Our study of James thus far has made it clear that true faith responds to the tribulations of life in several ways. When we genuinely trust in the Lord, we remember that God is the source only of good gifts and is never the source of temptation (James 1:12–18). Authentic faith also manifests itself in a concern to obey the royal law of Jesus Christ (2:8–13).
One practical way in which we can obey this royal law is to take care to bridle our tongue (1:26). As Christians, we are called to be quick to hear and slow to speak so that we might be slow to anger and avoid sin (vv. 19–21). Indeed, if we are able to control our tongues, we will be able to control our entire bodies (3:2).
In today’s passage, James continues his extended emphasis on the importance of watching over and controlling one’s speech. In verses 3 and 4 of chapter 3, the tongue is compared with both the bit used to control horses and the rudders used to steer ships. Interestingly, the ancient Greek and Jewish philosophers (Aristotle and Philo, respectively) also used similar metaphors in some of their writings. The widespread use of such illustrations would have made James’ point clear to the original audience. Just as a small object can direct a large horse or a great ship, so too can a small organ like the tongue direct one’s larger life.
The important concept here is direction. Some have questioned James’ use of these metaphors because while bits and rudders can serve to control the larger bodies of horses and boats, the tongue, strictly speaking, does not offer much control over one’s body.
However, the tongue does offer much direction in our lives, for good or ill. With words we can either build up edifying relationships or destroy them. With our mouth we can either bless God or blaspheme His holy name. Like rudders that direct ships through treacherous seas, our tongues can direct us either towards safety or peril.
The tongue is among the smallest of our organs, but paradoxically, it can exert the most influence. It can boast of great things, whether for righteousness or evil (v. 5a).
Look back over your life and consider how your tongue has directed it. Try to think of times when your tongue has benefitted you and when it has created trouble for you. Ask yourself in what direction you are steering yourself with your tongue. Begin using your tongue to further your spiritual growth. Thank those who have blessed you, apologize to those about whom you have spoken harshly and unjustly, and offer spoken praise to God today.