INTERSECT: The Test of the Tongue
"If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue,
but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain” (James 1:26).
In The Courage to Be Protestant, Dr. David Wells reports that as many as 78% of Americans consider themselves to be “spiritual.” But if a person considers himself spiritual, what is the basis for such a claim? Considering yourself a Christian is one thing; actually being one is an entirely different matter. While the Bible offers many tests of true spirituality, one test provided by James is the test of the tongue. In essence, James said that if your religion hasn’t touched your tongue, it is not real. It is vain or worthless.
Consider the word religious or religion. Many Americans consider themselves spiritual, but fewer want any association with the word religion. The number of those who claim no religious affiliation is rising rapidly. However, the term religious is not a negative term from the perspective of the New Testament.
The problem James poses in this verse is not religion per se, but a false representation of Christianity. James presents a scenario first: “If anyone among you thinks he is religious” (ESV), or “If any man among you seemeth to be religious” (KJV).
The Claim of Religion: Appearing Religious
The first phrase in verse 26 can be taken to mean a person thinks or considers himself to be religious. The truth of the matter is we all consider ourselves to be this or that, but our perception doesn’t necessarily correspond with reality. You may consider yourself to be a master chef, but that may or may not be true. You may rate yourself as an excellent marksman, but the shooting range reveals otherwise.
This wording might also refer to someone within a group—a man or woman who appears or seems to be religious to others in their group.
We know from everyday life that appearances are not always what they seem. This is true of places advertised as vacation spots. It is true of jobs that appear better than the one we have already. Most often, however, this is true of people. What James had in mind, then, is someone who appears religious outwardly. Maybe he or she prays over meals, attends church regularly, wears religious symbols, or even talks about spiritual things on occasion. But his or her faith is only “skin deep.” We must remember that the appearance of religion is not the real test; the test is how we control our speech.
The Test of Religion: The Controlled Tongue
A religion that doesn’t control the tongue doesn’t pass the test. Faith that doesn’t impact day-to-day speech and ordinary conversation is not biblical faith. James introduces the illustration of a horse and bridle in these verses and expands it to include the bit in chapter 3. Just as the bit and bridle are used to restrain and control the horse, so the tongue ought to be kept in check by the Christian.
Of course, James is not introducing an entirely new concept. The Old Testament, specifically the book of Proverbs, has much to say about the exercise of self-control when it comes to talking. For instance, Proverbs 10:19 says, “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.” The wisdom writer also stated, “Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding. Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent” (Proverbs 17:27-28).
#1: Self-deception. This, perhaps, circles back to the idea that a person may consider himself to be spiritual or religious, when in reality, he is not religious at all. A few verses prior, James cautions, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.”
#2: A Useless Religion. James comes back to the word religion. He characterizes a person who can’t control his tongue as having worthless religion. This word for worthless is used in some places in the New Testament to describe idol worship—vain or empty. It could also be translated profitless.
A common objection to Christianity is, “The church is full of hypocrites.” It is fair to say some people oppose Christianity simply because they have been exposed to bad examples of it. That’s where we come in as believers.
You have platforms where people hear you speak. What do they learn about Christ where you work? At sporting events? In the store? When visiting your home?
At times, it is important to speak—moments when silence is sin. For instance, when we keep silent about the gospel and don’t share it with others. The basic point from Proverbs and James, however, is that most of us need to practice more restraint.
The tendency to be loose and free with words is especially present online. Whatever you type and send is out there, and you can’t take it back. Sometimes emails, texts, and messages require immediate responses. Usually they don’t. We would be better off thinking carefully and praying through our responses before we hit send.
Are you passing the tongue test? If you discover you are failing this test and want to see change, there is hope. The place to start is your heart. At least that is what Jesus said: “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45).
About the Writer: Dr. Barry Raper is program chairman for Pastoral Ministry at Welch College: www.Welch.edu.