Why Restrain the Tongue?
OF THE written word, it has often been said, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” The spoken word can likewise have a powerful impact on others. Wholesome speech can be a strong force for good. But an unrestrained tongue can bring about tremendous damage.
The Bible proverb certainly proves true: “The calmness of the tongue is a tree of life, but distortion in it means a breaking down in the spirit.” (Prov. 15:4) A wise person’s calm speech can help his listeners to avoid a course leading to death. Twisted speech, on the other hand, brings trouble and discouragement, injuring and disheartening the hearers.
Since the tongue can have such a powerful effect either for good or for bad, perfect control of the tongue would naturally be desirable. For imperfect humans, however, that is an impossibility. The disciple James made this acknowledgment: “We all stumble many times. If anyone does not stumble in word, this one is a perfect man, able to bridle also his whole body. . . . For every species of wild beast as well as bird and creeping thing and sea creature is to be tamed and has been tamed by humankind. But the tongue, not one of mankind can get it tamed.”—Jas. 3:2, 7, 8.
Does this mean that we should not even try to control our tongue? No. Restraining the tongue may be very hard. But this does not excuse our misusing it. Note what the disciple James continues on to write: “An unruly injurious thing, [the tongue] is full of death-dealing poison. With it we bless Jehovah, even the Father, and yet with it we curse men who have come into existence ‘in the likeness of God.’ Out of the same mouth come forth blessing and cursing. It is not proper, my brothers, for these things to go on occurring this way.”—Jas. 3:8-10.
It goes against the natural sense of fitness when the organ that blesses God is used to revile and defame those whom he loves—humans made in his image. While some may excuse it as simply ‘letting off steam,’ to think that such use of the tongue could ever be proper is absurd. It is just as irrational as it would be to expect a spring to bubble forth both sweet water and bitter, or for one plant or tree variety to bear the fruit of an entirely different variety. The disciple James fittingly asked: “A fountain does not cause the sweet and the bitter to bubble out of the same opening, does it? My brothers, a fig tree cannot produce olives or a vine figs’ can it?”—Jas. 3:11, 12.
Besides, through wrong use of the tongue a person can injure himself permanently. The disciple James highlighted this point. After likening the effects from misuse of the tongue to a small fire that can set an extensive woodland aflame, James stated: “The tongue is constituted a world of unrighteousness among our members, for it spots up all the body and sets the wheel of natural life aflame and it is set aflame by Gehenna.”—Jas. 3:5, 6.
The tongue can indeed be a “world of unrighteousness.” Think of all the combined mass of evil it can cause through scandal, slander, false testimony, misrepresentation, deceptive propaganda and false teaching. The person who misuses his tongue “spots up” his entire body. His speech betrays what he is inside as a person. The man repeatedly caught in lying, for example, is generally viewed as having a moral defect or spot. Unlike the man whose word can be depended upon and whose speech is wholesome, he simply cannot gain the respect of others.
But what is meant by the unbridled tongue’s ‘setting the wheel of natural life aflame’? In the original language (Greek) the expression “wheel of natural life” literally is “wheel of the birth.” It may well be that James had in mind a wooden wheel, such as that on a chariot, which could be set on fire by a hot, smoking axle. Similarly, the tongue can set aflame the entire round of a person’s life into which he came by birth. The fact that the unrestrained tongue is spoken of as being “set aflame by Gehenna” may call attention to its power to cause destructive results. Or, it may mean that misuse of the tongue can so affect the whole round of life into which a person comes by birth that he could reach the point of meriting the judgment of Gehenna.
Jesus Christ made it clear that wrong use of the tongue could bring such a serious consequence. He said: “Whoever says [to his brother], ‘You despicable fool!’ will be liable to the fiery Gehenna.” (Matt. 5:22) Yes, one who wrongly judges and condemns his brother as a “despicable fool,” that is, a morally worthless person, would rightly be liable to the judgment of Gehenna. Why? Because by thus condemning his brother, he would be pronouncing that one as deserving the judgment of Gehenna. In his heart, he would be desiring such a terrible judgment for his brother. Thereby he himself would become liable to the adverse judgment he wished for his brother. This possible penalty would harmonize with the stipulation of the Mosaic law requiring that a false witness receive the very same punishment that the accused would have received had he been found guilty.—Deut. 19:17-21.
In view of the lasting harm that can come about through wrong use of the tongue, true Christians certainly have good reason to heed the inspired advice: “Let a rotten saying not proceed out of your mouth, but whatever saying is good for building up as the need may be, that it may impart what is favorable to the hearers. . . . Let all malicious bitterness and anger and wrath and screaming and abusive speech be taken away from you along with all badness.”—Eph. 4:29-31.
How can this be done? The tongue does not speak on its own but is motivated by the heart. As Jesus Christ pointed out: “A good man brings forth good out of the good treasure of his heart, but a wicked man brings forth what is wicked out of his wicked treasure; for out of the heart’s abundance his mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:45) So if we are to restrain our tongue, we must root jealousy and contentiousness from our hearts and continue cultivating genuine love for humans made in God’s image. (Jas. 3:14-16) We must fill our minds with upbuilding things.—Phil. 4:8.
Recognizing the importance of tongue control, we should make it our determination to avoid misusing this organ of speech. If we stumble in word, we should deeply regret it and appeal to God for forgiveness. At the same time we should endeavor to improve in making our hearts a treasure house of good things so that our speech will have an upbuilding effect on others.