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Bible heading fail: “Taming the Tongue”

From The Briefing:

When the biblical documents were originally written, the authors didn’t include section headings. The headings that appear in our modern Bibles were added later, by translators and editors. These headings are designed to divide the text into more manageable chunks, and to make it easier for us to look up passages. Although these headings can be helpful, they do have pitfalls. For example, a heading can create a break in the text which prevents us from seeing links between what comes before and after the heading. Even worse, at times, the heading is not an accurate summary of the passage at all; indeed, occasionally the heading implies something opposite to what the passage is saying.

A case in point is James 3:1-12. The heading for this passage in a number of modern versions (NIV, RSV, ESV, CEB) is “Taming the Tongue”. This makes it sound like the passage is all about how Christians can and should bring our speech to the point where it’s firmly under our control. But that’s not what the text says. In fact, it’s the opposite of what the text says. James’ point is this:

No human being can tame the tongue (James 3:8)

This Bible passage is not a recipe for how to reach that blissful state where our speech is tamed and so we can speak freely, knowing that whatever comes out of our lips will by definition be pure and helpful for others. Rather, it’s a warning that, this side of the new creation, we can never reach that state. The tongue’s presence with us is always like a lethal fire (v. 6), a wild animal (v. 7), or a vial of deadly poison (v. 8). In fact, it’s even more potently dangerous than these things. It’s like a bushfire that we can never put out—smoldering away perpetually. It’s like a wild horse that can never be caught or tamed, no matter how hard we try. It’s like a vial of poison without any antidote, bubbling away on the chemistry bench of our hearts, ready to overflow.

Why does James assess our tongues so bleakly? He’s not trying make us despair. He’s not telling us to be resigned to our fate. He’s not urging us to zip our mouths and never speak again. He is, however, warning to be constantly vigilant about the danger inherent in our speech. We can never be complacent about our tongues, because we can never tame them. So we need to keep looking to the “wisdom from above” (v. 17)—grounding ourselves in God’s word through Jesus Christ and enabling that word to transform us from the inside out. We need to pray with the Psalmist that God would set a guard over our mouths (Psalm 141:3). It is the word of God and prayer that will help to counteract and subdue the fire, the wildness, the poison of our tongues, even if that fire will only be completely quenched and the poison completely neutralised at the coming of the Lord.

This is the problem we have with social media. The various forms of social media enable us to communicate and share so many good things with each other; but by the same token they can easily act to amplify and fan into flame the evil inherent in our tongues. By their nature—and due to their business models—social media corporations keep encouraging us to be the reverse of James 1:19, to be “quick to speak” and “slow to listen”. And when we do “speak” in the world of social media, we are speaking not just to one person, but to all our acquaintances at once. Social media, for all its good effects, encourages us to believe the slogan: “publish or perish.” The Bible, however, says the exact opposite: it warns us that the more we publish, the more in danger we are of perishing (James 3:6).

One final, but important, observation: this passage about the dangers of our speech begins with a word of caution concerning teachers.

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, knowing that we will receive a greater judgment (James 3:1).1

The reference to teachers is not accidental. This passage is especially relevant to Christian teachers—those who are occupied with using our tongues to speak God’s word to others. Just as teachers have more opportunities than average to do good through speaking the life-giving word of God to others, so also teachers have more opportunities to do harm through our speech. People will listen to the words of a teacher especially carefully—not just the words we speak in the pulpit or the Bible study or the kids’ lesson, but also the words we speak in personal conversations, in small groups, to our families, and of course online and in social media. They will take our words to heart. Furthermore, because teachers are often skilled wordsmiths, we are open to the temptation to use words that flatter, or that slander, or that employ clever innuendo to cut others to the heart without leaving an obvious trace of verbal violence. “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so” (James 3:10).

So keep asking yourself whether and how, through God’s word and prayer, you are hedging in your dangerous tongue. That is especially important if you are considering becoming a teacher of God’s word—or if you are a teacher already. And if you are not a teacher, please pray for your own teachers, and lovingly hold them to account for the words they speak (and type) in all contexts.


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