Not stumbling in word is a sign of heightened Christian maturity (James 3:2). It gives evidence of an individual’s deep surrender to the transformational change wrought by Christ Himself. The words of an individual show this because it is “out of the abundance of the heart [that] his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). Jesus also said that defiling comes from what is expressed from the mouth, because “those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart” (Matt. 15:18). Therefore, clean speech is evidence of a clean heart.

The tongue, though anatomically small, has an overwhelming impact. Just as an entire horse can be moved by its bit and a large ship by its rudder, the speaker is moved and impacted by his or her own words. Not only them, but others are impacted too. People can be built up and fortified by words of kindness, receiving them as life-giving water or sweet honey to the soul (Prov. 16:24; 18:4). Conversely, the same people can be stirred to anger and deeply wounded by a misspoken word, especially when expressed in the heat of anger (Prov. 12:18; 15:18).

Interestingly, some of Jesus’ harshest rebukes to His disciples came as a result of what they said. After trying to dissuade Jesus from going to the cross, Peter received the response, “ ‘Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men’ ” (Matt. 16:23). Jesus clearly saw to the root of the problem: Peter was not mindful of or prioritizing the right things, which led to what he said.

Earlier, after Jesus was snubbed by the residents of a Samaritan village, James and John suggested calling down fire from heaven to consume them. Jesus rebuked them again, adding, “ ‘You do not know what manner of spirit you are of’ ” (Luke 9:55). Again, the issue gave expression in their words: they were being prompted by the wrong spirit.

James does not recommend any self-help techniques for this problem. Instead, rather dismally, he concludes that “no man can tame the tongue” (James 3:8). It is impossible for humans to change their words for the same reason it is impossible for them to change their own hearts. Only God can cause such a supernatural change. Along with Isaiah, any child of God can see the uncleanness of their own lips and of those around them (Isa. 6:5). The same child of God can be given a new heart that is promised to all who will surrender to Him (Ezek. 36:26). This deep heart change is what brings lasting changes in both word and deed.