We must realize that it is perfectly possible to have an appearance of spirituality and yet make no real effort to control our words: “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” (James 1:26). Peter likewise teaches the possibility of bridling the tongue: “For he that will love life, and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips that they speak no guile” (1 Pet. 3:10). And yet straight away we run into a seeming contradiction with James 3:7-10: “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. Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be. Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter? Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? either a vine, figs? so can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh”. James himself appeals in his letter for us to bridle the tongue. But here he seems to say that the tongue is uncontrollable, and “we”- he includes himself- use it to both bless God and curse men. And he goes on to say that this shouldn’t be so, because a good tree brings forth good fruit, i.e. words. Inappropriate words from our mouths indicate that there is something fundamentally wrong with our spirituality. What is the reconciliation of this? I suggest that James, despite being a leading brother, is showing a chink in his own armour, and thereby empowering his message all the more. He is saying that he himself has to admit that “we”, including himself, do sometimes say inappropriate things. The tongue can be bridled, it can be as Peter puts it ‘refrained’. But in practice, no man seems able to totally tame the tongue. And this is why James also says in this very context that we shouldn’t be eager to be teachers, because it is almost inevitable that we will use words wrongly and thereby offend our brother, with all the Biblical implications this carries: “For in many things we offend all. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man” (3:2). James, a teacher in the ecclesia, a Master in Israel, says that “we”, himself included, at times offend others; because “the tongue can no man tame”. And yet it can be bridled, refrained, tamed, just as a horse can be tamed by use of a bridle. Surely what James is saying is this: ‘This matter of the tongue worries me no end. I know I, and all of us, could tame our tongues. It’s vital we do. But inappropriate words do still come out of me, and you. And it worries me, because a good tree doesn’t bear such bad fruit. It seems no man among us can tame his tongue as he ought. Oh wretched men that we are. Me especially, because I’m your teacher, James the brother of Jesus Himself. Yes, let us strive the more earnestly in this matter of bridling the tongue. But who in the end shall deliver us from this bondage of corruption, this seeming inability to live and speak and do and be as we ought to? I thank God, through Jesus Christ our Lord and His saving grace’. Amen.
“Let my words be sweet
Because tomorrow I shall have to eat them”