Control of the tongue is a major problem for most people. Chapter Three of the Epistle of James addresses this issue. Control of the tongue is the indicator of self-control in almost every aspect of Christian life. James states: “My brethren, be not many [teachers], knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation. For in many things we offend all. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body” (Jas. 3:1-2).
James then explains how difficult it is to control the tongue. “Behold, we put bits in the horses’ mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body. Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth” (vv. 3-4). Not so the tongue! Small as it is relative to the size of the human body, it is almost uncontrollable. James wrote: “Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell” (Jas. 3:5-6).
The Bible has much to say about the use of the tongue. Jesus stated this: “A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things. But I say unto you, That every idle word [that spoken without foundation] that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment.
For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned” (Matt. 12:35-37). Strong language indeed! While there is a time to speak, there is also a time to keep silent (Eccl. 3:7). Many people do not seem to understand this. The book of Proverbs tells us: “In the multitude of words there wanteth not sin: but he that refraineth his lips is wise” (Prov. 10:19). The Bible also emphasizes the need to think before speaking. “Seest thou a man that is hasty in his words? there is more hope of a fool than of him” (Prov. 29:20). “The heart of the righteous studieth to answer: but the mouth of the wicked poureth out evil things” (Prov. 15:28).
The tongue is also the indicator of what is in the heart—the thoughts of man. “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh” (Luke 6:45). Consider the following: “He that hath knowledge spareth his words: and a man of understanding is of an excellent spirit” (Prov. 17:27). “Whoso keepeth his mouth and his tongue keepeth his soul from troubles” (Prov. 21:23).
Continuing on the subject of the tongue, James wrote: “For every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind: But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison” (Jas. 3:7-8). Notice what the book of Proverbs states about evil speaking—a result of the lack of self-control. Note in particular the contrast between the wrong and right use of the tongue. “The mouth of a righteous man is a well of life: but violence covereth the mouth of the wicked . . . . The lips of the righteous know what is acceptable: but the mouth of the wicked speaketh [what is perverse]” (Prov. 10:11, 32). “The wicked is snared by the transgression of his lips: but the just shall come out of trouble. . . . There is that speaketh like the piercings of a sword: but the tongue of the wise is health” (Prov.12:13, 18). “The words of a talebearer are as wounds, and they go down into the innermost parts of the belly” (Prov. 18:8). “Death and life are in the power of the tongue: and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof” (Prov. 18:21). “A man that beareth false witness against his neighbour is a maul, and a sword, and a sharp arrow” (Prov. 25:18).
The hypocrisy of many who profess God, while at the same time misusing the tongue, can be clearly seen by what James says in James 3:9-12. “Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be. Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter? Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? either a vine, figs? so can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh.” On the other hand a wise man will manifest wisdom by his mildness and self-control in dealing with others. Keep in mind a word of advice—advice that is extremely important in human relations. “A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger” (Prov. 15:1).
Much of the invectiveness and bitterness evident in the abuse and cursing of others results from a spirit of competition and jealousy. James emphasizes this in James 3:14-16. He states: “But if ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth. This wisdom descendeth not from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish. For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work.” The source of this wrong spirit is human nature and demonic influence. James uses the word “devilish” to show demonic influence—a fact we must all be aware of and guard against. The true Christian spirit is demonstrated in the following verses: “But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace” (vv. 17-18).
It has been stated that the origin of war begins with theft. James, Chapter Four, addresses this matter and points out that theft indeed is the origin of war. Those promoting war generally manufacture excuses in order to convince the public, but the pretext is seldom the reality. James states: “From whence come wars and fightings among you? come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members? Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not. Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts” (Jas. 4:1-3). The suffering and death, as well as the economic price paid to wage war, is gigantic, but there have been few respites from war throughout history. It would be difficult to estimate how many people have needlessly died because of war.
This Epistle of James was written to the twelve tribes scattered abroad (Jas.1:1). During the Old Testament period, God had entered into a “marriage arrangement” with Israel. The nation was promised great national blessings for obedience to His Law. But the people continually disobeyed. God implored them saying: “Turn, O backsliding children, saith the LORD; for I am married unto you . . . ” (Jer. 3:14). But they did not heed and were unfaithful to God by entering into alliances with heathen nations about them. God considered this to be adultery. “And I saw, when for all the causes whereby backsliding Israel committed adultery I had put her away, and given her a bill of divorce . . . “(v. 8).
What is not generally realized is that after the reign of Solomon, ten of the tribes rebelled, broke away from the united kingdom, and started their own nation north of Jerusalem. In 721-718 BC these ten tribes were taken into captivity by the Assyrians and transported out of their land. Historically they vanished from sight, and it is generally unknown what happened to them. There is ample evidence that they eventually migrated to northwestern Europe and England. Today they comprise the democracies of northwestern Europe and the English-speaking peoples. James addressed the descendants of the people with whom God had made a marriage arrangement. James wrote: “Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God” (Jas. 4:4). At the time James wrote this epistle, these people were constantly at war, lusting for land, wealth, and power. They needed to be told how futile this was, and that their entire modus operandi was based on lust.
This Scripture is also applicable to Christians who are called out of the world. To lust for what the world has to offer, and to seek its pleasures is spiritual adultery. The Apostle John stated: “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world” (1 John 2:15-16).
James admonished that one cannot please God if his or her life is motivated by a proud spirit, and is under the influence of the devil (Jas. 4: 5-8). Humility, not pride, is an absolute must for Christians, and that includes not speaking evil of others. An arrogant mind is a mind that is absolutely self-assured in whatever decisions are made, or whatever one may undertake. Such people have no consideration for any possible exigency that may arise.
This is why James writes:
Go to now, ye that say, To day or to morrow we will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain: Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away. For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that. But now ye rejoice in your boastings: all such rejoicing is evil. Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin. (Jas. 4:13-17)
Consider the parable given in Luke 12. When the husbandman saw he had a bumper crop, he did not think of anyone but himself. Any exigency was the furthermost thing from his mind. But what happened when he said, “And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry. But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided” (vv. 19-20)?
Stop and consider how the ungodly think. “The wicked, through the pride of his countenance, will not seek after God: God is not in all his thoughts” (Ps. 10:4). In the parable, the husbandman had no interest in the things of God, and his plan was taken away in an instant. James emphasized the need to be cognizant of God at all times. This is what Christian living is all about. James admonished: “For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that” (Jas. 4:15).
In Chapter Five of James, those who are rich are warned. The acquisition of wealth can be a hindrance to Christian living.
Here is a description of what faces the evil rich:
Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you. Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are motheaten. Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire. Ye have heaped treasure together for the last days. Behold, the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of sabaoth. Ye have lived in pleasure on the earth, and been wanton; ye have nourished your hearts, as in a day of slaughter. Ye have condemned and killed the just; and he doth not resist you. (Jas. 5:1-6)
There is a long history of the abuses perpetrated by the rich upon the poor in this country and around the world. In later years some of these wealthy barons tried to ease their consciences by becoming philanthropists. Their philanthropy could not really erase the abuses that had been heaped upon their laborers in the pursuit of wealth. They will have much to answer for in the Judgment. The lesson for Christians is that they are more likely to be found in the class of the abused. So James warned them not to take matters into their own hands or to seek revenge. What James advised applies right up to the return of Christ. “Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he receive the early and latter rain. Be ye also patient; stablish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh” (Jas.5:7-8). The Apostle Paul also admonished: “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord” (Rom. 12:19).
Likewise, James warned against holding a grudge against a brother in Christ. A root of bitterness can be very difficult to overcome. One must not be bitter toward any who may have offended us. James informs us, “Grudge not one against another, brethren, lest ye be condemned: behold, the judge standeth before the door. Take, my brethren, the prophets, who have spoken in the name of the Lord, for an example of suffering affliction, and of patience. Behold, we count them happy which endure. Ye have heard of the patience of Job, and have seen the end of the Lord; that the Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy” (Jas. 5:9-11). Christians must strive to develop the patience and mercy of God.
Prayer is the most necessary requirement for spiritual growth. Keeping one’s mind on the spiritual things of God is important as well. Praying for the afflicted and sick is another valuable duty of a Christian. Patience may be required before an answer is received. “Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit” (Jas. 5:17-18). The gospels tell us: “Then He [Jesus] spoke a parable to them, that men always ought to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1, NKJV). It is clear the book of James contains many valuable Christian-living examples. As we study God’s Word, Let us not forget what James wrote in James 1:22: “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (NKJV).