Taming the Tongue

If you were to ask many Christians which book of the Bible is their favorite, many would point to the book of James.  And understandably so–it is full of verses that so aptly capture life.  Many Christians have committed portions of it to memory.  On Valentine’s Day, I was somehow drawn to one of those verses in James with which we so easily identify, namely, James 3:8: “No one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (NRSV).

Now, of course, God can do anything.  But I’ll confess, James 3 is about the only passage in the whole Bible that comes close to being an exception in my theology of sanctification.  If you ask me about Romans 7, I along with the majority of biblical experts would tell you with great confidence that it is not about the inevitability of sin in the life of a believer.  If you ask me about Philippians 3:12, I’ll point to the previous verse to argue that “perfection” in that verse is about resurrection, not about the inevitability of failure.

Yet despite the optimism of the New Testament, despite what I believe is a consistently positive message in the New Testament in relation to temptation (e.g., 1 Cor. 10:13), James 3:2 captures well the inevitability of us messing up with our tongues: “all of us make many mistakes” (NRSV).  The chapter then goes on to mourn our constant human struggle with our mouths.  Who of us does not identify with its words?  How many of us cannot think of a time when our tongue manifested itself as a “restless evil, full of deadly poison”?

Perhaps finances are the number one cause of marital conflict.  Perhaps tensions over children are second.  Perhaps issues relating to sex are third.  But the instrument by which we torture is almost always the tongue.

At various times I have put a 5 minute delay on my email.  Although I am usually quite restrained in person, those who only know me electronically may at times get a different impression.  During some of the tense times of founding the seminary, Russ Gunsalus wisely steered me to put a delay on my Outbox so that I had a little time to think about the effect of my words.

Oh, that we could do this with our tongues!  How many marriages would be saved?  How many relationships retained?  Forgiveness is not easy, nor is it easy for us to see our own faults.  James might just as well have written a chapter on these matters.  If we could even just put a five second delay before our words launched, how many relationships would be spared?

In this light I marvel all the more at Jesus before the high priest.  Even though false witnesses were saying vile things about him, Jesus did not open his mouth (e.g., Mark 14:61).  Silence takes tongue control to the next level of sanctification.  We somehow think we can lash out when we are in the right.  The fact of the matter is, we are almost always at least a little in the wrong, and often we have massive blind spots to how wrong we are.

Can we be silent, even when we are convinced we are in the right?  And not in a condescending way.  Look at me, the martyr.  I will be silent because I am morally superior to you.  The ability of human nature to twist virtue into sinfulness is nothing short of astounding.

Valentine’s Day may not be a Christian holiday, but it is a wonderful day to celebrate the love commandment.  We are not only to love our neighbors, but our enemies.  Indeed, we are to love our families and our spouses!  Do to others what you would have them do to you.  Use your tongue for blessing today and every day.  And leave the cursing in your Deleted folder (and be sure to empty it often… but that is another post).

  • B. Whitesel

    Well said Ken;

    Your insights are poignant on this Valentine’s Day. And, I wonder how much church conflict might be averted if we practiced this in our churches. Conflict resolution in our congregations is sorely needed, but under addressed. When I conducted a 25-year literature review of church leadership books, this was the most underrepresented category. Thank you for reminding us of its critical nature.  

    In addition, I am glad our Wesley Seminary curriculum includes courses on change/conflict management. Your blog post reminds us of their relevance. 

    Again, well said Ken. 

  • Amanda Adams

    Prof. Schenck, i’m to preach on March 13 and my title is “what you talkin’ ’bout, willis?” This expression became popular as a result of the situation comedy “Different Strokes” James 3:2 is my focus verse. This is the confirmation that i’m on track with my scripture for this preaching occasion. Your post is so true for yesterday’s occasion. When our focus is on Christ and His love for us, our tongues will follow suit and speak only love. Using Christ’s example on how He dealt with the inquistitors teaches us many things about thinking before we speak and recognizing when the spoken word should not be uttered. Thank you for the confirmation. 🙂

  • Thank you. I appreciate (and needed) this reminder of how damaging my words can be to others.

  • Amanda, I’ll leave the confirmation of things to the Holy Spirit 😉

    Thanks Bob and Robert!

  • Greg Teegarden

    What a great insight to prayer — It is God that generates the content and character of prayer.

    Who is man to impress his beliefs upon God.

    Great food for thought…

    God Bless