Think of what it must have been like to grow up with a brother who never lied, never sassed His mom, never gossiped, never told a naughty joke, never complained, never tattled, never swore, never reamed anyone out. Ever.
James grew up with a Brother just like that, so he knows exactly what he’s saying when he writes about the control of the tongue:
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. (JAM 3.2)
The real evidence that I am in control of my body is not how many reps I do, how much iron I pump, how far I run, how many carbs I eat, how many hours I sleep, how often I floss. It is whether or not I am able to control my tongue.
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. (JAS 3.3-5a)
James goes from controlling my own body to controlling the body of a horse. Although a horse is a large animal, it can be controlled easily by a small device in its mouth. Even a huge ship can be steered by a rudder–a relatively small component of its design. In the same way, James reminds us, the tiny tongue has great power.
From the tongue’s comparatively small size in proportion to its power, James moves to the destructive capacity of this little member. A cigarette butt tossed carelessly out the window of a passing car can ignite a fire that will destroy thousands of acres of forest, burn expensive houses to the ground, kill animals, and even result in the loss of human life. In the same way, my tongue can, with only a few words, set the course of my life–or someone else’s–because of its capacity to destroy. It is like a fire coming from hell itself.
How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! 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. (JAM 3.5b-6)
For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. (JAM 3.7-8)
We can control horses with bits and bridles, we can guide enormous ocean-going vessels with rudders, and we can domesticate and train all manner of animals. But without the aid of the Holy Spirit, the tongue is untamable.
With the same tongue we bless God and curse others. A spring does not produce both fresh and salt water, James says. A fig tree does not bear olives, nor a grape vine figs. One cannot find fresh water in a salt marsh. In the same way, the tongue that blesses God ought not to curse people.
With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water. (JAM 3.9-12)
The tongue will get me into a world of trouble unless I learn to use mine like Jesus used His.