How to Tame the Tongue

Are you focusing on the wrong organ?

How to Tame the Tongue

Are you focusing on the wrong organ?

Believers today don’t pay much attention to sins of the tongue—gossip, slander, lying, exaggeration. Perhaps it’s because we so mindlessly commit these “respectable sins” that we don’t regard them as seriously as we do sins such as adultery or drunkenness.

Also, let’s admit that bridling the tongue is tough.

When I was a child, my mother read me the storybook “Bambi,” which contained a famous line: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

Nevertheless, I grew up speaking “rashly like the thrusts of a sword” (Proverbs 12:18). When I became a believer, I tried to follow the advice in “Bambi” by cutting back on my cutting words—behavior modification. But I discovered I was focusing on the wrong organ.

I got help from the New Testament writer James, who calls the tongue a fire, a world of iniquity, a restless evil full of deadly poison (James 3:6, 8). That’s serious!

James continues, saying that although many birds and reptiles have been tamed, “no one can tame the tongue” (James 3:8). And James leaves it at that—without a how-to formula!

Then James seems to switch subjects. In 3:13-18, he says that evil behavior comes from “bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart.” This heart-mouth connection sounds like the teaching of his half-brother, Jesus: “For his mouth speaks from that which fills his heart” (Luke 6:45).

Imagine if you will this diagram: A bicycle chain connecting heart and mouth. Our mouth is driven by what preoccupies our heart. Bridling our tongue means dealing with our heart first—not merely avoiding blurting out unkind words.

Years ago a buddy and I launched a sanctification crusade to clean up our speech. We were sick of how our loose lips wounded others and boosted ourselves. I had high hopes for success—I had accountability! On the appointed morning, I rose from bed determined not to say anything bad for a whole day. Minute by painful minute I focused on what I was not supposed to say. But that evening my friend and I sadly admitted failure.

Years later, after many battles with temptation, I discovered what I had missed. James 4:7 stopped me cold: “Submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.”

During my self-sanctification day, I tried to resist the devil, but I failed to first submit to God. The order is important. First submit, then resist. Though we may have momentary victory, any battle with temptation is doomed unless we first submit to God. James gives three benchmarks that check our motives.

Benchmark 1

“Do not speak against [slander] one another, brethren” (James 4:11). The word brethren refers to fellow believers. That’s us! Why do we “speak against” fellow believers? I confess I am prone to slander when I feel insecure. In some morbid way, putting down another person helps me feel better, showing how little I understand God’s love for me.

Today when I am tempted to slander, I pause and ask myself, “Do I feel secure in God’s love today?” That question puts the brakes on the bicycle.

Benchmark 2

“Do not complain, brethren, against one another” (James 5:9). Over the years I have been complimented for not being a complainer. I’m grateful for the commendation—but you should hear what goes on inside.

Years ago I started “now-and-then” journaling. When I feel frustrated, I write my complaints in my quiet time journal, explaining how I feel about certain people or incidents. I end with a one-sentence prayer of surrender. The Lord can handle my ranting. By telling Him, I don’t need to tell others.

This discipline reminds me that God is sovereign over the cause of my complaints—lying politicians, annoying co-workers, late airplanes.

Benchmark 3

“But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath; but your yes is to be yes, and your no, no” (James 5:12). This sounds like Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:34-37: “Make no oath at all, either by heaven … or by earth … but let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no.'”

I used to think this was about cussing, but it’s more than that. The Jews of Jesus’ day could hardly speak without invoking oaths to give their statements credibility. For example: “My camel is the fastest in the land, and if not, may I die without children!”

Similarly today, we “pad up” our statements because we don’t think we have enough personal gravity to simply say yes or no. Some people bolster their words with a “by God,” wordy exaggerations, threats or emotional displays. Padding our words shows that we do not believe God is for us. To apply this, I simply try to give short answers. Too simple? Try it.

To sum up, James says:

  • I can’t tame my tongue (3:1-12)
  • The problem is my heart’s motives (3:13-18)
  • Humble submission brings grace—supernatural enablement to do what I must do (4:7)

Further, three benchmarks check my motives:

  • Slandering (4:11)
  • Complaining (5:9)
  • Padding my words to bolster my sagging ego (5:12)

Where to start? Should we simply keep quiet? Proverbs 17:28 says, “Even a fool, when he keeps silent, is considered wise.” Though keeping silent lessens embarrassment, it prevents you from edifying others or speaking up in the presence of evil.

The chain connecting heart and tongue cannot be broken. For good or bad, it will always be there. But try this: Before you speak, pause and ask, “Why did I almost say that? What is my motive?” Then honestly submit: “Lord, I confess I was about to slander Mary because I am jealous of her good looks. Amen.”

This momentary silence may invite stares from your friends. Simply tell them you are confronting your sins.

“If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless” (James 1:26). This is serious!


Scripture quotations are taken by permission from the New American Standard Bible, ©1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977 The Lockman Foundation, La Habra, Calif.

Scott Morton is International Funding Coach for The Navigators.

Photo: Hongqi Zhang/Alamy Stock Photo

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