Taming the untameable

For the most part, animals are much smarter than most of us realize. We all know that our beloved Rover is capable of learning tricks: Fetch! Sit up! Roll over! Heel! Good dog! But everything from pigeons to orca whales can be trained as well. Cats? Some say they train their owners rather than the other way around. Nevertheless, it’s amazing to think how many different species would make the list, in a way the ancients would never have imagined.

Still, for what was known at the time, the apostle James seemed impressed enough:

For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species… (James 3:7, NRSVUE)

James, of course, was neither a zoologist nor a dog whisperer. Nor was he trying to claim that any living creature could be domesticated (“Pet alligators?” he would have said; “You’re kidding, right?”). Instead, his list of creatures should be read as echoing the creation story (e.g., Gen 1:26; 9:2) rather than a biology textbook. These were the beings over which humans were given dominion. One might imagine, for example, how proud people might have been of being able to ride a magnificent horse, or get a giant lumbering ox to pull a plow. It was a sign of human superiority.

That way of thinking, however, is what sets up the twist at the end of the verse:

but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. (vs. 8)

“Humans? We can tame anything,” James seems to say. “Except our own tongues. We can make big animals do our bidding, but can’t control our own little tongues. How’s that for irony?” He leaves little room for arrogance. The tongue is a “restless evil”; the word “restless” is the same one he used earlier (1:8) for the “unstable” nature of the double-minded, doubting person.

I imagine him picturing the restless, wagging tongue as a bobbing, weaving snake, ready to strike, full of venom. There’s certainly precedent for such an image in the Psalms, where violent evildoers are described as having tongues “as sharp as a snake’s,” while “under their lips is the venom of vipers” (140:3). And we ourselves can speak of words as “poisonous.” We know what words can do, even when we’re not careful with our own.

James, of course, will have more to say on the subject. But let’s pause for a moment to consider: does he really mean that the tongue can’t be tamed? At all? If so, then what’s the point of trying?

James, I think, is a realist. As we’ve seen, he knows that people will make mistakes in what they say (3:2), and those mistakes can be costly. But he still wants believers to demonstrate the authenticity of their faith by “bridling” their tongues (1:26). There may always be some wildness and unpredictability in the beast. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be controlled, at least to some extent — or he wouldn’t tell us to do so.

So where do we start?

James has a suggestion, which we’ll explore in the next post.