Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 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. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. 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. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! (James 3:1–5, ESV)
It is one of the most horrific and disturbing sounds on the face of the planet. It can awaken from a deep sleep, strike panic into the heart of a grown man and can incite severe outbursts of murderous rage. It is the sound of a mosquito in my bedroom in the middle of the night. More than once have I combed the recesses of our bedroom, rolled up magazine in hand, looking for the vile offender.
While the scenario is admittedly overstated, I am amazed that such a small, little, insignificant bug can cause me so much grief! They cause problems everywhere they go — camping trips, fishing, summer-time BBQ’s — that little guy can be quite the instigator!
Today’s passage tells us that our little tongues can be the same way. Small and insignificant compared to the rest of our body, that slender pink muscle has done irreparable damage countless times. Ever the illustrator, James paints two pictures, one of bits in horses mouths and the other of a rudder on a ship. The bit and the rudder are small when compared to the object they’re directing, but have the ability to completely change the direction the horse or ship.
Our tongues work the same way. We can completely change the direction of a person’s day or even their life by our spoken word. Let that sink in for a bit. Perhaps you’re reflecting back to a recent scenario during which you “set a fire” (v.5) with your tongue. It may be time to go back and seek forgiveness for what you said. Certainly not easy, but definitely God-glorifying. That little guy can bring about so much grief. Think carefully before you speak (James 1:19-20). Don’t react, but give thought to your words.
When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent. (Proverbs 10:19, ESV)
Don’t forget that the opposite is true is well. Great things can be done by one well-timed phrase. While the tongue has the power to destroy, it also has the ability to build, to encourage and comfort. Take time to use that little guy for good today.