God created humans with the ability to talk. Amazingly, the small organ of the tongue is necessary for the formation of sounds that constitute speech. Without this small and sometimes overlooked part of our physical body, we could not converse with others.
Despite the positive potential of the tongue, the Bible informs us that this small organ is a “restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8). We can use our voices to sing praises to God, build others up with encouraging words, and declare the truth.
Often, though, we use the gift of speech to curse God and others, speak words of hate, spread gossip, and proclaim lies. From a scriptural viewpoint, we could label the tongue a paradox, an organ that gives us the great power of communication but also presents itself as a tool of sin.
Scripture and the Significance of Language
Humans have the capacity for speech. People likely spoke the same language until the time of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). At that time, the people disobeyed God’s command to spread over the earth (Genesis 9:1).
To urge everyone to fill the earth, instead of staying in one spot, He confused their languages (Genesis 11:7-9). Hence, we have various languages today, which are diverse yet often similar.
Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the apostles could speak in “tongues” or languages, which enabled them to speak to the people that day who came from other countries in the world (Acts 2:5-12).
Although many people believe the spiritual gift of speaking in other languages has ended, we can still communicate with one another, express ourselves, and offer praises to the Lord through our speech.
The Potential of the Tongue
In James’ epistle, he extensively discussed the tongue. In one part of his letter, he wrote that “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father” (James 3:9). Throughout the Bible, we can see humans using their speech to glorify God.
For example, David used his gift of music to compose songs of praise to God (Psalms 18 and 40). Even in the last book of the Bible, Revelation, people “from every nation and tribe and people and tongue” stand before the Lamb in worship (Revelation 7:9, BSB).
In addition to using the tongue to praise God, people also use speech to spread the gospel and make disciples. Jesus instructed His followers to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18-20).
The Book of Acts records the disciples speaking to others about the gospel and instructing them in the Way (Acts 2:22-39; 13:15-41). Christ even used a former persecutor, Paul, to proclaim the gospel to Jews and Gentiles alike, including officials and kings (Acts 9:15).
Finally, the words that come from our mouths have the potential to be encouraging. In his epistle to the church at Ephesus, the Apostle Paul wrote these instructive words:
Don’t use foul or abusive language. Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them (Ephesians 4:29, NLT).
Properly used, our words can bring healing and hope.
A World of Evil
Our speech has immense potential in glorifying God, singing praises to Him, talking about the good news of salvation, and encouraging others.
However, Scripture also teaches us that the tongue is “a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell” (James 3:6). Just as a small spark can start a forest fire, so also can a person’s tongue cause a person to sin.
Sadly, the same mouth that offers praises to God is used to hurt others and curse them (James 3:9-10). Because of our sinful nature, we use the gift of speech as an instrument for evil instead of good.
The Apostle James rightly condemns the hypocritical use of our tongues to praise God and curse people. As he passionately wrote, “Surely, my brothers and sisters, this is not right!” (James 3:10, NLT).
He compares the incompatibility of a mouth that praises and curses in the same breath to the contradiction of fresh and saltwater flowing from the same source, a fig tree bearing olives or a grapevine bearing figs (James 3:11-12).
Such examples do not occur in nature and demonstrate the unnatural state of a Christian who spews out curses on their fellow humans while also using their speech to praise God.
Untamable Part of Creation
In addition to being “a world of evil,” the tongue is also untamable. Humans have tamed numerous animals, large and small alike, but the tongue refuses to submit to efforts of control (James 3:7).
Out of all creation, the tongue is the most untamable: “no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8). At first glance, this is a surprising statement, but upon consideration, most of us would recognize the truth of the words.
The tongue might be small, but it can cause a large amount of pain and suffering. Words hurt people emotionally and can remain with them over time. Our words have the power to cause harm, especially if we speak thoughtlessly to others.
We have the choice to speak life or death into people’s lives, and there are consequences for which choice we make. As Proverbs 18:21 reminds us, “The tongue can bring death or life; those who love to talk will reap the consequences” (NLT).
Choosing to speak carelessly causes harm to others but also to ourselves. Jesus warns us that we will give an account for every word we say, even if it is an “idle” or “careless” slip of the tongue (Matthew 12:36-37).
Guarding Our Words
Since we will all continue to struggle with our words because of our sinful nature, believers cannot expect to “tame” their tongues completely. However, the Lord has not left us without assistance.
First, every believer has the Holy Spirit living inside them. He can help us watch our words and develop patience in responding to others (Galatians 5:22).
Also, Scripture includes the example of the psalmist praying and asking: “Set a guard over my mouth, LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips” (Psalm 141:3). We can make the psalmist’s prayer our own as we seek to set a guard over our speech.
Finally, believers must remember that to reign in our words, we also need to focus on our hearts. Jesus specifically connected the words a person speaks with what is in their heart: “For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of” (Luke 6:45). The more unchecked sin that we allow in our hearts, the more our speech will be affected.
In the same chapter where James discusses the paradox of the tongue, he also includes the need to develop godly wisdom.
In contrast to worldly wisdom, “the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere” (James 3:17).
By regularly spending time with God through reading His Word and through prayer, we can develop godly wisdom that equips us to live and speak in a way that glorifies the Lord.
Why Does This Matter?
Communication is a normal part of life. God gave humans the capacity to talk to each other and use their voices to praise and worship Him.
Sadly, sin negatively impacted speech, just like it affects every part of life. People use their words to harm others more than they do to encourage them.
The tongue is a small organ, but it is often uncontrollable and destructive. While we can grow discouraged at the sinful capacity of our speech, we need to remember that we are not alone in our struggle against sin.
The Lord can help us in our fight to guard our speech so we can use our words for good instead of evil.
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Sophia Bricker is a freelance writer who enjoys researching and writing articles on biblical and theological topics. In addition to contributing articles about biblical questions as a contract writer, she has also written for Unlocked devotional. She holds a BA in Ministry, a MA in Ministry, and is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing to develop her writing craft. As someone who is passionate about the Bible and faith in Jesus, her mission is to help others learn about Christ and glorify Him in her writing. When she isn’t busy studying or writing, Sophia enjoys spending time with family, reading, drawing, and gardening.