Taming The Tongue

The problem of taming or bridling the tongue has been for me a most difficult area in personal sanctification. I remember very distinctly and painfully the occasions when I have offended because of my tongue. I am not so concerned that I have offended others, especially if I had offended them for their good. But I am greatly concerned that I have on many occasions offended God by sinning with my tongue.

James tells us "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 3:2). I am far from perfect, and I have no doubt that no ordinary man can be perfect in this life. Indeed, most of us are far far from perfect. We do offend and sin, and one of the most common way in which we do so is by the tongue, for the tongue cannot easily be tamed. James has rightly observed: "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). Man has tamed practically every thing from fleas, to birds, to crocodiles, to tigers and even to killer whales, but when it comes to the tongue, man has failed miserably. The tongue have for centuries continued to spew out evil and deadly poison.

The tongue makes great boasts. James likens the tongue to the bit in the horse’s mouth and the rudder of a big ship (Jas 3:3-6). A small bit and yet it is used to control a great horse. A small rudder, yet it controls a great ship.

Though the tongue may be small, the effects of its misuse are certainly not inconsequential. Friendships have broken; marriages have turned sour; churches have split; and nations have gone to war because of the tongue. The tongue is capable of some of the worst evils, lying, backbiting, blasphemy, rumour mongering, character assassination, etc. Indeed Solomon in right, is he not: "Death and life are in the power of the tongue" (Prov 18:21a). Few will disagree that one of the most common ways we violate the 6th commandment, is not with the sword, but with our tongue (cf. Matt 5:22).

The tongue can be more dangerous than the pen, for we tend to be more careful what we write because a record remains that can be used against us. But we let our words fly without restrain because we figure we can always deny it if it should get back to us. Indeed, the reason why there were very few heresy trials in the Presbyterian Church of USA in the early part of this century, even though the church was beginning to grow liberal, was because recording devices were not in popular use yet. Yes, if the pen is mightier than the sword, then the tongue is sharper and far more subtle and dangerous than the sword.

If the tongue is so evil as to be the major cause of our sinning against the Lord and against others, what should we do with it? Some of us may be tempted to reach for the scissors in radical application of our Lord’s teaching in Matthew 5:29-30 to excise that which offends. But wait! The tongue is also capable of much good.

The story is told of Xanthus, the Greek philosopher. One day he invited some of his friends over for dinner and asked his servant to get the best things in the market. As the philosopher and his guest sat for dinner, the dishes were served. But one dish after another, nothing was serve but tongues of all sorts and cooked in all ways. Finally the philosopher could not contain himself and questioned his servant on why only tongues were served. The servant replied: "Is not the tongue the best thing in the market, for it is the organ of eloquence, sociability, kindness and worship." The philosopher could not fault his servant, and so challenged him to get the worst things in the market for dinner the next day. The next day again the dishes were served one at a time, fried tongue, boiled tongue, tongue soup, bird tongue, cow tongue. Finally Xanthus lost his patience and called his servant for questioning. The servant said, "Is not the tongue the worst thing in the market, for it is the organ of blasphemy, defamation and lying?" Xanthus learned a very precious lesson that day, which is also taught by James. The tongue is capable of the worst evil and the best good. The tongue cannot be excised for its evil without removing also the good that can come forth. The tongue must be tamed, not removed.

How do we tame our tongue?

Repent and Examine Your Heart.

May I suggest that the first step is to realise that the sin of the tongue is reflective of our heart condition. The Lord teaches us, "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" (Lk 6:45). Similarly James expounds:

"9 Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God. 10 Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be. 11 Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter? 12 Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? either a vine, figs? so can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh" (Jas 3:9-12).

Are you using your tongue to hurt, slander and blaspheme, and doing do without feeling grief or so much as a fluttering conscience. Can you speak evil against another and yet not feel that it is wrong? If so, you must re-examine your foundations, for you may be unregenerate or living a horribly stunted Christian life. The tongue of the regenerate should be subdued and be tamed. You may appear well in all other aspects of your Christian life. You attend worship week after week, you attend fellowship and even have a daily devotion without fail, but if the words that come forth of you are bitterness, hatred and slander, you know that your heart is not right. So James says, "If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man's religion is vain" (Jas 1:26).

Think Before You Speak.

Yes, the sin of the tongue is particularly a problem among those whose heart are not right, but even lest any be mistaken let us realise that even those who have made great advance in personal piety and sanctification do continue to sin with the tongue, so let us resolve with the Psalmist: "I said, I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue: I will keep my mouth with a bridle, while the wicked is before me" (Ps 39:1).

James teaches us "let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak" (Jas 1:19). Solomon the wisest man teaches essentially the same thing: "The heart of the righteous studieth to answer: but the mouth of the wicked poureth out evil things" (Prov 15:28). "Seest thou a man that is hasty in his words? there is more hope of a fool than of him" (Prov 29:20).

But what are you to ponder and think about before you speak? May I suggest 6 simple considerations, each corresponding to the word TONGUE.

True

Is what you are about to say true? One of the most common misuses of the tongue is that of lying. Lying is one of the six sins that our Lord expressly hate (Prov 6:16-17). Remember also that lying need not necessarily take an overt form. That is why the courtroom witness is required to swear to "tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." Few genuine believers will tell overt lies without feeling much guilt, but have you considered that exaggeration and half-truths are lies too? Resolve henceforth to tell only the truth.

Another form of falsehood, which is even more grievous is slander. Slander is equivalent to murder and receives the strongest condemnation of our Lord, "Whoso privily slandereth his neighbour, him will I cut off: him that hath an high look and a proud heart will not I suffer" (Ps 101:5) "He that hideth hatred with lying lips, and he that uttereth a slander, is a fool" (Prov 10:18). Slander is often a result of pride and hatred. Resolve never to slander. The Christian must understand that it is far better to be slandered than to slander.

Ownable

We have noted how, we tend to be more careful when we write because the printed words can we held against us, so we tend to write very carefully to make sure that we are not misunderstood, and that we would not be faulted. But we are much less careful with the tongue because we can pretend we never said what we said, and we presume we can hide behind the curtain of time, being comforted, that we could always claim that those who heard us had heard wrongly. But recognise that although others may not have heard and what you said could be disputed in this life, yet, each word you say is indelibly recorded, and you cannot really deny what you said, for our Lord teaches us: "But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment" (Mt 12:36). Consider before you speak: will you be embarrassed if your words are published against your name? Dare you own up with a clear conscience to having spoken those words? If not speak not those words.

Necessary

Yes what you are about to say is true and you would dare to own up to having spoken them, but are they necessary and profitable? "The tongue of the wise useth knowledge aright: but the mouth of fools poureth out foolishness." (Prov 15:2). "Should a wise man utter vain knowledge, and fill his belly with the east wind? Should he reason with unprofitable talk? or with speeches wherewith he can do no good?" (Job 15:2-3). Many of us are accustomed to unnecessary small talk and many of us talk just for the sake of talking, but let us realise that such idle talking are not only time wasters but sometimes breed sin and unhappiness. Talking about the latest fashion or the latest soccer matches may not be wrong of themselves, but are they profitable.

Gossip

The Palmist describes a believer as "He that backbiteth not with his tongue, nor doeth evil to his neighbour, nor taketh up a reproach against his neighbour" (Ps 15: 3). Is what you are about to say heard from someone? Is it shocking or juicy, but unsubstantiated? Will you repeat the matter? Repeat it not. "He that covereth a transgression seeketh love; but he that repeateth a matter separateth very friends" (Prov 17:9). Gossips always distort. So repeat not a gossip, but rather seek to verify what you hear—if you are in a position to do so (see Deut 13:14).

Unfeigned

Always speak unpretentiously or unfeignedly. To do otherwise is hypocrisy. Our Lord reserved some of His harshest words for the hypocrites when he likened them unto "whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness" (Mt 23:27-28). Consider if what you want to say is calculated to display yourself to be more righteous or better than you really are. If so, say it not. It is far better to allow a neutral or even bad impression of yourself to be known by others than to give others a glorious picture of yourself only to have them discover that all was an illusion. "For he flattereth himself in his own eyes, until his iniquity be found to be hateful" (Ps 36:2)

Similarly, flattery of others is hypocritical and must always be avoided. Flattery does the greatest disservice to others: "A man that flattereth his neighbour spreadeth a net for his feet" (Prov 29:5). So resist all temptation to flatter: "He that rebuketh a man afterwards shall find more favour than he that flattereth with the tongue" (Prov 28:23)

Edifying

Finally, resolve that everything you say tends to edify rather than to destroy. The wicked and the workers of iniquity "whet their tongue like a sword, and bend their bows to shoot their arrows, even bitter words" (Ps 64:3) But the speech of the righteous and workers of righteousness, must "be alway with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man" (Col 4:6). Aim always to edify: "A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver" (Prov 25:11). "The mouth of the righteous speaketh wisdom, and his tongue talketh of judgment" (Ps 37:30)

Conclusion

The Scripture has much to say regarding taming our tongues. Let us therefore endeavour to examine our hearts and repent sincerely of our sins of the tongue, and then study to make improvement in taming your tongue. "Whoso keepeth his mouth and his tongue keepeth his soul from troubles" (Prov 21:23). For the sake of your Christian testimony before the world and for the sake of the unity of the church, bear in mind the T-O-N-G-U-E principle and consider well before you speak. Above all, pray: "Set a watch, O LORD, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips" (Ps 141:3).