These small group studies of James contain outlines, cross-references, Bible study discussion questions, and applications. Visit our library of inductive Bible studies for more in depth inductive studies on this and other books of the Bible you can use in your small group.
James 3:1-12 Inductive Bible Study Questions and Applications – Taming the Tongue
James 3:1-12 Video Bible Study
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James 3:1-12 Bible Study Lesson
I. Warnings about the tongue (1-2)
II. Examples illustrating the power of the tongue (3-6)
III. The tongue cannot be tamed by man (7-12)
I. Warnings about the tongue (1-2)
- Why is James encouraging fewer people to set their hearts on teaching?
- Aren’t we commanded to teach others and pass on our faith?
- Why will a teacher incur stricter judgment?
- What do you think James means by “become teachers”?
- Does this mean you should not want to teach others about the Bible?
- If not, then what can we learn from this?
- Starting in verse 2, James begins discussing the evils of the tongue. In what way is this related to verse 1 on teachers?
- Explain the phrase “If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well.”
- Does this mean that we can really be perfect if we can control our tongue?
John 13:15 – I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.
1 Corinthians 12:27-31 – Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? Now eagerly desire the greater gifts.
Hebrews 5:12 – In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!
Verse by Verse Commentary
1. Not many of you should become teachers – Teaching is a more prominent role than many others in the body. Here “teachers” probably refers to those in an official capacity who have a recognized teaching position in the church. These people are in the spotlight and they have a lot of influence over others. Their words have the power to bring people to the truth or mislead. Often they are admired and respected. This attention can lead to pride. It can also attract people who enjoy being in the spotlight.
We should take verse 1 as a warning to prospective teachers to take their role seriously. It is not about the attention. A lot of responsibility comes with being a teacher. Your words can have great influence on others and can alter the course of their lives.
Teachers will be held accountable for their actions. James says they will face a stricter judgment than the average person. Because they have told others what is right and wrong, they will have no excuse before God. They cannot claim ignorance because God may just play back a voice recording of them teaching others what they claim ignorance about. Having the official capacity of a teacher is serious and one should consider his motives very carefully. One should also be extra careful what he says so that he doesn’t mislead people.
At the same time, God has given every believer a spiritual gift and some have the gift of teaching. If someone has this gift, they should use it, but they should not use it loosely or haphazardly. Before speaking they should prayerfully go over their words and make sure they are in line with Scripture.
Before you give advice to others, make sure it is grounded in Scripture. Before you offer your opinion, make sure it is grounded in Scripture. Before you teach on a difficult topic, make sure that you have studied it and measure you words carefully.
Also, we should not use this as an excuse to be silent and not share the gospel or encourage others to follow the Bible. The Great Commission still applies to all.
Whether you have the gift of teaching or not, every person should pass on the things he has learned about God to others.
Hebrews 5:12 – For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food.
Note what the verse says. The Hebrew believers should be teachers. Every person should grow past the baby stage and learn how to feed themselves and then in turn give food to babies. In like manner, every believer should pass on what they learn to others.
But we should be careful about the words we say. We need to make sure that the gospel we share is the same one as the apostles shared, that the encouragement we give is from God’s Word. If you speak God’s Word you can’t go wrong.
It is perfectly OK to say “I don’t know” when someone asks you a difficult question about the Bible. You don’t have to know every answer to start sharing.
Application: Do share testimonies and Scripture to encourage other believers. Do share the gospel. Don’t be hasty to go on stage, claim a title, or share your opinion on matters you are not ready for.
2. We all stumble – Every person stumbles with the tongue, but teachers even more so. Teachers speak and teach. That is what they do. Because they talk so much they have more opportunities than average to stumble with their words. And incorrect words will have a more negative impact than the average person since more people listen to them.
3. What does it mean that he “is a perfect man?” – There are two possible explanations for this. The first is that “perfect” truly means “perfect”. That is if a person is able to completely control his tongue it is a sign of complete self-control and that person can control the rest of his body and be truly perfect.
However, we know from verse 8 that no person can actually control their tongue. So the first explanation is that this is a hypothetical situation telling us that the tongue is the most difficult part of the body to control. “If” you controlled your tongue, you would be perfect. But you don’t. So you aren’t.
The other possibility is that “perfect” means mature and shows that the spiritually mature can tame the tongue.
Whichever interpretation you favor it means that taming the tongue is very difficult and we need God’s help.
II. Examples illustrating the power of the tongue (3-6)
- What examples from nature does James give us?
- How do these relate to the tongue?
- Why do you think James has such a negative view of the tongue?
- How can our tongue defile our entire body?
- How does it set the course of our life on fire?
- Since the tongue has such capacity for evil, should we just cut it out?
- Would this solve the problem?
- What is the root of the problem?
- What is an example of sinful speech that you sometimes struggle with?
- What are some practical ways that you can reduce evil speech?
- What are some practical ways that you can use your words for good?
Ephesians 5:4 – Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.
2 Timothy 2:14 – Keep reminding God’s people of these things. Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen.
Proverbs 10:19 – Sin is not ended by multiplying words, but the prudent hold their tongues.
Psalms 39:1 – I said, “I will watch my ways and keep my tongue from sin; I will put a muzzle on my mouth while in the presence of the wicked.”
Colossians 3:8-10 – But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.
Verse by Verse Commentary
1. Illustrations on the tongue – James often uses illustrations from everyday life or nature to prove his points. We have seen illustrations about faith and works and partiality in chapter 2 and here illustrations about the tongue. Maybe he learned this technique of parables from Jesus, his half-brother. Illustrations are effective because they bring lofty and sometimes difficult to understand concepts down to our realm of experience and understanding.
Generally parables or illustrations contain one important point.
Application: Illustrations are useful teaching tool. For Bible study leaders, try to use illustrations often to help those in your group fully understand the text.
2. The illustration of the horse and bit and ship and rudder – Both of these illustrations have the same meaning. Horses and ships are hard to control. But it is possible to control them. A small tool (bit and rudder) can help you to steer these powerful objects. The bit and rudder are small parts of their respective whole, but are extremely important if you want to control the whole. They are small but hold great power.
In similar manner, the tongue is is also very small, but it too holds great power. If you can control the tongue, you can control the body.
Question for thought: What are some practical ways to control your tongue?
3. The illustration of the fire and the forest – In verses 5-6 we see the amazing destructive capacity of the tongue. A fire starts off very small, but can spread quickly and devour millions of acres before it burns out. Often times fires are started by careless people who smoke and don’t put out their cigarette or leave a few sparks at the bottom of a campfire. A little spark in the right conditions can lead to vast wildfires that destroy life and property. Just a few seconds of care on the front side can save vast devastation later.
And once that fire starts spreading even the coordinated effort of thousands of firefighters often can’t stop it. The time to stop a wildfire is before it starts!
The tongue is the same. Words, once spoken, cannot be unsaid. Kids on playgrounds like to say, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But the saying cannot be further from the truth. Words can hurt. They do hurt. You surely can remember times when people have spoken hurtful things to you, and that hurt may still be there. Words can rip apart relationships, cause depression, and start wars.
King Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, found out the hard way the harm foolish words can do. After he became king, the eleven non-Judah tribes came to him to ask that their work load be lightened. The elders encouraged him to speak gently words knowing that a “gentle answer turns away wrath.” But Rehoboam instead listened to hotheads. See what he says.
1 Kings 12:8, 14 – But he abandoned the counsel that the old men gave him and took counsel with the young men who had grown up with him and stood before him. He spoke to them according to the counsel of the young men, saying, “My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke. My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.”
So the other tribes revolted. And there was war for generations.
Another example of words spreading like wildfire is the crucifixion of Jesus. Many of the same people that shouted, “Hosanna” days earlier shouted “crucify Him,” because of the poisonous whispers of the Pharisees.
A fire can damage in different ways. Not only does it burn, but smoke goes far beyond the actual fire, choking, stinging, and spreading an awful smell. Words also can spread far beyond what you expect and impact others even in far away places.
So should we cut out our tongues (or just not speak) to keep from hurting others?
Jesus said that out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. Cutting out our tongue could in fact help us to control what we say. We couldn’t say anything. With our words we couldn’t slander, gossip, lie, boast, etc. But it would leave our hearts unchanged. We could then use our body language, gestures, or writing to do those very things. Much can be communicated through a glare.
The root of the problem is our sinful heart. We are sinful people. The key is to let our hearts be regenerated, renewed and be clean, like David prayed to God to create in him a clean heart. If we don’t have the desire to lie, we won’t. If we don’t want to harm people through slander, we won’t. Yet we still must learn to control our tongues for two reasons:
Firstly, there are still remnants of our old nature left. Some wrong desires are still there. Temptations rise up. We need to firstly not say the wrong thing, then confess the thought the Lord and move on. If you speak it out, the problem will often grow. One lie will bring another will bring two and then three more. When you start to argue, it is very hard to stop. The other person will likely respond in kind and then you will respond in anger and it will grow. The solution is to stop it at the beginning.
Secondly, our tongues are very fast. Sometimes they act before our mind can really evaluate what they are saying. This is often the case with jokes or ridiculing others. In this case we need to apply James 1:19 and be quick to listen and slow to speak.
Application: Share a time when you have hurt someone or been hurt by words. Share some methods that help you to avoid negative speech.
4. The other side of the coin is to speak positive words – The solution to the tongue problems is not to remain silent. Though the tongue is very powerful with the potential for great harm, so it also has the potential for great good. That is why God gave us tongues!
Without speaking we cannot share the gospel. Without speaking we cannot encourage others. Let us learn to use our words to pursue peace and build up others.
After two and a half tribes returned home to their side of the Jordan the residents misunderstood a memorial altar they had built and thought that they were rebelling against the Lord.
Gathering for war, they charged down there and angrily accused their brethren of rebellion.
Joshua 22:15 – ‘What is this breach of faith that you have committed against the God of Israel in turning away this day from following the Lord by building yourselves an altar this day in rebellion against the Lord?”
The spark is there. The two sides are at an intersection. War is moment from breaking out. A bit of pride, a bit of insolence, a bit of hasty speech and a devastating war would be unavoidable.
But the Reubenites answered graciously and humbly, calmly communicating the reasons they built this memorial and re-affirming their faith in the Lord. Their cool heads and gentle words brought peace and restored the relationship (Joshua 22). On the other hand, if they had remained silent then the result would have been very different.
Application: Consider how to use your words to encourage others. This week intentionally speak edifying words to build others up each day. For example, you can aim to give at least three compliments to your spouse everyday this week!
III. The tongue cannot be tamed by man (7-12)
- Why is the tongue so difficult to tame?
- What are some practical ways to tame your tongue?
- Why is the tongue so destructive?
- Give some examples from the Bible about the destructive power of the tongue.
- What are some ways you have hurt people with your speech?
- What does the fact that no one can tame the tongue tell us about the total depravity of man?
- Since no one can tame the tongue, what hope do we have?
- Besides destruction, what other potential does our tongue have?
- What does verse 9 tell us about our speech?
Titus 2:8 – And soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us.
Proverbs 15:1-4 – A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.
The tongue of the wise adorns knowledge, but the mouth of the fool gushes folly. The eyes of the Lord are everywhere, keeping watch on the wicked and the good. The soothing tongue is a tree of life, but a perverse tongue crushes the spirit.
1 Peter 4:11 – If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.
Matthew 5:13 – You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
Verse by Verse Commentary
1. An illustration about wild beasts – James uses another example from nature, this time about wild beasts. His point is that although man can control and tame wild beasts we cannot of our own power control the tongue. This is more difficult to tame than a lion. Skilled trainers can train the lions or tigers to be tame with a lot of hard work. But no one can fully tame their own tongue without help from God.
2. No man can tame the tongue – We are sinful and depraved. Without God’s help, we cannot hope to have victory or self control in this area. But we do have hope. Our hope is in Christ. He gives us the strength to have victory (1 Cor 10:13) where the natural man can have none. A natural man may hope to suppress his tongue for a awhile, but like a lion that is not fully trained, it may spring up to attack at any time, surprising everyone around.
Some of my co-workers seem like nice people. Clean cut. They say kind things to one another and show care for people. But almost all of them, even the young ladies curse. It was kind of surprising to me at the beginning to see these young, seemingly nice ladies suddenly curse in anger in the middle of the office. But it is quite common.
Outbursts are inevitable unless the heart has been regenerated by the Spirit. As believers, we can walk by the Spirit (Galatians 5:26.) The fruit of the Spirit includes self-control. This is a winnable battle if we rely on God.
What steps can we take to win this battle?
A. Have a close relationship to God first. Jesus said that apart from Him we can do nothing (John 15:5). Don’t be fake or hypocritical. If you are trying to live the Christian life by your own strength, you will fail sooner or later.
B. Think before we speak. Don’t be hasty to share your opinion. There is nothing the matter with talking, but don’t find yourself always the one talking on and on.
C. If we have a temptation to sin with our words, pray immediately. It doesn’t have to be long or complicated. Simply say, “God I am angry. Help me.”
D. Make a focused effort to proactively use our tongues to glorify God and bless man. Train yourselves to speak positive words through practice. The more kind words that flow from your mouth, the easier they will come. But the more angry words that flow from your mouth, the easier they will come.
3. Don’t be a hypocrite (9-12) – These verses tell us that tongues reveal the hypocrisy in our hearts. If the heart is evil, sooner or later in some way a person’s words will give it away. The tongue is too hard to control because it is so fast and seems to have a mind of its own.
This was another kind of hypocrisy. God doesn’t want this kind of false lip service. If you don’t mean it (worship songs), don’t say it. It is worse to give false praise to God than none at all. How many people curse or belittle their spouses on the way to church and then stand up, smile, and sing loud praises to God once they arrive?
Yet the application for us is not to stop praising God, it is to stop using our tongues as weapons to hurt people. The solution is not to be hypocrites. We need to be real and sincere. Our faith in God should touch every part of our lives. It should change our behavior.
Have integrity. Oil and vinegar don’t mix. Next time you are about to enter an argument, mock others, scoff, ridicule, boast, lie, etc. think about think about Sundays when you tell God how much you love Him, when you worship Him with your words. And remember that it is hypocrisy for both blessings and curses to come out of the same mouth. We are to speak to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.
Application: Spend some time to evaluate your speech. Write down one or more areas where the Spirit has convicted you today and your speech has not honored God. Then spend some time in prayer. Confess your hurtful words to God. Ask Him to help you tame your tongue. If necessary, go and apologize to anyone you have hurt with your speech. Commit to praying daily for your speech this week. And be intentional to build up others.
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