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  • Helen Thorne

The Tyranny & the Taming of the Tongue

Talking of the tongue

There’s a wild beast in our mouths - according to James chapter 3. It’s small but deadly. Capable of great good but also great pain. Our tongue can be wonderful, but it is not all it should be.

It’s a part of our body that has a high calling. It’s designed for prayer and praise. At its best it speaks the truth in love. But at its worst there can be angry outbursts; persistent dissent; ugly jealousy; relentless opinions that no-one needs to hear; boasting; gossip; putting people down; the quiet dismissing of other’s needs; passive-aggressive monosyllabic responses – or even the partisan power play that nudges people to jump on the one error in the social media post whilst ignoring all the good it contains.

The occasional outburst may be understandable. In the wake of abuse, words can tumble out for a season as the enormity of the pain experienced begins to sink in. A passionate tone is at times entirely appropriate – faced with a perversion of the gospel or a societal injustice, we’ll want to speak with determination. Jesus did. So did Paul. We don’t need to say everything in hushed tones with no urgency on view. But there’s never an excuse for being known as someone who tears others down. There’s never any merit in being the indiscreet one, the opinionated one or the one whose words are out of control.

The tyranny of the tongue

In the wake of a wayward tongue, great damage can lay:

  • Damage to others. Words cause deep pain. Repeatedly putting someone down won’t embolden them or strengthen them, it will only ever crush them or help them develop an ungodly heart of stone. Flinging our opinions around won’t help others grow, it keeps them in our shadow. Always wanting to win as disagreement will push those around us to inertia, rebellion or despair. No-one thrives when words are harsh.

  • Damage to ourselves. A person with a wayward tongue has no place in leadership. The argumentative, the opinionated, those who pull others down are absolutely not the kind of people who anyone should follow. Leadership – both at home and at church – is for the sacrificial and servant-hearted, the ones willing to give up everything for the good of those around. We disbar ourselves if our tongues let us down. As well as further mar the image of God in us.

  • Damage to the church. A Christian with an untamed tongue is an embarrassment to the gospel and the local church. Christ is not represented well by nit-pickers, grumps, power-seekers or those who avoid using their words to show the depths of their sin and their need for Christ.

And all that bad fruit is out there – plainly in view in many a family, church and social media feed. We end up using our tongues for both praise and panning those around. As James reminds, this should not be (3:10)

We can’t change our tongue. Not by self-control (as anyone who has ever resolved to be more patient can attest). That’s because the problem is not the tongue per se but the heart that drives it from beneath (James 4). The tongue expresses what we want … power, recognition, security, popularity, acknowledgement we’re right … things of the world not the Kingdom. So, what is the antidote?

The taming of the tongue

James 4:6-10 gives us the key. If our tongues are to be tamed, we need to humble ourselves, acknowledge our need, come to God in repentance (grateful for his grace) and spend time deepening our relationship with him. That is, we need to desire to be more like Jesus. Shun the priorities of the world. Recapture a vision for service that no-one sees or commends. Acknowledging not covering our sin. Rejoicing in not assuming forgiveness. Enjoying becoming less so our God can be seen more, as the Spirit works.

There will be a cost to that. We won’t get what we want as often as we did (and that will stick in the throat). We won’t have the power we once had, or the influence power brings. People won’t automatically listen because they’re no longer scared not to. We won’t always win. And, we’ll feel those things deeply. Idols don’t like it when we resolve to let them go.

But, if we genuinely see the beauty of Kingdom living, we’ll try. If we really want our tongues to honour Christ, we’ll ask God to do the heart surgery we do desperately need.

The trustworthy tongue

If we do pursue our tongues being tamed it will have an extraordinary impact on us and those around. As we develop a style of relating that leaves people feeling encouraged; spurred on to love and good works; that’s humble; gentle; quick to repent; eager to praise; determined to pray in all circumstances; willing to speak the truth without forgetting the bit about love we’ll see such wonderful fruit. There will be:

  • Greater dependence on the Lord - as we rely on his will and ways rather than our ability to progress situations through human power or persuasion.

  • Greater relational depth with those around – as we genuinely see each other as co-workers, people we rightly spur on to love and good works with gentle encouragement oozing from our lips.

  • Greater Christlikeness – as we increasingly emulate the Philippians 2 model of sacrificial leadership. Wanting only to serve and work for the good of others and the glory of God.

  • Greater witness – as the watching world is no longer repulsed by petty infighting, power-plays and pompous proclamations in denominations, congregations and family groups but instead can’t help but notice the counter-cultural beauty of true love, kindness and quiet trust.

In case anyone is in any doubt, I don’t claim to have mastered all this yet. My tongue is still very wild in places too! But the call is beautiful. The fruit, sweet. And the path clear. In the strength of the Spirit, we can do this together – let’s seek to tame the tongue. And why not start today? Why not starting by meditating here:

But 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. Peacemakers who sow peace reap a harvest of righteousness. James 3:17-18


Helen Thorne is Director of Training and Resources at Biblical Counselling UK. She formerly worked with the London City Mission. She has written several books and articles. She attends Dundonald Church in Raynes Park, London.



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