James has explained to us two characteristics of the mature Christian: he is patient in trouble (James 1) and he practices the truth (James 2). In this section, he shares the third characteristic of the mature believer: he has power over his tongue.
A pastor friend told me about a member of his church who was a notorious gossip. She would “hang on the phone” most of the day, sharing tidbits with any and all who would listen.
She came to the pastor one day and said, “Pastor, the Lord has convicted me of my sin of gossip. My tongue is getting me and others into trouble.”
My friend knew she was not sincere because she had gone through that routine before. Guardedly he asked, “Well, what do you plan to do?”
“I want to put my tongue on the altar,” she replied with pious fervor.
Calmly my friend replied, “There isn’t an altar big enough” and he left her to think it over.
The Christians James wrote to were apparently having serious problems with their tongues. James had warned them to be “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). The believer who does not control his tongue is not truly religious (James 1:26). We must speak and act as though we were already facing Christ in judgment (James 2:12). When you read passages like James 4:1, 11–12, you get the impression that this assembly must have had some interesting meetings!
The power of speech is one of the greatest powers God has given us. With the tongue, man can praise God, pray, preach the Word, and lead the lost to Christ. What a privilege! But with that same tongue, he can tell lies that could ruin a man’s reputation or break a person’s heart. The ability to speak words is the ability to influence others and accomplish tremendous tasks; and yet we take this ability for granted.
In order to impress on us the importance of controlled speech and the great consequences of our words, James gave us six pictures of the tongue: the bit, the rudder, fire, a poisonous animal, a fountain, and a fig tree. We can put these six pictures into three meaningful classifications that reveal the three powers of the tongue.
Power to Direct: the Bit and Rudder (James 3:1–4)
Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.
When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go.
Apparently, everybody in the assembly wanted to teach and be a spiritual leader for James had to warn them: “Not many of you should become teachers” (3:1). Perhaps they were impressed with the authority and prestige of the office, and forgot about the tremendous responsibility and accountability! Those who teach the Word face the stricter judgment. Teachers must use their tongue to share God’s truth and it is easy to commit sins of the tongue. Furthermore, teachers must practice what they teach; otherwise, their teaching is hypocrisy. Think of the damage that can be done by a teacher who is unprepared or whose spiritual life is not up to par.
But teachers are not the only ones who are tempted and sin; every Christian must admit that “we all stumble in many ways” (3:2). And sins of the tongue seem to head the list. The person who is able to discipline his tongue gives evidence he can control his whole body. He proves that he is a mature (perfect) man.
Is James making a mistake by connecting sins of the tongue with sins committed by “the whole body”? No, because words usually lead to deeds. During World War II, people were accustomed to seeing posters that read LOOSE LIPS SINK SHIPS! But loose lips also wreck lives. A person makes an unguarded statement and suddenly finds himself involved in a fight. His tongue has forced the rest of his body to defend itself.
In selecting the bit and the rudder, James presented two items that are small of themselves, yet exercise great power, just like the tongue. A small bit enables the rider to control the great horse and a small rudder enables the captain to steer the huge ship. The tongue is a small member in the body and yet it has the power to accomplish great things.
Both the bit and the rudder must overcome contrary forces. The bit must overcome the wild nature of the horse, and the rudder must fight the winds and currents that would drive the ship off its course. The human tongue also must overcome contrary forces. We have an old nature that wants to control us and make us sin. There are circumstances around us that would make us say things we ought not to say. Sin on the inside and pressures on the outside are seeking to get control of the tongue.
This means both the bit and the rudder must be under the control of a strong hand. The expert horseman keeps the mighty power of his steed under control and the experienced pilot courageously steers the ship through the storm. When Jesus Christ controls the tongue, then we need not fear saying the wrong things—or even saying the right things in a wrong way! “Death and life are in the power of the tongue,” warned Solomon (Prov. 18:21). No wonder David prayed, “Set a guard over my mouth, Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips. Do not let my heart be drawn to what is evil” (Ps. 141:3–4). David knew that the heart is the key to right speech. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34). When Jesus is the Lord of the heart, then He is Lord of the lips too.
The bit and rudder have the power to direct, which means they affect the lives of others. A runaway horse or a shipwreck could mean injury or death to pedestrians or passengers. The words we speak affect the lives of others. A judge says “Guilty!” or “Not Guilty!” and those words affect the destiny of the prisoner, his family, and his friends. The President of the United States speaks a few words and signs some papers, and the nation is at war. Even a simple yes or no from the lips of a parent can greatly affect the direction of a child’s life.
Never underestimate the guidance you give by the words you speak or do not speak. Jesus spoke to a woman at a well, and her life and the lives of her neighbors experienced a miraculous change (John 4). Peter preached at Pentecost and 3,000 souls came to salvation through faith in Christ (Acts 2).
On April 21, 1855, Edward Kimball went into a Boston shoe store and led young Dwight L. Moody to Christ. The result: one of history’s greatest evangelists, a man whose ministry still continues. The tongue has the power to direct others to the right choices.
It would do us all good to read frequently the Book of Proverbs and to note especially the many references to speech. “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov. 15:1). “Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord” (Prov. 12:22). “Sin is not ended by multiplying words, but the prudent hold their tongues” (Prov. 10:19). Yes, the tongue is like a bit and a rudder: it has the power to direct. How important it is that our tongues direct people in the right way!
In Part 2, we will look at two more powers of the tongue: destroy and delight.