A great deal of good, and a great deal of harm, can result from the ways in which we use our tongues. The Word of God tells us that "Death and life are in the power of the tongue" (Prov 18.21). A skilled orator can influence vast numbers of people, sometimes to their disadvantage. On the other hand, the tongue of a believer, when under the control of the indwelling Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6.19), can be used to bring blessing and happiness to many people.
What we say, and the things we talk about most frequently and naturally, reveal what is in our minds and what dominates our thinking, for as a man "thinketh in his heart, so is he" (Prov 23.7), and "out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh" (Mt 12.34). The Holy Spirit led and inspired James to write an intensely practical epistle in which he makes several references to the potential consequences of the ways in which we can use our tongues - 1.19,26; 2.12; 3.1-12; 4.11; 5.12.
In James 3 we are given warning and guidance regarding the use of the tongue. Believers are told that those who teach others the Word of God must teach prayerfully, carefully, and honestly, as enabled and empowered by the Holy Spirit. They will come under severe condemnation if they do not do this, and if what they say and teach is not consistent with their manner of life (v.1).
A tongue under control is evidence of spiritual maturity, and if a believers tongue is controlled by the Holy Spirit then every other aspect of his life will be under the Spirits control (v.2). The tongue is a comparatively small part of the human body but it has great power. James stresses the ways in which a horse is controlled by a small bit placed in its mouth, a large ship is controlled by a small rudder, and a small fire can kindle a large, fierce, uncontrolled blaze (vv.3-5). Men have tamed and controlled all kinds of animals (v.7), but no man can tame the tongue (v.8). However, the tongue can be tamed and controlled by the Holy Spirit. When a believer is living close to God, in submission and obedience to His will as revealed in the Word of God, then the tongue will be used for good, to speak gracious words of blessing, comfort, and edification.
There is a "time to keep silence, and a time to speak" (Eccl 3.7). Knowing when to speak and what to say, and when to remain silent, requires a God-given wisdom. That wisdom is pure, peaceable, gentle, considerate, impartial, and without hypocrisy (James 3.17).
A few words, or sometimes only a facial expression, can ruin another persons reputation and cause great unhappiness and misery in that persons life. The consequences of evil words can be like a rapidly spreading fire, like a fire which has been kindled in hell (v.6). Evil speaking can affect every aspect of an individuals life. A believer can be guilty of inconsistency and duplicity in his speech, using his tongue to bless God, and also to curse men (vv.9-12). Such use of the tongue can damage and hurt those who are the victims of the words spoken and will also adversely affect the speaker himself. On the day of judgment we shall have to give an account of every idle word we have spoken (Mt 12.36).
We are told that we must "not go up and down as a talebearer" (Lev 19.16), or sow "discord among brethren" (Prov 6.19). The tongue can be full of "deadly poison" (James 3.8). We can gossip and poison other peoples minds. We can criticize others and do untold damage. How many children of believers have had their minds poisoned by the conversations they have listened to in their parents home? It is not difficult to understand how such children have, in some cases, lost all interest in spiritual things.
It is so easy to sin by speaking unwisely or telling a lie. We should consider before we speak, and ask ourselves if what we are about to say is true, kind, and necessary, and why we are saying it. Many men of God have used their tongues for sinful purposes. Abraham told Sarah to lie (Gen 12.11-13), and Moses spoke "unadvisedly with his lips" (Ps 106.33). Peter denied his Lord (Mt 26.69-75). Having read of such godly men speaking sinfully, it behoves us to remember the admonition, "Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall" (1 Cor 10.12).
Words of grace and power
The Lord Jesus Christ always spoke graciously (Ps 45.2). He was "full of grace and truth" (Jn 1.14), and always did those things which pleased His Father (Jn 8.29). It was said of Him, "Never man spake like this man" (Jn 7.46). Men "wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth" (Lk 4.22), and there was no "guile found in his mouth when he was reviled, (He) reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not" (1 Pet 2.22,23). The Lord created all things by the word of His power (Ps 33.6-9; Heb 11.3). He spoke and a storm ceased (Mk 4.39); He spoke to an unclean spirit and it came out of a man (Mk 5.8,13); He spoke and a man was raised from death (Jn 11.43,44); and there was a time when He chose not to speak (Mk 15.3).
A believers speech should be always "with grace" (Col 4.6). The things we say and do not say reveal our spiritual condition. If we are to witness effectively to the saving grace of our Lord and Saviour our speech must be wise and gracious. If a believers speech is always gracious then his witness will be consistent and constant. He will be guided by, and be under the control of, the Holy Spirit so that his speech will always be courteous and polite, irrespective of where he is , what he is doing, or to whom he is speaking. A believer should not be guilty of evil speaking (Eph 4.31; Titus 3.2). His speech should be "seasoned with salt" (Col 4.6). Salt is a preservative; it fights against corruption and decay.
Those of us who are, by grace, believers are "the salt of the earth" (Mt 5.13), and we are told, "Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers" (Eph 4.29). If we speak graciously, and if our speech is "seasoned with salt", it will be pure and free from corruption. Paul told believers not to tell lies (Eph 4.25; Col 3.9). Included among the things the Lord hates are "a lying tongue", and "A false witness that speaketh lies" (Prov 6.16-19). Our speech should be characterised by both grace and truth, and we should always speak "the truth in love" (Eph 4.15).
So much valuable time can be wasted in idle, pointless, unwholesome and unprofitable conversation. Such conversation lacks a God-directed purpose, is not in accordance with the will of God, and will not glorify Him. Instead of being a source of blessing and edification to the listeners, such conversation will harm them. Believers need to be gracious and wise and their words should be apt, appropriate, and timely (Prov 15.23). We read in 1 Peter 3.15, "Sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear".
When communicating truths concerning the pre-eminent, all-sufficient Lord Jesus Christ, and the one and only way of salvation by grace through faith in Him (Eph 2.8; Jn 14.6), a believer must speak graciously, wisely, and humbly, and in the power of the Spirit. Then God will be glorified, the Lord Jesus Christ exalted, and the listeners blessed. If people are going to be willing to listen to what a believer says, then the believers life, conduct, and behaviour must be consistent with, and must in no way contradict, the truths he seeks to communicate.
It behoves us, by prayer and submissive meditation on the Word of God, to be taught and strengthened by the Holy Spirit. If we are obedient to His teaching and leading we will go on to spiritual maturity and our thoughts and tongues will be under His control (1 Pet 2.1,2). We need to pray, "Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips" (Ps 141.3), and, "Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer" (Ps 19.14). The Spirit-controlled tongue has such potential for good, for "a word spoken in due season, how good is it!" (Prov 15.23), and, "A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver" (Prov 25.11).