There are so many ways your mouth can get you into trouble: lying, bragging, exaggerating, gossiping, cursing, shouting in anger, complaining, flattering, and the list goes on and on. We may have sinful thoughts, but when we turn them into words the sin is taken to a new level. When you vocalize sinful thoughts, blurt out foolish things, or give verbal vent to your rage, it only compounds the sin. God hears and remembers every word you say (and how you say it), and He will judge each one.
James, the man through whom God wrote this letter, was a teacher in the church. He knew the power of words to either wound or heal, to build up or tear down, to clarify or confuse (v.1). James knew the difficulty of “bridling” the tongue (controlling its use, v.2). He even said, “No human being can tame the tongue” (v.8). But we don’t rely on our own strength to control our speech — we have the Holy Spirit to teach us self-control. He gives us increasing power and supernatural wisdom to speak when (and how) we should, and to keep silent when we shouldn’t.
The Bible says that if your tongue in not under the Spirit’s control, that little muscle in your mouth can contain “a world of unrighteousness” and it can be “set on fire by hell” (v.6). Your tongue can do all kinds of damage, but it doesn’t have to (v.3-5). A tiny bit in a horse’s mouth can turn the whole body of that powerful animal — let the Spirit use your tongue to turn someone’s bad day into a good day. A small rudder on a ship can turn it even in high seas and fierce winds — let the Spirit use your tongue to steer a conversation to the gospel. A tiny spark can torch an entire forest — let the Spirit use your tongue to fire others up to do something good!
Your tongue can be used to bless or to curse (v.9), and the difference is where your words are born. Speaking sins are first conceived as thinking sins. Jesus said, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). If we download the wisdom of God (v.17), our words will bless. But if we download “earthly, unspiritual, demonic” wisdom (v.15), our words will be unhelpful and destructive. The source of what you say is the controlling variable (see James’ penetrating questions in v.11-12).
If you bless the Lord and curse your neighbor with the same tongue, you are sending a confusing signal. It’s an issue of credibility: if you tell someone “Jesus saved my soul,” but it’s evident Jesus hasn’t saved your tongue, your testimony is not credible. We have to use our tongues in such a way that we do not leave people guessing about our hearts. Surrender your tongue to the Holy Spirit, and use it to talk about the love of Christ; use it to tell how God has blessed you; use it to share the gospel. And by your speech, give people every reason to believe that what you say about Jesus is true — and no reason not to.
Ephesians 4:29 is a good guide: “Do not let any corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace those who hear.” Warren Wiersbe offers “12 words that can change your life”: please, thank you, I’m sorry, I love you, I’m praying for you. My Dad once led me in “21 words that can change your destiny”: God I am a sinner; I repent; Jesus come into my heart and be my Lord and Savior; Lord I believe.