Taming the Tongue With Lessons Learned from Scripture

By Doug Wilson

from the April 23, 2004 edition of the Moscow-Pullman Daily News

The apostle James tells us that the one who can control his tongue can control anything (Jas. 3:2).  He says in the same verse that we all offend in many ways.  The clear implication is that none of us have full control of our speech -- for if we did, we would not be offending in "many things" the way he describes.  No man can tame his own tongue; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison (v. 8).

This should drive us to the grace of God, which is the only way that wise speech can be manifested in this corrupt world.  Does a man claim insight or wisdom on any subject?  "Let him shew out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom."  If it is not spoken with this kind of meekness, then whatever it is, it cannot be wise in any heavenly sense.

We also learn from James that the tongue is a destructive force in the lives of men.  We learn from Proverbs all the different ways in which this destruction comes.

For one example, "A froward man soweth strife; and a whisperer separateth chief friends"  (Prov. 16:28).

Whenever a crop of strife arises, we know from the word of God that someone has been farming.  We know also from this passage that one of the techniques used in this sowing is that of destructive whispering.  The one who sows discord takes someone aside feigning concern, or something else very spiritual.  No one ever says, "Hello, I am an out-of-control gossip and have come to destroy all your friendships."

If we heed the Scriptures at this point, we see that the separation of friends is commonly associated with the surrounding talk.  Someone has aptly said that it takes two friends to wound you -- one to say something unkind, and the other one to get the word to you right away.

As we labor to learn how to speak the way we ought, we have to take care to learn our lessons from Scripture.  This is because sin is always defined by God and not by our own instincts.  We must always define sins of the tongue according to the Word.  Scripture says that a "talebearer revealeth secrets: but he that is of a faithful spirit concealeth the matter" (Prov. 11:13).  We must take care that we do not absolutize this in a wooden manner, and there are obviously times when another course of action would be required.  But at the same time note the thrust of this proverb.  A faithful spirit is one which conceals things -- covers them right up.  It is not possible to live together in community without discovering things about others that would injurious to their reputations if more widely known.

What are we therefore to do?  We are to be jealous for the reputations of those others, and this means cultivating a zeal for appropriate secrecy.  How much are we to do this?  Well, love covers a multitude of sins.

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