The Tongue and How to Control it


What are you doing Saturday night? Would you like to come to the cinema? How about a meal? Just you and me? When can I see you again? Yes I like you. I can’t stop thinking about you. You are very yummy. I’d like to get to know you better. I love you. I love you with all my heart. I’d like to spend my life with you. Will you marry me? I do….  That was careless. That was thoughtless. That was mean. That was hurtful. But you promised. You did what? The honeymoon is over. Don’t turn your back on me. Look at me when I am speaking to you. I give up. I’m not standing for that. How dare you. You are a…… Get out of my life. I never want to see you again. Good riddance and don’t come back. The power of speech. With the tongue, we can praise God, we can speak God’s Word and we can lead lost people to Jesus Christ. And in virtually the same breath we can tell a lie that ruins a reputation; with the slip of the tongue we can destroy a relationship; in a heated moment a single sentence can break someone’s heart. Once spoken, words cannot be deleted, they cannot be taken back, and sometimes never forgotten.

The ability to articulate fact, express feelings and describe reality through words is one of the most powerful ways we influence others, both for good and ill.  In order to impress on us therefore the importance of self-control in what we say, and to highlight the consequences of our words, God uses six pictures of the tongue: the horses bit, the ships rudder, fire, a poisonous animal, a fountain, and fig tree. They illustrate the incredible power of the tongue.

1. The Power to Direct : The Bit and the Rudder

“Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check. When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go.” (James 3:1-4)

Apparently, James knew some people who thought it would be cool to be Bible teachers.  So he warns them: “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my fellow believers” (James 3:1).

This is because those who teach the Bible face a stricter judgment. Think about it. If a person presumes to teach from the Bible about how to live a godly lifestyle, but swears at their family, or is rude to people, it is incompatible. It is hypocritical. Teachers must lead by example. Then James reminds us, before we get cynical about preachers, that “we all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2). But why do sins of the tongue seem to head the list. Why connect sins of the tongue with sins of “the whole body”? Because control of the tongue is a sign of spiritual maturity.  Because words usually lead to deeds.  During World War II there were posters that read ‘Loose lips sink ships’.  But loose lips also wreck lives. An unguarded comment can so easily lead to a conflict.

My tongue, loosened by alcohol, may say something inappropriate and force the rest of my body to defend itself in a fight.  In selecting the horses bit and the ships rudder James uses two every day illustrations of things small in themselves, which nevertheless exercise great influence. A small bit enables the rider to control a horse, and a small rudder enables the pilot to steer an entire ship. The tongue is one of the smallest parts of the body.

And yet it has the power to accomplish great things or cause untold harm. Both the bit and the rudder must overcome contrary forces. The bit must overcome the wild nature of the horse, and the rudder must fight the winds and currents that would cause a ship wreck.  The human tongue also must overcome contrary forces. To be effective both the bit and the rudder must be under the control of a firm hand. Solomon warned, “The tongue has the power of life and death…” (Prov. 18:21). David prayed.

“Set a guard over my mouth, Lord;  keep watch over the door of my lips. Do not let my heart be drawn to what is evil so that I take part in wicked deeds” (Psalm 141:3-4).

The bit and rudder have the power to direct, which means they affect the lives of others. A runaway horse or a shipwreck can mean injury or death to pedestrians or passengers. The words we speak affect the lives of others. A judge says “Guilty!” or “Not Guilty!” and those words affect the destiny of the prisoner, his family, and his friends. So never underestimate the power of the words you speak or do not speak.  The power to direct: The bit and the rudder.

2. The Power to Destroy: The Fire and the Animal

“Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.  The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” (James 3:5-8)

On the night of 2 September, 1666, a small fire broke out in the premises of a baker’s shop in Pudding Lane, London. It was perhaps started by a simple act of carelessness.
But in the narrow streets of London, where buildings were closely packed, the blaze soon became an inferno. Fanned by an east wind, the fire spread with terrifying speed, feeding on the tar and pitch commonly used to seal houses. Our best account of the Fire comes from the diary of Samuel Pepys, who was Secretary of the Admiralty. He watched the course of the destruction from a safe position across the Thames. He described it as,

“a most malicious bloody flame, as one entire arch of fire… of above a mile long. It made me weep to see it. The churches, houses, and all on fire and flaming at once, and a horrid noise the flames made, and the cracking of houses at their ruin …Over the Thames with one’s face in the wind you were almost burned with a shower of firedrops.”

For four long days and nights helpless citizens stood by and watched their homes and livelihoods go up in flames before the wind died and the fire burnt itself out. The damage? 80% of the city of London was destroyed, including 13,000 houses, 89 churches and 52 Guild Halls.

The spiritual hub of the city, St. Paul’s Cathedral, was nothing but rubble. It was a disaster of unprecedented proportions. Our words can start fires just as terrifying.

“Without wood a fire goes out; without a gossip a quarrel dies down. As charcoal to embers and as wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome person for kindling strife.” (Prov. 26:20-21)

Ever experienced that? Of course you have! A hot head and a hot heart can lead to burning words that later we will regret. David had a temper, and he had to have God’s help in controlling it. No wonder Solomon wrote,

“The one who has knowledge uses words with restraint, and whoever has understanding is even-tempered.” (Proverbs 17:27).

Fire not only burns and destroys, smoke also defiles. When we suffered a small fire outside the vicarage back door recently, the smoke soiled the boiler room. The room  had to be cleaned and redecorated. Fiery words can defile a home, a church, an entire community. Fire burns and hurts, and our words can burn and hurt. One of the sorrows our Lord had to bear when He was here on earth was the way His enemies talked about Him. Because He accepted invitations to dine with people the Pharisees did not like they called Him a “glutton and a drunkard” (Matthew 11:19). When He performed miracles, they said Jesus was in league with Satan. Even when He was dying on the cross, His enemies mocked and insulted him. Fire spreads, and the more fuel you give it, the faster and farther it will spread. The tongue “corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire…” (James 3:6). James suggests that all of life is connected, and therefore, but for the grace of God, we cannot keep things from spreading. For every word in Adolf Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf, 125 lives were lost in World War II. Our own words may not have caused wars or wrecked cities, but they can break hearts and ruin reputations. Colossians 4:

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” (Colossians 4:6).

Not only is the tongue like a fire, but it is also like a dangerous animal. Some animals are poisonous, and some tongues spread poison. The deceptive thing about poison is that it works secretly and slowly, and then kills. How many times has a malicious person injected a bit of poison into your conversation and you didn’t even notice? James reminds us that animals can be tamed; and, for that matter, fire can be tamed. When you tame an animal, you get a worker instead of a destroyer. When you control fire, you generate power. The tongue cannot be tamed humanly, but it can be tamed by God. Your tongue need not be “set on fire by hell” (James 3:6). Like the Apostles at Pentecost, it can be set on fire from heaven! If God lights the fire and controls it, then the tongue can be a powerful means of winning people for Christ and building up his church. The important thing, of course, is what is going on in the heart. That is why Jesus said “For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” (Matthew 12:34). If your heart is filled with hatred, Satan will light the fire. If your heart is filled with love, God will light the fire. The power to direct : The bit and the rudder. The power to destroy : the fire and the animal.

3. The Power to Delight: The Spring & the Tree

“With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers, can a fig-tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.” (James 3:9-12)

Two weeks ago I was in Egypt. The temperature got up to 48 centigrade. That is 118 in old money. And one day I went for a hike through the Wadi Degla – a stunning nature reserve like a miniature Grand Canyon.  We only walked about ten kilometers and I drank more than a litre of water, but by the end, I had a headache. I was dehydrated. Water is life-giving, and our words can be too.

“The words of the mouth are deep waters, but the fountain of wisdom is a rushing stream.” (Proverbs 18:4).

The tongue is also delightful because it is like a tree. In the Middle East, olive trees are vitally important to survival: they help to hold down the soil; they provide shade; and they bear fruit which can be eaten or made into olive oil, soap, shampoo, animal feed, and the wood provides fuel for warmth at night.

And olive trees regrow when cut down. Our words can have the same impact – they can help provide shelter and warmth. They can help feed a hungry soul.  “The lips of the righteous nourish many,” (Proverbs 10:21). Jesus said,

“The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life. (John 6:63). And under his direction, so can our words be.

1. The power to direct.
2. The power to destroy.
3. The power to delight.

Some of us struggle more than others, to control our tongues, but each of us needs to tame ours. Here are five practical steps to help:

1. Be quick to listen and slow to speak

“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry,” (James 1:19)

Abraham Lincoln said, “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt”

2. Bite your tongue more often

” Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. (James 1:26)

3. Refuse to slander other people

”Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another… Don’t grumble against each other, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged.” (James 4:11, 5:9)

4. Speak only what is true

“Above all, my brothers and sisters, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. All you need to say is a simple “Yes” or “No.” (James 5:12)

5. Surrender your tongue to God

”…no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” (James 3:8)

We cannot tame our tongues without God’s help. To help you surrender your tongue to God, let me encourage you with a little speech therapy. Before you speak something that may be questionable, ask yourself these five questions:

Is it true? Is what I’m going to speak the truth? If not, stop.

Is it necessary? There are so many things that we say that are not necessary.

Is it beneficial? Is what I’m going to say going to build someone up or tear them down?

Do I have permission to share it? Before you speak think about what kind of friend you’re being. Finally,

Is my motive pure? Why am I saying this? We all struggle with our tongues. There’s something we can all do about gossip.

Want a definition of gossip? Gossip is when I share with you something about a third person and neither you or I are part of the problem or the solution.

Yes, the tongue may be one of the smallest parts of our body but it is one of the largest troublemakers in all the world. It has

1. The power to direct.
2. The power to destroy.
3. The power to delight.

God can use our tongues to guide others into the way of life, and to sustain them in the trials of life. Give God your tongue each day and He will use yours to be a blessing to others. Lets pray.

Postscript: Ten Principles of Conduct

The following “Ten Principles of Conduct” are drawn from Maxwell’s book. There’s No Such Thing as Business Ethics.

1. If you have a problem with me, come to me (privately).

2. If I have a problem with you, I’ll come to you (privately).

3. If someone has a problem with me and comes to you, send them to me. (I’ll do the same for you.)

4. If someone consistently will not come to me, say, “Let’s go see him together. I am sure he will see us about this.” (I’ll do the same for you.)

5. Be careful how you interpret me – I would rather do that myself. On matters that are unclear, do not feel pressured to interpret my feelings or thoughts. It is easy to misrepresent intentions.

6. I will be careful how I interpret you.

7. If it’s confidential, don’t tell. If you or anyone else comes to me in confidence, I won’t tell, unless (a) the person is going to harm themselves, (b) the person is going to harm someone else, (c) it involves a child who has been physically or sexually abused. I expect the same from you.

8. I do not read unsigned letters or notes.

9. I do not manipulate; I will not be manipulated; do not let others manipulate you. Do not let others try and manipulate me through you.

10. When in doubt, just say it. If I can answer it without misrepresenting something or breaking a confidence, I will.


With grateful thanks to Warren Wersbie for material used in this sermon – taken from James: Be Mature (Scripture Press, 1988) and to Keith Manry, pastor of Belfast & Caneadea United Methodist Churches for his sermon on this passage found on