Summary: A sermon on the tongue. James says the tongue controls, destroys, and cannot be tamed, but fortunately there is one Perfect Man, Jesus Christ, and he points us to Him.
Can you figure out this riddle? “I am often held, but never touched. I am always wet, but never rust. I often bite, but I am seldom bit. To use me well, you must have wit. What am I?” Can you figure it out? Ready for the answer? It is…the tongue! The tongue can be held without being touched. It won’t rust (at least hopefully not). It can bite although it has no teeth. As we continue our time in James, we find ourselves in chapter three, and the first half of this chapter is all about the tongue. The tongue is an important thing in the book of James. The book has a 108 verses across five chapters, and 46 of those 108 verses in some way, some shape, some form, some how, deal with the tongue, language, or speech. That is 43% of the book of James. Or, to see it another way, two out of every five verses in James deals with the tongue. And in chapter three, we see his most concentrated teachings on it. And what does he say about it? Let’s find out.
James begins by giving a warning to teachers and other leaders in the church. He writes, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” Why is that? It is because false teachings can destroy or damage the faith of those who are taught. But as James moves on, he instructs both the teacher and the taught. His following words encompass all people.
“For we all stumble in many ways.” James admits that we all sin, and uses this stumbling imagery for it. When we stumble, we still stay on the path and move forward, even though we might be spreading our arms out and hitting the pavement hard. It is a good comparison to sin. We may stumble, but that does not mean that we completely fallen away from the faith. We are still going forward. But James is not done with this stumbling imagery, just yet. He continues: “If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.” James begins to dive in here about the tongue, and alludes to his first point on it.
It can be hard not to stumble in what we say. We can say things carelessly, in anger, frustration, or panic. We speak without thinking. Some of us might be known for this. We can lie, use self-justifying words, harmful ones, or use empty ones. The apostle says that these are not without effect. They can effect our lives, and our bodies. He explains that the tongue can control us, and he uses a farming example to illustrate his point.
He says, “If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well.” It is crazy to think that a little one pound bit can control an animal that can weigh up to 2,000 pounds. Move the bit to the left, the horse goes left. Move it to the right, it goes right along. Move it up to make it go faster, and pull it down to make the hulking horse come to a halt. One little thing controls a huge animal. But James drives the point home with another image immediately following. “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.” Ships were one of the fastest ways of travel in the ancient world. They would carry crews and cargo. They would be moved along by large gusts of wind. But what calls the shots on such a mighty vessel? The little rudder that controls where it goes. What is James’ point? What does the tongue, a bit, and a rudder have in common? It is that something so small can affect something much larger. Something so small can control such a large thing. Our little, teeny, tiny tongues can control our entire bodies, and direct our lives.
Our tongue can control and affect our actions, believe it or not. This is seen well in the movie Wonder. In the movie, Auggie Pullman has Treachers Collins Syndrome, which is a severe facial deformity. Throughout the movie, you see the poor boy undergo ruthless teasing. He is compared to Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars, a character whose face is wrinkly and deformed from an injury. He is called a freak, monster, ugly, unlovable, and disease riddled, and they begin to treat him as such. It got to the point that if you touched Auggie, you would be temporarily alienated from the other kids because you would get his “cooties.” Their tongue controlled their actions.