This verse follows verses where James focuses on doing not just hearing. He now makes it clear that actions alone are not enough. What we say matters too.
Have you ever said, “Well, you should know that’s not what I meant”, or “I should be able to say what I want and be given the benefit of the doubt”? This verse challenges this kind of thinking. Let’s look at it more closely.
The Greek word translated “tight rein” in the NIV is chalinagogeo, which can be translated as bridle, curb, restrain, sway, hold in check. James uses a strong word to indicate how firmly we are to control the words we speak. Bridle and rein are often used in the context of controlling a horse. Something much stronger than humans. This word is more than just being careful, it’s willfully and skillfully exerting control over something that is powerful. These verses from Proverbs show the power of the tongue:
“The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” Proverbs 12:8
“The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.” Proverbs 18:21
In chapter 3 James will also address in more detail the consequences of not taming our tongue.
Then in Matthew 15:18 Jesus says, “ But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them.” Jesus says this in the context of what you put in your mouth doesn’t defile you, but what is in your heart, which is revealed by your words, does defile you. So, in this case, words speak louder than actions. Words spoken without thinking can reveal our true heart. If we are truly “religious” – letting God be in charge of our lives – everything we say should reflect this. If we’re not truly “religious”, then our words will indicate that, no matter what we believe about ourselves.
Here are some ideas of where words said unthinkingly can come from:
- Our focus on being heard which demonstrates selfishness.
- Not considering how those listening will hear the words which demonstrates a lack of love. No, we can’t always know how our words will be understood. But if we care more about the listeners than being heard, there is a better chance that when we do speak, even if clarification turns out to be needed, the care for them and their situation will come through, and they will be open to having further dialogue.
- Assumptions that everyone will understand what you mean which demonstrates pride. Assumptions are dangerous and often lead to misunderstanding.
What are your ideas of the source of speaking before thinking?
Some versions of this verse also say, “and so deceive his own heart.” What is this deception? I believe the deception is that we can say whatever we want and still be religious.
I’ve had conversations where we’ve talked about the use of specific words and ideas in conversation that are offensive and hurtful to some and not others. We talked about how to be true to who we are while at the same time considering someone else. This verse seems to clarify the issue for me. I must tame my tongue. Put it under the Holy Spirit’s control, not my own. My desire to be able to “be free to be me” is not Biblical. It is selfish. And who am I anyway? I am trying to become who God wants me to be. His love showing through me would be careful to speak words that are affirming and not hurtful. Ephesians 4:29 makes it clear that our speech is to build others up and benefit them, not to benefit us and our need to be known or heard.
I need to remember that no matter how much I “do” for God, my words can undo them all. I need to always be aware of the power of words. I don’t want it said of me by God or anyone else that, “my religion is worthless”. This verse just emphasizes even more the importance of being “slow to speak” as James urges in verse 19. That gives me time to make sure I’m connected to the Holy Spirit and let Him speak through me, if I even need to speak at all.