In the rural South, where I grew up, if you were about to speak out of turn or to speak negatively about someone, an older adult would usually interrupt you with the reprimand, “Hold your tongue.”
The tongue is a small member of the human body, yet the book of James indicates that disciplining one’s tongue is the key to self-discipline.
To illustrate the power of the tongue, James first compares the tongue to a bit in a horse’s mouth which can turn the whole animal. Then he compares the tongue to a rudder, which can steer a large ship against the wind.
Furthermore, he describes the tongue as a small spark that can set a large forest ablaze: “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell” (Jas 3:6).
Why does James offer such harsh words of warning about the tongue? James says that the tongue has the capacity to praise the Lord and to curse men.
In the wisdom writings of the Old Testament, words are described as vehicles for enlightenment and encouragement. The Proverbs, for example, state that “a word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver” (Prov 25:11).
Yet the Bible also speaks explicitly about sins of the tongue. Examples include lying, gossip and slander.
To lie is to subvert or twist the truth. In the Ten Commandments, we are warned not to “bear false witness.” This is a prohibition against twisting the truth to your advantage. Sometimes lying takes the form of a total fabrication. But much of the time a lie contains many truthful particles. Just enough of the information is altered to avoid our own implication, to implicate another person, or to craftily mislead our listeners.
Another sin of the tongue is gossip. When the Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth about a church’s potential problems, he said, “I fear that there may be quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, factions, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder”(2 Cor 12:21).
Often gossip is defined as spreading a rumor or perpetuating a false story. Actually, to gossip is to unnecessarily tell a story that is hurtful to others, or to tell a story that damages or discredits another person or group of people. Such a story may be true or false.
If you hear that someone is having an affair and you spread the story—whether the story is true or false—you are gossiping. Simply put, gossip is telling what does not need to be told.
A third sin of the tongue is slander. The biblical definition of slander is to give an “evil report.” In Titus 3:2, Paul reminds his young associate “to slander no one.” Much akin to gossip, slander aims to destroy the character of another individual. When slander occurs without the immediate knowledge of the person being slandered, the Bible calls it “backbiting.”
It is no wonder that James wrote such strong words of admonition about the tongue. When this instrument of praise is misused as a tool for lying, gossip or slander, innocent people get hurt.
But, if you can discipline your tongue, you can do a world of good. The next time the temptation arises to speak destructively, be careful to “hold your tongue.”
Barry Howard is senior minister of First Baptist Church in Corbin, Ky.
Pastor at the Wieuca Road Baptist Church in Atlanta. He also serves as a leadership coach and columnist for the Center for Healthy Churches.