“For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man [mature], able to bridle the entire body as well.”
As John Calvin once said: “I consider looseness with words no less of a defect than looseness of the bowels.” If there is one problem I have with modern Christians, it’s how we use language.
I am not much for conversation: by nature, I have a knack for offending people, and that penchant for offense usually means that I have to work two or three times harder than most when it comes to speaking. That usually means I try my hardest not to talk.
Perhaps that makes me the wrong person to talk about taming the tongue. But then again, next to no one talks about that these days so I suppose someone should, even if it is the kid with the chronic inability to not stick his foot in his mouth.
In an age with an abundance of blogs, podcasts, books, and conferences, you’d think the use of the tongue would be spoken about even a little bit. In my experience, Christians generally don’t talk about sins of the tongue for the same reason we talk about a lot of sinful behaviors: it’s not that big of a deal to us.
Gossip, backbiting, murmuring, slander, smart-alec comments, humor at other people’s expense: they’re just not that big of a deal. As long as you aren’t committing some big sin like fornication or cheating on your taxes or getting drunk, and even that last one’s not that big of a deal these days, a little looseness with words is no big deal.
Well, I don’t hate to be that guy, but it is a big deal. Christians should be those who take the utmost care with their words. We shouldn’t be marked by the kind of flippant, childish, and inane talk that characterizes the world around us. If I may use a controversial but accurate phrase, Christians are above that!
However, don’t take that on my say-so. I want to consider a single verse which God has used to make me think twice about a loose use of the tongue. I’m not perfect at it by any stretch, but I am constantly making the grace-driven effort to be better in this area.
“For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man [mature], able to bridle [control] the entire body as well.” (James 3:2, LSB).
The letter of James is the letter of practical Christianity. It speaks in a pointed, black-and-white, matter-of-fact way that is highly refreshing when compared with most evangelicals today who seem terrified of downplaying grace by actually having the nerve to say: “If you talk the talk, walk the walk!”
One area James does a great job with is the whole area of our words. As Bible commentator Dr. Bob Utley notes:
“Human speech is a recurrent theme of James (cf. James 1:19,26; 2:14; 3:1-12; 4:11,12, 5:12). He deals with it from several different angles in almost every chapter. Speech is part of the image of God in mankind (cf. James 3:9; Gen. 1:26-27). A person’s words, like a person’s works in James 2:14-26; 3:13, truly reveals one’s spiritual orientation (cf. Matt. 12:33-37; 15:18; Luke 6:45). The tongue can be a great blessing when controlled and energized by God, but a terrible, destructive force in the hands of the evil one.” (Emphasis Mine)
James begins his discourse on dialogue with a pointed warning in James 3:1: “Do not, many of you, become teachers, my brothers, knowing that we will receive a stricter judgment.” (LSB)
As an aspiring Bible teacher, that verse rightfully keeps me honest. Those of us who love to teach the Word shouldn’t run too quickly to occupy the office of a teacher. After all, the higher the office, the higher the stakes.
As he speaks to those who would teach, he goes on to note a reality that accompanies those who would speak as much as a teacher ends up doing: those who have the chance to speak the most stand in the most danger of sinning with their tongues.
Now we may read such a verse and think, “Whew. I’m not a teacher so that’s me off the hook!” Well, I wouldn’t shuffle off too quickly. While not every Christian is called to occupy the office of teacher, every Christian has a responsibility to be speaking to other believers with words that, in a sense, teach one another (Ephesians 4:29, 5:4), and in that sense, this warning applies to you just as much as it applies to your pastor or Bible study leader.
Don’t be so quick to open your mouth. “But I tell you that every careless [literally worthless] word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment” (Matthew 12:36, LSB, Emphasis Mine). You’ll be held accountable for what comes out of it!
With that context built up, let’s look at our theme verse once again.
Know Your Weakness
I bristle at the line of reasoning that says “We’re all sinners” and goes on to justify sin. I do so because it is an excuse, not a reason. It’s not too dissimilar to saying “The Devil made me do it” in the hopes of absolving yourself of personal responsibility for things you shouldn’t have done, as well as responsibility for things you should have done and didn’t.
That said, I don’t think that is what James is doing here when he begins by saying, “For we all stumble in many ways.” I think James is reminding us of our proclivity to weakness. The word translated stumble is in the present active indicative in the Greek. You could literally say “For we all keep on stumbling in many ways.”
James is getting us to know our weakness. We’re sinners, so recognize it and deal with it. Far from an admission of defeat because “No one is perfect,” the apostle essentially says, “I know no one is perfect, but that’s no excuse!”
James may seem to be contradicting himself with his next statement: “If anyone does not stumble in what he says…” What looks like a contradiction is once again quite easily solved by noting a small detail in the original language. While the first use of stumble is in the plural, the second use is in the singular. We all sin in many ways, but you don’t get an excuse in this area: “If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man [mature]…” (James 3:2, LSB, Emphasis Mine).
The LSB and other translations go for “perfect” for the Greek word. The CSB translates it as “mature”, and it’s a good choice. Spiritual maturity is oftentimes more measured in what we say and don’t say as opposed to what we do and don’t do. I will return to this theme in our final section.
Note the relationship between maturity in speech and maturity in general: “For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man [mature], able to bridle [control] the entire body as well” (James 3:2, LSB)
Show me your mouth and I’ll pretty quickly figure out how your pursuit of spiritual maturity is going. Someone whose mouth shows no signs of growing up quite possibly doesn’t have a soul that is growing up either. That might be a tough pill to swallow for many, including myself at the front of that line, but we have to do business with James’ words here (A lot of evangelicals don’t believe spiritual maturity is even possible. I would suggest picking up either The Hole in our Holiness by Kevin DeYoung or Holiness by J.C. Ryle for a helpful corrective of that notion).
As Ralph Martin notes in his commentary:
“Although not all sins laid to the account of one person are necessarily the same as those shared by others, all persons have at least one sin in common, namely, the sin of the tongue.” (Word Biblical Commentary, James, 109)
When Christians are prone to sinful speech, either in its content or spirit, it is more often than not a presenting symptom that something far worse is at stake.
“I’m not convinced. This just isn’t that big of a deal. If anything you sound a little triggered with all this.” Shoot the messenger if you will but I think James would probably go apoplectic if he heard that, and I gather that from what follows in James 3:3-12.
James uses three analogies to demonstrate what will happen should you choose to brush aside his warning to watch your mouth. The illustrations are so powerful, I will simply quote him:
“Now if we put the bits into the horses’ mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well” (James 3:3, LSB).
“Look at the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, they are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot wills. So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things” (James 3:4–5a, LSB).
“Behold how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, the very world of unrighteousness; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our existence, and is set on fire by hell. For every kind of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind. But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been 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 fountain pour forth from the same opening fresh and bitter water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Nor can saltwater produce fresh” (James 3:5b-12, LSB).
I’d rather sound a little hot about this than fall foul of this sin, especially when, in all honesty, it’s not that hard to begin dealing with. Does that joke need to be made? Does that comment about that person need to pass your lips? Does this conversation about someone who is not present fall under the category of gossip? Does my use of this word or phrase actually minister grace to the hearer? Please note that the question of profanity and its use by Christians needs a blog post of its own based on Ephesians 4:29 and 5:4.
Am I speaking in such a way as I am commending my Savior? Am I demonstrating self-control by the way I speak or don’t speak? Can people look at me and hear someone who is growing in maturity and Christlikeness? Are my words encouraging others to pursue God’s high calling on our lives?
As Jesus said, “For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart” (Matthew 12:34, LSB). Watch your mouth. Your life depends on it!
For further reading
D. Kofi Adu-Boahen
D. Kofi Adu-Boahen is the Teaching Pastor at Redeemer Bible Fellowship in Medford, OR. He’s been at the church since 2019 and serving as pastor since 2021. Kofi is the host of the Deep Dive Discipleship podcast on The B.A.R. Network and currently pursuing Theological Studies at Log College and Seminary in Sumter, SC. Kofi’s married to Laura and they have one son, Gareth Kwabena.
September 11, 2023
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