James 3:1-12 is an iconic lesson for us all. Just about everyone knows this intense letter from the half-brother of Jesus. What is there for us to take away from these jam-packed verses?
“2 For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. 3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. 4 Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.” James 3:2-5 ESV
Verses 2-5 are some of my favorites. The imagery he uses is beautiful and makes his powerful message memorable. When I read verse 4—
“Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs”— James 3:4 ESV
I imagine a Pirates of the Caribbean-style ship; a massive vessel made out of wood with masts as tall as skyscrapers and a plank for those ship hands who irritate the captain. Still, a small rudder in the sea guides this vessel that can be tossed and turned by the wind and waves. James tells us that like a bridle and a ship rudder, our tongue is small, but; though one of the smallest members of the body, it can turn our course. Neither the horse nor the ship can be guided without a rider or captain. Our tongue sometimes acts as leader and changes the direction we intended to go without our permission; for example when things burst from our mouths without us thinking about them first.
“5How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! 6 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.” James 3:5-6 ESV
These verses make me think of Smokey the Bear’s “Only you can prevent forest fires,” and Smokey is right. If you leave your campsite after a fun weekend in the mountains and you did not put the fire completely out, those embers can catch fire and ignite the whole forest. Our words can cause similar chaos. Has anyone ever said anything that made you think of and see them differently afterwards? Our tongues can stain and ruin our image to those around us.
Now for verses 7 and 8, I want to share a little piece of a friend’s testimony with you. I met Caleb during my mission work in Haiti. He was there for probably the tenth time with his church. One night Caleb shared with me and then the group how when he was growing up his teachers would tell him he was not smart and would never amount to anything. This made him view himself the way they viewed him, as worthless. He shared that it was not until he got much older that he realized these statements were lies, and he decided to prove them wrong by making something amazing out of himself. Caleb is now the founder of Caleb’s Shoes, a skilled tattoo artist, and wants to open a permeant ministry in Haiti in the future, teaching different life skills that he has picked up throughout his life.
These teachers set in place Caleb’s course of life with their words. They were not thinking about how what they said could affect him, only getting their frustrations out, but their words affected the way he saw himself for years. Our words can do the same. Those words we say in anger or frustration often do not represent our true feelings, but they can still cause harm. A small flame can so easily become a forest fire.
9 “With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.“ James 3:9-10 ESV
Are we not image bearers of God? Therefore, when we curse those made in the image of God, we are cursing the Creator.
11” Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.” James 3:11-12 ESV
When I think about verse 11, the Dead Sea pops into my mind; specifically, an article I read recently about an artist who submerged a Victorian-style dress into it for months on end. The salt content in the water created what looks like a ghost dress. Although this experiment made for a very interesting art piece, it gives us a great look at how destructive salt can be to something beautiful.
Then I imagined what that dress would have looked like had it been submerged in a fresh mountain stream for months. It probably would have come out looking the same, or maybe even with brighter colors from all the natural minerals in the water. One is life bringing, one is destructive, but neither can be both.
Have you ever seen the edge of a fresh water river and the beginning of the ocean? Because of their different densities and salt content, they will not mix. In the same way, our language does not need to mix good with evil, bad-mouthing with flattery, or praise with cursing.
Our tongue can be our enemy if we allow it to be, James even goes as far to call it “8 a restless evil, full of deadly poison” James 3:8 ESV. Overall, James is trying to make the point of “Walk the Talk.” If we profess to be saved and children of God, our language needs to match that. Say someone you know is wondering about Christianity. So they look to you, the only professing Christian they know. They overhear you at work gossiping about a co-worker, or complaining that a homeless man asked you for spare change on your way out of the restaurant where you ate lunch. Do you think they have an accurate representation of Christ here? NO! James says earlier in Chapter 1:22, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only” James 1:22 ESV. We need to be cautious of our words because we never know who is listening.
James addresses this section of scripture to the “teachers” of the Word. Until I wrote this post I thought he was speaking to church leaders and people who were risking their lives to spread the gospel; however, we are all teachers. We may not all be pastors, but we all represent who God is by the way we show and profess Him.
Let’s be individuals who not only proclaim Christ, but show Him—starting with our speech.
What are some ways we can practice bridling our tongue? Please share with us your ideas on ways we can practice this in the comments.
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