If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. (James 1:26)
In a previous article, I sought to show what it means to be “slow to speak” according to God’s Word. Guarding our speech, though, requires that we learn how to control the use of our tongues for God’s glory. In the following paragraphs, I will first offer three biblical reasons why we must control our tongues, followed by three practical suggestions regarding how we may do so.
Three Reasons Why We Must Control Our Tongues
1. If we do not control our tongues, we deceive ourselves.
Since the book of James was written specifically to Christians, it is worth noting that the word anyone at the start of James 1:26 does not exclude faithful, growing Christians. On the contrary, it suggests that every person who professes to follow Christ should receive and heed the warning which follows. However, James is specifically describing a person who has convinced himself that he is religious—someone who is not genuinely submitted to Christ but who outwardly performs most or all of the expected activities of the Christian life.
This sort of person is likely to be active in attending church, generous in giving, quick to volunteer to serve others, and involved in evangelism, missions, choir, or virtually any other aspect of a church’s ministry. Someone fitting this description could conceivably be a deacon, an elder, a Bible teacher, a missionary, or even, in some cases, a pastor. Yet, to a person who is externally religious, James warns, “You may believe yourself to be a religious person, but if you do not bridle your tongue, you deceive your heart!”
As you may know, a bridle is a device that fits on a horse’s head for the purpose of controlling and guiding the horse. The bridle enables riders to steer horses away from danger and toward the proper path. In this verse, James is using the term bridle as a verb, to strongly emphasize the need for every Christian to guide, guard, and restrain our speech. In fact, James warns readers that if we don’t do this, we are deceiving ourselves concerning our relationship with Christ.
So, if there is a local church member who is active in the life of the church but who consistently slanders, backbites, and spreads gossip about others, then it’s likely, according to James, that this person has deceived himself into thinking that he belongs to Christ when he does not. People in this situation need to stop flattering themselves and believing themselves to be better than they are, and instead examine their hearts sincerely before the Lord.
By the way, we always need to be extremely cautious of people who try to spread gossip to us, because the same person who is willing to gossip to us will also surely be willing to gossip about us. One of the implications of this verse is that we probably shouldn’t even entertain a person who is known to behave this way.
It can be tricky, though, when the people who behave this way profess to be fellow Christians, because they will often share idle gossip about others disguised as prayer requests—sometimes even verbally attacking someone and then asking us to pray for them to change in some significant way. When this happens, we need to learn to say to the gossipers, “Thank you for your concern, but that’s not the kind of information that I need to hear about from you.”
We should also recognize that this sin can be demonstrated in a variety of ways. It can be practiced by children who knowingly tell lies to their parents or to others, or by parents who regularly use abusive words when they discipline their children. Parents—we must always be careful to use words which will help and not hurt our children! The “anyone” in this passage may also refer to a wife or a husband who uses hateful words to respond to marital conflict. No marriage is perfect, but when there are problems and disagreements, we must be intentional about handling them in God-honoring ways.
James is reminding us, though, that while it’s always good to do Christ-honoring things such as attending church regularly and actively serving others, such practices tell us little about what’s truly in a person’s heart. A person’s speech, more than outward practices, can serve as a more accurate barometer of what’s happening in a person’s heart and of where that person stands in his relationship with God.
So, what should we learn from this? Here, James is calling us to examine ourselves sincerely. If people believe themselves to be righteous in Christ but do not bridle their tongue by speaking in ways that honor God, they deceive themselves and need to examine earnestly their own heart, ultimately acknowledging this sinful behavior that they practice and repenting of it before the Lord. The people who are currently in this situation are not being told by God that they are truly His, but rather they deceive themselves into believing that they do, though their assumptions about their own spiritual well-being are false. Search your hearts, my friends!
Paul writes in Galatians 6:3–4, “For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one test his own work.” God expects us to test, or examine, our own behavior to see if it matches the behavior of a true child of God. In a similar way, Ephesians 5:4 exhorts us, “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking [among you].” If we belong to Christ, both our words and our actions must be notably different from those who remain outside of Christ.
To be more precise, James warns that the person who fails to bridle his tongue “deceives his heart”—as in, his own heart, even more so than the hearts of others. It’s bad enough to deceive people and to cause others to be hurt by our speech, but this verse reminds us that by doing this, we are causing the greatest harm to ourselves, as we consistently offend God with our speech while pretending He’s pleased with us.
People who claim to belong to Christ but use their words to harm others prove themselves to be liars, cheaters, and hypocrites. They hear God’s Word being taught, and are likely familiar with the ninth commandment, which commands that “you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exod. 21:16). Yet, they still use their words to destroy the lives of others.
We should acknowledge that all of us have been guilty of sinning in this way at times. We have used our tongues to praise God on Sunday, but then used the same tongues to curse others at other times. We have been worshipers on Sunday and then gossipers on Monday. However, God wants us to examine ourselves on this matter, to ask sincerely whether we have sinned with our speech, and to commit, by His grace, to change for the better.
2. If we do not control our tongue, we damage our religion, which is biblical Christianity.
When people fail to bridle their tongues and are deceived about their own devotion to Christ, James teaches, “this person’s religion is worthless.” By failing to guard our speech, we can permanently destroy our public witness for Christ. The people who hear our sinful speech will either believe that we don’t belong to God or else they’ll wrongfully accuse God of being responsible for our sinfulness. God-honoring speech reflects the “religion that is pure and undefiled before God” (James 1:27), which God calls us to live out, but an unbridled tongue can publicly defile that very religion.
Lost sinners will certainly not be drawn nearer to Christ by our unholy speech but are more likely to be pushed further away from Him. Almost as tragic is the shame which we can bring upon our churches, as people who hear our conversations are left believing that we genuinely represent the churches we attend and then judge them for our sinful behavior.
Consider how easily ungodly speech can cause damage in the work environment. When an employee frequently curses, lies, argues, tells vulgar jokes, or speaks harshly to others, it’s common for the other employees to question his character. If it becomes known that the ungodly employee claims to be a Christian and attends a particular church, what will the other employees be left to believe about God and about the church that he attends? Many non-believers have been discouraged from following Christ because of situations like this, reasoning “If that’s what Christianity looks like, I want nothing to do with it!”
Even the name of Jesus can be damaged (in an earthly sense) by our sinful behavior, because when we claim to be Christians, we carry His name with us wherever we go. People who know us, and who know that we profess to be Christians, will hear our ungodly talk and believe that our speech must be typical of those who belong to Christ. Worse yet, they might even presume to blame Jesus for our ungodly speech and actions, believing our behavior to be a result of His teaching and authority in our lives. How can we possibly bring such shame upon our blessed Savior’s name?
Why is it that the sin of an uncontrolled tongue is singled out here as the one which could render a person’s religion “worthless”? James, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, highlights this sin because the Bible takes this kind of sin very seriously! It is a really big deal in Scripture, because, again, our speech is an indicator of our spirituality. What you say is reflection of what you think and what you feel. That’s why, in Matthew 12:34, Jesus says, “How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”
I remember talking to a lady who was born in the Netherlands but has lived in the United States for many years. She was a bit disappointed that whenever she speaks in English she still has a Dutch accent. I said to her, “Please don’t be disappointed with your accent, because it’s an indicator of your identity.” I asked, “Are you not proud of your Dutch heritage?” She replied, “You’re right. I should be proud of my heritage.”
When I speak in English, which is not my first language, people hear my accent and recognize that I’m not originally from the United States. As Christians, we have become citizens of heaven. Now, whenever we speak, people around us should be able to hear our “heavenly accent.” Do they? Are we ever asked, “Where are you really from?” Do we speak in a way that reflects our Lord and our true eternal home?
In Colossians 4:5–6, the apostle Paul admonishes us, “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” God expects us to bring this area of our lives under submission to Him—looking to Jesus Christ as the ultimate example of how we should speak and trusting in the Holy Spirit to transform our hearts and lives increasingly into the likeness of Christ.
3. If we do not control our tongues, we destroy ourselves.
If we willfully and deliberately let our tongues go unguarded, it’s like riding a horse with no bridle or driving a car with no steering wheel. In either case, we’re sure to cause great harm to ourselves, as well as to others. Failing to bridle our tongues, though, is just as dangerous.
A number of Bible passages affirm this point, including the following:
The mouth of the righteous brings forth wisdom, but the perverse tongue will be cut off. (Prov. 10:31)
Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life; he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin. (Prov. 13:3)
Whoever desires to love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit. (1 Pet. 3:10)
Someone once said, “Gossip not only hurts others, it can also boomerang and hurt the one who starts it.”1 If you are a gossiper, do not think that you won’t be hurt by what you do, for by not controlling your tongue, you are destroying both yourself and your family.
Three Biblical Exhortations
So, what should we do in response to the warnings given in James 1:26? Here are three biblical exhortations which we should be especially careful to heed.
1. Get down on your knees and pray to God.
In this passage of Scripture, James isn’t only addressing other people; he’s speaking to you and to me, as well. We should all be deeply convicted by this passage of Scripture, because all of us have failed in this area at times. We are guilty before God of sinning with our speech, and we should want to do all that we can to avoid sinning in this way again.
So, with that in mind, we should readily confess our sinful use of the tongue to God, not denying it, making excuses for it, or attempting to justify it in any way. Instead, we should be honest with God about the ways that we’ve failed Him and caused others to be hurt, and earnestly seek His forgiveness, asking the Spirit of God to help us guard our speech in the days to come.
We should pray with King David in Psalm 141:3: “Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips!” In a similar manner, we can sing the lyrics of one of the great hymns:
Take my life, and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee.
Take my voice, and let me sing always, only, for my King.
Take my lips, and let them be filled with messages from Thee.
2. Guard your tongue.
Of course, we must become increasingly intentional about doing precisely what this biblical text warns us to do—guarding our tongues. However, we must also remember that we can’t do this in our own strength, but only with God’s help will we be able to succeed in this challenging but crucial task.
Some additional Bible verses which can serve as helpful reminders to us include the following:
I will guard my ways, that I may not sin with my tongue; I will guard my mouth with a muzzle. (Ps. 39:1)
Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit. (Ps. 34:13)
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. (Eph. 4:29)
These verses, and others like them which remind us to guard our speech, should become increasingly familiar to us. Even a beloved children’s song can help remind us to guard our words in a way that honors the Lord:
O, be careful little mouth what you say;
O, be careful little mouth what you say;
There’s a Father up above
And He’s looking down in love;
So, be careful little mouth what you say.
Some people have even found the following acronym for THINK to be a helpful tool in this journey:
T—Is it true?
H—Is it helpful?
I—Is it inspiring?
N—Is it necessary?
K—Is it kind?
In any case, we should always strive to use our tongues for God’s glory and for the edification of his church, and ask the Holy Spirit to assist us with this task.
3. Go to Jesus Christ.
As in every other area of our lives, we are to keep looking to Jesus as our ultimate example and working to imitate the way He lived during His earthly life. First Peter 2:21–23 serves as a strong reminder in this regard: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”
So, again, we must determine to make guarding our speech a high priority in our lives, since by doing so we will demonstrate our genuine faithfulness to God and our true concern for the well-being of others as well as ourselves. God shows us, through the Spirit-inspired writings of James, that an unbridled tongue is a serious sin which should not be practiced by the people of God. Let’s respond appropriately by receiving this instruction from God’s Word and speaking only words of love and grace through which Christ will be glorified.
1. What does unguarded or sinful speech reveal about the true condition of our hearts?
2. How is Christ’s reputation in the world affected by the words and actions of His followers?
3. How can sinful speech lead to our own destruction?
4. What does it mean to seek to have a “heavenly accent”?
5. According to James, what causes, and what results from, “worthless religion”?
1. Roy B. Zuck, The Speaker’s Quote Book (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1997), 176.
Rev. Brian G. Najapfour is the pastor of Dutton Reformed Church, Caledonia, MI, and author of The Very Heart of Prayer: Reclaiming John Bunyan’s Spirituality (2012) and Jonathan Edwards: His Doctrine of and Devotion to Prayer (2013). He and his wife, Sarah, have two children, Anna and James. He blogs at biblicalspiritualitypress.org.