James 3:8 Parallel Verses [⇓ See commentary ⇓]

James 3:8, NIV: "but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison."

James 3:8, ESV: "but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison."

James 3:8, KJV: "But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison."

James 3:8, NASB: "But no one among mankind can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil, full of deadly poison."

James 3:8, NLT: "but no one can tame the tongue. It is restless and evil, full of deadly poison."

James 3:8, CSB: "but no one can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison."

What does James 3:8 mean? [⇑ See verse text ⇑]

In the previous verse, James pointed to an amazing human achievement: We can and have tamed every kind of creature. Now he finishes that thought: But we can't tame the tongue. More specifically, James writes that no human being can tame his or her own tongue. We can't control the words that come out of our mouths. It's not an ability that human beings possess in our own power. Our tongues are more powerful than we are. They control us just as a bit guides a horse or a rudder steers a massive ship.

According to James, the tongue—our words and how we use them—is not just untamable. It is a restless evil. The Greek word James uses for "restless" is derived from the word akastatatos. This word also means "unstable," and is the same root word used for the "unstable" man in James 1:8. Our tongues, the instrument of our powerful words, flail around, striking without focus or clear intent. And when they strike, they are full of deadly poison.

In his description of our tongues, the way we use our words, James leaves little room for comforting ourselves. As he will say in the following verses, even when we use our words for good purposes, we might very well use them for harm in the next moment. Our tongues are uncontrollable, powerful, evil, and hurtful. Period.

His characterization is all the more disturbing because James is not suggesting that our actual tongues—the flaps of muscle in our mouths—are themselves possessed of evil. This is a point James will clarify in upcoming verses. Agreeing with Jesus, James would say that it is "out of the abundance of the heart [our] mouth speaks" (Luke 6:45). Just as our deeds reveal our faith, our words reveal our hearts. We can't tame our tongues on our own, because we can't change our sinful nature on our own.

Next, James will give examples of the evil ways we use our words.