiet.

All these things make up the battle of the tongue.  In James 1:26 the author tells us that if we lose this battle, we lose everything.  He says: “If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion
is worthless.”


While there are many abuses and evils brought forth by a tongue out of control, there are many blessings of a tongue that is disciplined, wholesome, and tamed.  While it is true that no man can tame the tongue, the Lord can certainly tame it – that is, if we allow him
to do so.

The tamed tongue is a witness.  God said to Israel, “You are my witnesses…” (Isa. 43:10).  We, like Israel, are to be witnesses of God’s saving acts both past and present.  So important is this matter of witness, that the New Testament seems almost to list it as one of the requirements for salvation (Rom. 10:9).

We are not only witnesses of God’s saving acts, but we are witnesses to truth and righteousness in the earth.   In Bible times a person could live or die based upon the testimony of two witnesses (Deut.  17:6). Those were the days before polygraph tests, fingerprinting, etc.  A lot depended upon those who actually saw the transgression, and their witness had to be true.

Along the line of testimony, a witness could also defend the cause of the widow, the fatherless, the oppressed, and those condemned to prison and death.  In our age some six million Jewish people were led off to prison and death while millions of “Christians” looked on without saying a word to deliver them.  God has this to say of such action: “Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter.  If you say, ‘But we knew nothing about this,’ does not he who weighs the heart perceive it?

Does not he who guards your life know it?  Will he not repay each person according to what he has done?” (Prov. 24:11-12).  How strange it is, that in all the ways the tongue can speak sinfully, it is also a sin to say nothing at all.

The tongue can bring cheer, consolation, encouragement, hope, love, and blessing.  What a beautiful thing is the gracious tongue.  In Proverbs 25:11, the writer says, “A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.”

Also, the tongue can be filled with praise to God in word and song.   We are told in scripture to let the praise of God be continually in our mouths (Psa. 34:1). In Psalm 98:1, we are told to sing unto the Lord a new song.

The tongue can pray and intercede for others and for God’s purposes on earth.  In the Lord’s Prayer we are taught to say, “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10).  Daniel prayed for Israel’s restoration for he knew it was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah.  He prayed until he got an answer and primarily as a result of his prayer the seventy year captivity in Babylon was ended (Dan. 9:3-27).

The tongue can talk to God.  This is no doubt the highest use of the mortal tongue.  God walked and talked to Adam before the fall, he talked to Abraham and to the prophets.  All through the Hebrew Bible we see this phrase, “va-yo-mer Elohim” (and God said).  The God we serve is unlike the idols commonly worshipped in the earth.  He is a God who talks to his people, and they are able to talk to him.

O for a tongue of wisdom – a disciplined tongue, one that can converse freely with the Father and praise him continually!  Such a tongue is literally a tree of life to all those within hearing (Prov. 15:4).  Could we say with Psalm 17:3: “Though you probe my heart and examine me at night, though you test me, you will find nothing; I have resolved that my mouth will not sin.”

In James 3:2, we are told that when we get control of the tongue we have virtually gotten control of everything and have come to maturity: “We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check.”            

                                                                                                      – Jim Gerrish

This updated article is presented courtesy of Bridges For Peace, Jerusalem.  Original publication date, 1992.

Picture Credit: Wikimedia Commons: by Gideon Tsang, USA, 2005