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THE DIFFICULTY OF GOVERNING THE TONGUE.
If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able to bridle the whole body. James iii. 2.
ST. JAMES is much in correcting the faults of the tongue. Possibly the Jewish believers, to whom he writes, were too liable to be infected with the faults very common at that time in the rest of their countrymen, who had an impetuous and turbulent zeal; who were conceited of themselves and despised others; and were imposing and uncharitable. That may be one reason why this writer insists so much, and so frequently, upon this matter.
In the very first chapter, ver. 19, he exhorts with affectionate earnestness: "Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath." And again, ver. 26, " If any man among you seemeth to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, deceiving his own heart, that man's religion is vain." In this chapter he enlargeth upon the point. Some of his expressions are extremely strong, saying, that "the tongue can no man tame:" James iii. 8. meaning, however, no more than that it is very difficult for a man to govern his own tongue, or to teach others that skill. For we are not to suppose that he intends to say, that it is altogether impossible. This may be inferred from his exhortations. He would not be at the pains to admonish and argue as he does, if there were no hopes of success. He would not, then, have said; "My brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak." He would not have argued, and shown the inconsistency of " blessing God," and "cursing men," James iii. 9; nor have added: "My brethren, these things ought not so to be," ver. 10. Such admonitions and reproofs are delivered upon the supposition of the happy effects of great care in this matter. And here, in the text, it is admitted, that some may, and do attain to a great degree of perfection in this respect.
We are not to suppose, then, that St. James designs to say, the government of the tongue is absolutely impossible. Much less are we to think that he intends to censure the faculty of speech, when he says, "the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity," James iii. 6. No; he only aims, by
emphatical expressions, and pathetic arguments, to correct the abuses of it; which were very great and frequent, as it seems, among the christians to whom he writes, as well as among many other persons. David sometimes speaks of his tongue, as his glory," it being fitted to celebrate the praises of God. Indeed the communication which we have with each other, and the many advantages of society, depend upon it. And the organs of speech are admirable. The dispositions made for it are beyond the description of the most eloquent tongue, and above all the force of human language. Nor is it at all strange, that the thing formed should not be able to comprehend, or fully commend the wisdom and skill of its Former.
St. James begins this chapter with a caution against affecting the office and character of a teacher, as was very common among the Jewish people, and against exercising it with too great rigour and severity. "My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation" if we offend, which it is very difficult to avoid : "for in many things we all offend. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able to bridle the whole body." But if there be any man among you that ' does not offend in speech, he is an excellent man, and able 'to manage all the other parts of the body:' or, as some thereby understand, the whole church, the body of christian people among whom he resides. He is qualified for the office and station of a teacher of others, and is likely to be very useful and serviceable therein.'
In farther discoursing on this text, I shall observe the following method:
I. I shall show somewhat distinctly the difficulty of governing the tongue.
II. I shall propose some motives and considerations, tending to engage us to do our best to govern the tongue.
III. I intend to lay down some rules and directions which may be of use to assist us in obtaining this excellence and perfection.
I. In the first place I would show the difficulty of governing the tongue, the point so largely insisted on, and so emphatically represented in this chapter.
The difficulty of this will appear by these particulars; the great number of those who offend in word, the many faults which the tongue is liable to, and the springs and causes of transgressions of this kind.
1. The difficulty of governing the tongue may be argued from hence, that great numbers of men offend in their words.
There are many who scarce set any guard upon their expressions, as if their tongue was their own, and subject to no law, and they had a right to annoy others at pleasure. Yea, some who have had the character of goodness, have transgressed here by falsehood, or hastiness of speech, or other ways. An offence of this kind is taken notice of in Moses himself, who was so remarkable for meekness. "They angered him also at the waters of strife, so that it went ill with Moses for their sake; because they provoked his spirit, so that he spake unadvisedly with his lips," Psal. cvi. 32, 33; referring, probably, to what is recorded in Numb. xx. 10," And Moses and Aaron gathered the congregation together before the rock, and he said unto him: Hear now, ye rebels; must we fetch you water out of this rock?"
But I need not insist farther on this particular; though it may be of some use to satisfy us of the difficulty of governing the tongue, that men of excellent characters, who have been almost faultless in other respects, have been surprised into some offences of this sort.
2. Another thing which shows the difficulty of governing the tongue, is the many offences it is liable to.
I need not enumerate them all; but it is very obvious that they are numerous. Some are guilty of a light and frequent use, or bold profanation of the name of God. Others are murmurers and complainers; and because every thing in the world is not to their mind, they take great liberties in complaining of the methods of Providence, or the conduct of their superiors and governors.
There are obscene discourses, called by the apostle corrupt" and "filthy communication," Eph. iv. 29; Col. iii. 8. which ought not to proceed out of the mouth of a christian.
Falsehood is supposed to be a very common fault in the dealings of men one with another; where truth ought to be strictly regarded, as the great bond of society, and of confidence in each other.
Abusive speeches, proceeding from anger or contempt, are too common among men. Our blessed Lord has condemned all such expressions when he shows the guilt of those who say to their brother, "Racha," or, " thou fool,' Matt. v. 22. How apt are some, upon occasion of slight provocations, to break forth into very abusive and contemptuous language against those who have, or are supposed to have, disobliged them!
Calumny is another great fault of the tongue, which too many are guilty of, for carrying on selfish designs, and to
weaken and disparage their enemies or rivals. And many arts of detraction there are, divulging lesser faults that might be concealed or passed by, without detriment to any; aggravating the known offences of men, lessening the merit of good and commendable actions, or converting actions that are innocent, or at the most suspicious only, into heinous transgressions.
Flattery is another fault of the tongue, and an abuse of the noble faculty of speech; when, to carry on designs of private interest, we deceive men, by ascribing to them excellences they are destitute of, and thus fill them with an empty conceit of imaginary worth, and encourage sloth and indolence, or otherwise mislead them to their great detriment.
Ridicule, ill applied, is another fault of the tongue. Some make a mock at sin, and would scoff away the weighty and awful truths of religion. Some endeavour to bring the sacred scriptures into contempt. Others expose their neighbours by ridiculing the natural defects and infirmities of the body or the mind, which are no real faults, but their own unhappiness.
There is a fault, which we may style the uncharitableness of the tongue; when men strive to lessen all those who differ from them in opinion, representing them as prejudiced, or destitute of a love of truth, and out of the favour of God and the way of salvation. And accordingly they pronounce hard and unmerciful sentences of condemnation upon thera. St. James seems particularly to have an eye to this conduct; and he shows, that it cannot proceed from a principle of true religion. It may indeed consist with a profession of religion; but it is inconsistent with virtue and true piety. Sincere praises of God, and severe and unrighteous sentences against our neighbour, can no more proceed from the same mind, than bitter and sweet water from one and the same fountain. Consequently, if men so condemn their brother, their love of God is not sincere and genuine. So in his argument, ver. 9, 10, " Therewith bless we God, and therewith curse we men, made after the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be. Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter ?"
Another fault of the tongue, which we are sometimes guilty of, is too great severity of reproof and censure of real offences and miscarriages. This is one thing which St. James has an eye to in this context, when he cautions against being many masters: intending to soften the rigour of those
who are forward in taking upon them that character. St. Paul has particularly cautioned against the same thing. "Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye that are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness, considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted," Gal. vi. 1.
Another fault of the tongue is talkativeness, or a multitude of words, in which, as Solomon says, "there wanteth not sin," Prov. x. 19. This fault St. James has an eye to in several of his directions and observations in this epistle, particularly in the text above cited: "Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak." Where he seems to condemn talkativeness, abstracting from the consideration of what is said; when men speak with little or no regard to, or thought of, doing good or harm. Which, though it may seem an indifferent matter, or of no great consequence, yet an indulgence of such a disposition leads men into many offences; inasmuch as when innocent or indifferent topics of discourse are exhausted, such will not fail, in order to gratify that disposition, to go into defamation and scandal ; so it is in conversation; and the like temper will show itself on other occasions. Some may desire to be "teachers of the law," 1 Tim. i. 7, who are unacquainted with its design; and may affect prolixity of discourse, and use a multitude of words, not because their subject requires it, but to gratify the disposition to discourse, and an ambition of shining as very knowing men, and fluent speakers.
These and other faults there are of the tongue; and this is one thing that shows the difficulty of governing it.
3. And we shall be farther satisfied of this, if we consider the causes and springs of these faults; and there are many of them. This was observed by St. James. Does he say of the tongue at ver. 6, "That it setteth on fire the whole course of nature?" He adds: "And it is set on fire of hell." There are within bad principles, that give the tongue this wrong direction, and set it on work for mischief. Blasphemy, or evil-speaking, is one of those defilements which our Lord says come from the heart," that is, from some bad disposition there. And St. James, ver. 14, 15, “If ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth. This wisdom is not from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish."
The causes of the offences of the tongue are such as these, Unbelief and discontent. These were the causes of the murmurings and complaints of the people of Israel against God and Moses, in the wilderness; and the many murmurings and complaints of men in all ages, are owing to the