Governance of One's Tongue (James 1:26)

If anyone thinks he is religious without controlling his tongue, his religion is useless and he deceives himself.
-James 1:26

James makes a distinction between outward appearance and inward transformation.  I might imagine myself to be religious because I do certain things.  But a person can be religious and not have Christ as savior and Lord in their life.  A person can belong to the church, while not becoming a Christian.

A person can even be a pastor or a priest, a nun or a bishop, but not be a Christian.  Religiosity does not make you a true believer.  A true believer is someone who has Christ living through them.  James says that the test if you are truly religious, in the best sense, is how you control what you say.  

Examples of not controlling your speech are:
  • Cutting, belittling criticism of others.
  • Dirty, cuss words.
  • Dishonesty: lies.
  • Salacious, lecherous words spoken.
  • Course jesting, sarcastic remarks.
  • Malicious gossip or slander.
  • Ostentatious talking ("showing off")

James says, that if you talk in these ways, and think you are religious, you are fooling yourself.

Uncontrolled speech is a sign that a person's religiousness is fake. These characters are simply playing a role.  They are actors rather that disciples.  They seek to deceive you into thinking they are someone that they are not.  And James says that in their game, they are self-deceived and their spirituality is worthless.

This is the second time that James has called out people in the church who are deceived.  The first time, James said that you are deceived if you hear the truth but don't put it into practice.  In this second instance, James says that you are deceived if your religious acts don't make a difference in how you live.

Quotes and notes:

"The first mark of true religion is gentleness of tongue, just as the contrary, blasphemy, is the most damning fault of all. Our Lord directly says, “By thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned” (Matthew 12:37). The text, however, is more a guide for self-examination than a stone to be cast at a neighbour; and “well is” it indeed for “him that hath not slipped with his tongue” (Ecclesiasticus 25:8)".
-Charles Elliot

Notes from: Upon the Government of the Tongue, Joseph Butler: (also here)

  • "Now, the fault referred to, and the disposition supposed, in precepts and reflections concerning the government of the tongue, is not evil-speaking from malice, nor lying or bearing false witness from indirect selfish designs... ...But the thing here supposed and referred to, is talkativeness: a disposition to be talking, abstracted from the consideration of what is to be said; with very little or no regard to, or thought of doing, either good or harm."
  • "It is perhaps true, that they who are addicted to this folly would choose to confine themselves to trifles and indifferent subjects, and so intend only to be guilty of being impertinent: but as they cannot go on for ever talking of nothing, as common matters will not afford a sufficient fund for perpetual continued discourse, where subjects of this kind are exhausted they will go on to defamation, scandal, divulging of secrets, their own secrets as well as those of others -- anything rather than be silent."
  • "And further, when persons who indulge themselves in these liberties of the tongue are in any degree offended with another -- as little disgusts and misunderstandings will be -- they allow themselves to defame and revile such a one without any moderation or bounds; though the offence is so very slight, that they themselves would not do, nor perhaps wish him, an injury in any other way. And in this case the scandal and revilings are chiefly owing to talkativeness, and not bridling their tongue, and so come under our present subject."
  • "And this unrestrained volubility and wantonness of speech is the occasion of numberless evils and vexations in life. It begets resentment in him who is the subject of it, sows the seed of strife and dissension amongst others, and inflames little disgusts and offences which if let alone would wear away of themselves: it is often of as bad effect upon the good name of others, as deep envy or malice: and to say the least of it in this respect, it destroys and perverts a certain equity of the utmost importance to society to be observed -- namely, that praise and dispraise, a good or bad character, should always be bestowed according to desert."
  • "The tongue used in such a licentious manner is like a sword in the hand of a madman; it is employed at random, it can scarce possibly do any good, and for the most part does a world of mischief; and implies not only great folly and a trifling spirit, but great viciousness of mind, great indifference to truth and falsity, and to the reputation, welfare, and good of others."
  • "The Wise Man observes that "there is a time to speak, and a time to keep silence." One meets with people in the world who seem never to have made the last of these observations. And yet these great talkers do not at all speak from their having anything to say, as every sentence shows, but only from their inclination to be talking.
  • "It is indeed a very unhappy way these people are in; they in a manner cut themselves out from all advantage of conversation, except that of being entertained with their own talk: their business in coming into company not being at all to be informed, to hear, to learn, but to display themselves, or rather to exert their faculty, and talk without any design at all."

The tendency, the habit, or the natural flow of a person toward verbal abuse, or uncontrolled verbosity may be a sign that their heart has not been or is not being transformed.

When James says, "your religion is useless", he means that since it has not transformed you, it is a waste of time; just a dress up game.

Doing devotions do not prove or show that you have Jesus changing your heart, but how you talk does.  Devoting yourself to Bible study, prayer, witnessing, and Christian music; without growth in controlling your tongue means that something is wrong.

A person may be passionate about their pursuit of doing ministry, and living a holy life; but it's fake if that person can not control their tongue, because controlling your speech is a sign that Jesus is transforming your heart.

James defined what he meant by self-deception.  We deceive ourselves when we hear the word, but do not do it.  Selective obedience equals disobedience and must give way to repentance or ends up in rebellion which masks itself in false religion.

The accumulation of truth is not what makes a person Christian or be in the faith.  But letting Jesus live through you is authentic Christianity.

Remember that the two broad themes of James are:

  1. Now that you are a Christian, you have a lot of problems.
  2. How to live as a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ.

And, James is written to people who feel that they don't have to serve in the Church. (Griffin, p. 235)