Meditations in James: 29 : Steered by the Tongue
Jas 3:3-5 When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts.
We take life for granted. We don’t think about the things we do, because they are so natural. We get up in the morning. We get dressed, eat breakfast, go out for the day, come home, eat, rest and sleep – every day! We have eyes to see, ears to hear and mouths to speak, and we take them all for granted. Take the mouth for example. We may get up in the morning and so we groan about the day negatively. We turn on breakfast TV, or breakfast radio, or read a morning paper, and grumble about the state of the world. We complain about a bus or train being late, or about the weather. We criticise people in the news and at work. And we wonder why we feel so negative about life. We speak thoughtlessly to someone and we hurt or upset them and a relationship is broken. We speak hastily and the die is cast and a decision made that was unwise. Our mouths play a large part in expressing what we feel, in determining what we feel, and in creating or breaking relationships with other people. Oh yes, our tongue is a powerful bit of our body, and the wise person thinks about this.
James has been guiding us to think about our lives and has been challenging us about the nature of them as we live them out in the midst of the world that is so often hostile to us and to God. He’s talked about the link between faith and deeds, and he’s gone on to allude to spiritual maturity, something we should be aiming for. Have you ever used Google Earth or some other satellite system that looks down on the earth? You see the earth from a distance and then you can zoom down and roads become visible and then, as you get nearer, buildings take shape, and then details can be seen and, if it was a real shot, even people seen. We zoom in and more and more detail is seen. That’s what James is now doing. He is zooming in on our lives and focusing specifically on that all-important organ, our tongue!
He doesn’t go into immediate teaching about it; he paints pictures that make us think about it. He speaks first about the bit in the mouth of a horse. It’s a very obvious picture. As the rider pulls on the reins the horse’s head is pulled round and its body follows the direction of the head. The implication is that we go where our tongue takes us. There is a sense that the tongue controls the whole body. Yes, we know that the tongue speaks what is in the heart: “out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.” (Lk 6:45). As we feel on the inside so we speak, but it is as we speak so our direction is set. We speak and others hear what we say, and we are committed. If we keep quiet, we are not committed; it is only as we speak is our path set. What we say, we tend to do.
Then James gives another picture, that of a ship. Oh yes, he says, there may be big waves and strong winds, but it is the rudder of the ship that determines where it goes. The rudder is so small in comparison to the rest of the ship, but it is still the part that determines the course of the boat. The same implication is there. Our course is determined by such a small part of us. Someone offers us as job. We say, “Yes, I’ll take it.” Our course is set by our tongue. Someone chides us for wrong behaviour. We lash back with our tongue defensively. Unfortunately they were our manager, and our future hope of promotion has just gone. Our course is set. In a marriage, a row ensues and angry words create division. No healing words are spoken and the rift gets bigger. A course is being set. It is our words that set our course. Think back over the past week or month and see if you can identify times when your words set the course of what was to follow. Think about things that are yet to happen today or tomorrow and consider how your words will set the course of what is to follow.
James gives a strong warning to finish this verse: the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. What is boasting? It is speaking out and making claims that are untrue, claims that we are bigger and better than is really true. The tiny tongue can say such silly things, but they are things that make other people think less of us; they are things that lead us further into self-deception. Boasting reveals pride and it reveals foolish thinking, but even worse, it leads us along a course that is damaging to us.
Before we go anywhere else with James in this consideration of the use of the tongue, can we realize how significant our words are? Can we realize what our words do? Can we see that they reveal the state of our hearts and the also commit us to the path ahead. We will, in the days ahead, be determining our paths, partly by what we will be saying. That needs thinking about!