As James changes gear into the second half of his letter, he wants us to see that words are powerful. Every great movement in history is driven by a great speaker—Jesus, Mohammad, Martin Luther King. A teacher’s greater capacity for influence comes with greater responsibility before God. So, James says, teachers should feel a healthy caution and care.
Of course, James goes on to say, this really applies to all of us.
1. Watch your tongue because it has great power for good
If you’re a city-dweller, you may never have seen a real one up close, so let me tell you as a country boy: horses are massive. And yet, four-year-old girls can learn to ride and control them all because of the “bit.” The “bit” is a strip of leather or metal that goes between the horse’s teeth and acts like a steering wheel. If you control the bit, you control the whole horse.
The same is true of a ship. No matter how large they are or how strong the winds get, if you control the rudder (a tiny piece of equipment), you are in control of the whole ship.
It’s exactly the same with the tongue. “Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts” (v. 5). The body tends to follow where the tongue leads. So, if you were to control your tongue, you would be perfectly self-controlled.
James quite rightly reassures us in verse 2 that none of us are perfect and we all get things wrong, especially in the words we say. But imagine if you never said anything wrong! How brilliant would it be if your words were always uplifting, always challenging, always loving, always kind? Imagine the good you could do in the world! In fact, you would be like Jesus.
Sadly, although James gives us something wonderful to aspire to, the tongue more commonly directs us into boasting and evil.
2. Watch your tongue because it has great power for evil
In January 2001, a motorist driving along a highway in San Diego County, US, flicked a cigarette butt out of his car. It sparked a forest fire that eventually burned more than 10,000 acres, destroyed 16 homes, and burned 64 vehicles.
All that from one spark.
The tongue is the same: it is small but destructive. James calls it evil, and even one carelessly uttered word can cause huge damage. Of all the parts of the body, verse 6 says, the tongue has the capacity to corrupt the whole of our being. It’s no use controlling the rest of you; if your tongue is going to spout evil, your whole body is doing evil.
Now, obviously, James is speaking metaphorically. It is not that our tongues have a life of their own and are somehow horrendously evil, and we ourselves are just innocent victims of its work. The truth is, as James says later in verse 12, “a fig tree bear olives”, the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. Our tongues are evil because our hearts are evil. Our tongues show our desperate, sinful state before God, and how badly we need Jesus to come and change us.
The good news is, as we will discover in other parts of the Bible: that’s just what Jesus is all about.
—James Bunyan, England
Questions for reflection
James Bunyan is a bit of a fidget, to be honest. His inability to sit still tends to spill over into all sorts of areas of his life; he loves travelling, good writing, all sports (except frisbee), the sense of purpose that the gospel gives him, exotic teas and the satisfaction of peeling off a sticker all in one go. He lives in Twickenham (London), where he works as a CU Staff Worker for UCCF: The Christian Unions, a student mission movement, and he recently married his best friend, Lois. That was a good move.
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