“If any man thinketh himself to be religious, while he bridleth not his tongue but deceiveth his heart, this man’s religion is vain.” (James 1:26)
If you have ever ridden a horse, you may remember holding onto two strips of leather, called reins. These reins are attached to a special harness on the horse, called a bridle. The sole purpose of the bridle is to control the horse’s actions. If the rider wishes the animal to turn left, the reins are used to guide the horse in that direction. If the rider wants the animal to stop, the rider pulls back on the reins tightly. This causes the mouthpiece, or, “bit” to be pulled into the horse’s mouth. When this occurs, the horse stops so that the bit moves to a more comfortable position in its mouth.
In our text today, James writes that we as humans are to bridle, or restrain, our own tongue. In James 3:8, he writes that no man can tame the tongue, and states that it is full of restless evil, full of deadly poison. Just as one can not truly tame an animal, only restrain it, so it is with the tongue. Recognizing the power of the tongue, both good and evil, is necessary in learning to control it.
One need only spend a little time in society to hear how loose we have allowed our tongues to become. Profanity, blasphemy, angry words, lies, and gossip can be heard everyday. The tongue is at the mercy of the owner; t has no means of restraining itself anymore than a hammer can stop itself from hitting a nail or a thumb.
James writes in chapter three verse five “So the tongue also is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how much wood is kindled by how small a fire!” Truly, our tongue is among the smallest parts of our bodies, often taken for granted and unappreciated, but powerful. It is merely a muscle consisting of tissue, skin, and blood; a tool given to us by God to aid us in communicating with one another, as well as enabling us to taste and eat. The analogy of starting a fire is a very effective one. When starting a fire, small, thin pieces of wood, called kindling, are used. Once the wood catches fire, the fire consumes the wood quickly, and large pieces of wood can then be added. The same holds true for our words. We do not need a lot of words to inflict great sadness or pain upon someone. All it takes are the right words (or more accurately, the wrong words) being uttered to someone in a spirit of anger and great damage can be done.
In verse six of chapter three James describes the tongue as fire, the world of iniquity, and defiler of the whole body. Truly, the tongue is small in size, but yields great power to do both good and evil.
In Psalm 34:13 the Psalmist warns the reader to keep his/her tongue from evil, and his/her lips from speaking guile. Such wise advice! How many relationships have been damaged by angry, bitter, or cruel words? Have you ever said something in anger, or in a flippant way, and immediately wished you could take the words back? When we do not engage our brains before putting our tongue in gear, we can inflict just as much damage with our words as with our fists, and leave unseen scars on the hearts of those we have hurled our words against.
There is a hymn about this very subject, which states “Angry words! O let them never, from the tongue unbridled slip; may the heart's best impulse ever, check them ere they soil the lip.” How wonderful to have the maturity to consider our words before speaking them! It is a trait that comes naturally to some, but most of us struggle to control our words.
The next verse of the hymn reads “Love is much too pure and holy, Friendship; is too sacred far, For a moment's reckless folly, thus to desolate and mar.” Our words are powerful, capable of great good and great evil. We can have wonderful, loving relationships with friends and family, and in just a moment, say something so unkind, so cruel, that the relationship is forever changed, possibly broken. The last verse of the hymn is equally true “Angry words are lightly spoken, Bit'rest thoughts are rashly stirred, brightest links of life are broken, by a single angry word." How many marriage, family relationships, and friendships have been severed because one or both of the people involved did not control their anger and said unkind things? Perhaps you have experienced this, either by being the one who said something hurtful, or by enduring the hurtful words of another. Regardless of which position was yours, undoubtedly you both felt regret that the situation happened. And while relationships can overcome these situations, unless all involved forgive, it becomes a casualty.
Proverbs 14:29 reads, “He that is slow to anger is of great understanding; But he that is hasty of spirit exalteth folly.” The one who truly understands the power of the spoken word to heal or maim is more likely to consider their words before speaking them. Rarely do we need to speak quickly out of necessity; often we simply wish to be the first to speak and do not consider the importance of what we say. I once heard someone describe another person this way “I think they talk just to hear their head roar.” The phrase basically means that the person speaking has no real purpose in speaking; they have nothing of true importance to say. There are those that seem to want to be heard, but really have nothing worthwhile to say. This is yet another example of when the tongue can get one into trouble. Another quote I appreciate is: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.” Wisdom dictates a discernment of our speech.
Proverbs 15:1 tells us “A soft answer turneth away wrath; But a grievous word stirreth up anger.” I wish I could tell you that I have never stirred up someone else’s anger, but I have. I also wish I could say that I never did it intentionally, but that would also not be true. When people are hurt either physically or emotionally there are two possible responses: silence or retaliation. Learning not to act, or react, is for some a lifelong quest. Others seem to grasp this talent easier than others. They are the ones that do not ignite situations, but rather diffuse them. They are the ones that are called in to settle disputes, rather than engage in them.
Proverbs 15:18 reads “A wrathful man stirreth up contention; But he that is slow to anger appeaseth strife.” Many courts of law today require parties in a lawsuit to attend mediation. Mediation requires an unbiased third party to meet with the parties to try to resolve their issues, thereby avoiding the need for a court hearing. When two people are unable to resolve issues between them or to get along relationship-wise, they often recruit the aid of a third party to help them to work out their issues. The mediator’s role is to act as a “go between,” a disinterested third party who can listen to both parties and help them to come to some sort of agreement about their situation. This requires someone with great patience, objectivity, and above all, a controlled tongue.
Proverbs 29:11 tells us that “A fool uttereth all his anger; But a wise man keepeth it back and stilleth it.” We call this reigning ourselves in, or “holding” or “biting” the tongue. Have you ever become angry and managed to keep from saying anything? I don’t know about you, but for me, it feels impossible to do! The first thing I want to do when I get angry is open my mouth, and that is truly the worse thing that I could do. Ecclesiastes 7:9 warns the reader not to be hasty in anger, and says that anger rests in the bosom of fools. Does that mean that anyone who is angry is foolish? Not always. Jesus became angry and cleared the temple of the moneychangers. They were taking advantage of people, overcharging them and dealing dishonestly with them. His anger was due to the sinful nature of the moneychangers, and He was right to be angry with them. We can read in the Gospels of the many times that Jesus rebuked the Pharisees and scribes for their hypocrisy. Anger of this sort is justified. Unfortunately, mankind rarely is angered by sin, rather anger usually leads to sin.
However, we read in James 5:16 “Confess therefore your sins one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The supplication of a righteous man availeth much in its working.” When we sin against each other, we are to confess that sin, and we are to pray for one another. James tells us that the prayers of the righteous availeth much, or have much power. The power to forgive is ours just as much as it is God’s. We read in Luke 17:3 that we are to “Take heed to yourselves: if thy brother sin, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him.” When we are hurt by the words and actions of others, we must remember that Jesus endured great physical and emotional pain from those who betrayed Him, bore false witness against Him, beat Him, and killed Him. And yet, He prayed for them, telling God that they did not know what they were doing. He looked beyond His pain and saw the pain that we would all endure if we were not able to be reconciled to God through Him. As another hymn says, He could have called 10 thousand angels to rescue Him, but He suffered and died for you and me.
Let us all think about the words that we say and how we say them. Yes there are times when anger is righteous and justified, but mean-spirited, spiteful words are never righteous or justified. In the same amount of time we can inflict much harm rather than help. Let us strive to speak as our Savior did, even as He suffered and died: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Let us pray for one another to be more aware of our words and our tone. Let us speak in love and help one another through this life with encouragement and loving admonishment.