A good portion of the book of James is devoted to the damage (to others and to ourselves) that can be done by an unbridled tongue. Let’s look as these.
But first, what exactly do we mean by “unbridled”? A bridle is a device that is placed over the face of an animal in order to steer the animal while we ride either the animal or a conveyance being pulled by the animal. In general, an unbridled horse, camel, llama, ox, dog, etcetera cannot be steered and will therefore wander about as it pleases. Rarely will that in in the direction we want to go. In like manner, an unbridled tongue is one over which you have little or no conscious control: it (you) will blurt out all manner of hurtful, insulting things with very little thought of the harm it may do to others, or the impact it has on the opinion others hold of you. In all cases this lesson is referring to believers, and especially believers talking about other believers – although some is about our speech in general.
26 If anyone among you[b] thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one’s religion is useless. James 1:26
The Tongue is the Rudder of the Soul
My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment. 2 For we all stumble in many things. If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body. 3 Indeed,[j] we put bits in horses’ mouths that they may obey us, and we turn their whole body. 4 Look also at ships: although they are so large and are driven by fierce winds, they are turned by a very small rudder wherever the pilot desires. 5 Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things. James 3:1-5
This passage is directed primarily toward those who become the pastor of a church: referred to as teacher or teaching elder. A stricter judgment of bad behavior is reserved for them because they are held up as an example to the less mature, the less wise, among the brethren. But the statement applies to all who claim to be children of God and siblings with Jesus. If we are able to bridle, or direct, our tongue then directing the rest of our mind and body is easy. Controlling one’s tongue is not an easy task; it takes a good deal of conscious effort and dedication.
Pertaining to Hypocrisy
9 With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God. 10 Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring send forth fresh water and bitter from the same opening? 12 Can a fig tree, my brethren, bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Thus no spring yields both salt water and fresh.[k] James 3:9-12
Our words are like a spring or water well. One spring may produce fresh, clean, drinkable water that refreshes and brings health. A salt-water spring will produce brackish, bitter water that cannot be drunk. The same spring does not produce both fresh and brackish water, and if it did the best that could be said of it is that it is unreliable. Likewise a believer whose tongue produces at times praise for God and blessings to men, and at other times grumbling and gossip cannot be considered true and reliable. This is hypocrisy: bad enough among the brethren, a disaster among our leadership.
Heavenly Versus Demonic Wisdom
13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth. 15 This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic. 16 For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there. 17 But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy. James 3:13-17
Do Not Judge a Brother
11 Do not speak evil of one another, brethren. He who speaks evil of a brother and judges his brother, speaks evil of the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. James 4:11
Judgment of all mankind is reserved for Jesus, not us. What is this judgment? Are we forbidden to hold opinions? Do we not need to make certain assessments about one another as to the suitability of a person for tasks, positions, or privileges? Yes, of course: but these assessments must be made out of necessity and must be based on factual information, not hearsay. Gossip is always damaging, both to the discussed and to your witness as a Christian.
Do Not Boast About Tomorrow
13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will[r] go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit”; 14 whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.” 16 But now you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. James 4:13-16
Does this say we should not make plans or have goals? No, certainly not. This is warning us against boasting of our plans laid in our own arrogance. As Christians, we know that God has a plan for us. If we draw near to Him and let Him reveal that plan to us, we will walk in His favor. When we chart our own course, and brag about what we will accomplish, we set ourselves up for chastening.
Grumbling and Swearing
9 Do not grumble against one another, brethren, lest you be condemned.[u] Behold, the Judge is standing at the door! 10 My brethren, take the prophets, who spoke in the name of the Lord, as an example of suffering and patience. 11 Indeed we count them blessed who endure. You have heard of the perseverance of Job and seen the end intended by the Lord—that the Lord is very compassionate and merciful.
12 But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath. But let your “Yes” be “Yes,” and your “No,” “No,” lest you fall into judgment.[v] James 5: 9-12
Do not grumble against one another. Grumbling means complaining to a third person (or more) about someone. If you don’t approve of the dress Sally wore or the way Bob prays before the church, if you don’t like the frequency with which Rich mows his lawn: speak about it to Sally, or Bob, or Rich. Do not grumble about it to someone else.
If you do not approve of the way the government does things or the price of gasoline, write to your congressmen: sitting around with friends grumbling about it solves nothing and the negativity you spout harms your standing as a reflection of the love of Jesus. Developing a negative attitude opens the door for Satan to creep in and further poison your mind with doubts and fears.
Keep your eyes on Jesus. Rejoice in the salvation which is yours. Let your mouth be a spring of sweet, life giving water.