James 3:6-9 And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. 7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.
If these verses were not inspired Scripture, I might think they were the ramblings of a crazy man who has no confidence that human beings can speak a civil word to one another. Are we really this bad? Are we really infected with an instrument of poison that is out of control and determines the actions of or whole body? Well, this is the inspired word of God and the answer is yes. It really is that bad and our speech sets our whole being on fire. The worst part is, these verses also indicate that we use it to hurt others.
There is no doubt that James has a lot more than issues of racism in mind when he talks about the way we use our tongue, but there is one element in particular that should give you particular cause to apply these verses toward matters of prejudice against those of differing ethnic heritages than you. It also seems to me that James may not only be talking about the type of caustic hate speech of someone like an Adolph Hitler, but those subtle little statements we make to ourselves that drive the way we treat others. The tongue is not an independent member of the body, but James says that your speech (reflecting your thoughts) sets your entire course of life. As I look at people who may look physically different to me and have differing cultural behaviors, what am I really saying about them? James is insisting that we ask ourselves this question. Within this text he also gives us a truth that we can use to replace our poisonous words that drive our attitudes and actions.
In vs. 7 in the original language, James uses the word, ‘phusis’ – kind/order of nature. He makes mention that it is possible to tame each classification of its order of nature (phusis). Humans can tame the bird kind, the beast kind, the reptile kind and the sea creature kind…every kind. In W.E. Vines Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, Vine places this word, phusis, with other Greek words that may be loosely translated into the English word, “race.” In James we see a double usage of ‘phusis.’ When James says that these animals have been “tamed by mankind,” a direct literal translation is more like saying that they are tamed by the order of nature, human. What he is really saying is that there is a kind or one natural constitution of human that is differentiated from the natural constitution (kind) that is considered as an animal (birds, beasts, reptiles, sea creatures). Why is this important? James is saying that there is one differentiated human natural order that can tame the natural order of animals but not our own tongues. There is one human race and for all our dominance over animals, we seem to have a lack of control with how we use our tongues toward each other.
In verse 9 James backs up this statement by differentiating further. Human beings use their tongues to speak in sinful ways about each other without considering that all human beings are created in the image of God. One could conclude from James that there is one humanity created in the image of God as one natural order and to speak about another human being in a sinful/hurtful way results in attitudes and actions that direct your whole life.
Regardless of the category (ethnicity, ability, culture, intellect), if you look at another human being with words of prejudice and superiority in your mind, James is telling you that there is only one human race made in the image of God and your tongue needs to be tamed by this truth. Every one of us can tame an animal, but we all need to work much harder on our tongues.