We read repeatedly in the letter of James that we need to be taming our tongues (Ch. 1:19, 26; 3:2-12). On one level we all agree that this works out to be exactly what James tells us:
1) Accuse God of tempting us (1:13)
2) Show partiality in what we say to people (2:3)
3) Claim to have faith when we do not (2:14-26)
4) Curse people made in the image of God (3:9)
5) Ask God for things that will fulfill our sinful desires (4:3-4)
6) Speak evil against our brothers and sisters (4:11)
7) Boast confidently about what we will do tomorrow (4:13-14)
8) Grumble against our brothers and sisters (5:9)
9) Need to differentiate between when we are lying and when we are being honest (5:12)
1) Boast in what God has done for us, which we cannot do (1:9)
2) Boast in weaknesses (1:10)
3) Bless God (3:9)
4) Choose to mourn and weep rather than be joyful in our pride (4:9)
5) Humbly submit our lives and plans to God (4:15)
6) Always tell the truth so that an oath is not needed (5:12)
7) Pray (5:13)
8) Sing praise (5:14)
9) Ask godly Christians to pray for you (5:15)
So now we have a picture of what taming the tongue both does and doesn’t look like. Firstly, we notice from 9 things God wants us to be using our tongues for that God is not looking for a group of silent monks. Secondly, that there’s a lot of things we really should be keeping our mouths shut about. This is good, but is it sufficient?
James also contrasts two types of wisdom:
Worldly – demonic – wisdom that is bitter, jealous, and selfishly ambitious (3:14-5)
Heavenly wisdom that is pure, peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere (3:17)
We can immediately see that these two types of wisdom are contrasting inner qualities of man. So while James is concerned to tell us about what the evil outworkings look like and what the good outworkings look like he is also interested in drawing our attention to the fact that these outward expressions are a result of inward realities – the types of wisdom we function with in our inner beings.
We know that words are just one way that we express ourselves to each other and that words themselves are neither good nor bad. The real problem lies in our hearts (our inner beings – this includes our thought lives and our feelings). Our private thought lives are where our words come from and we cannot fool ourselves in to thinking that saying the right things while thinking wickedness is somehow approved by God.
On the surface of the issue it’s our tongues that are producing the publicly known bitterness that is within us and so we are told to bridge our tongues. But a closer examination shows us that the true problem lies within and that keeping our mouths shut is merely a patchwork solution for a much greater problem – the problem with a house fire is the fact that there is a fire and not the fact that the smoke alarm is making annoy noises; turning off the smoke alarm does not solve the problem.
We should primarily focus on bridling our tongues by seeking to have our inner beings purified (which is a work of the Spirit) through using the means of grace that God provides for sanctification. We ought also to keep our mouths shut when we have evil things to say, but the real problem is the fact that we have evil things to say and we ought not to ever forget this vital point.