Jamesby Douglas Estes
James 3:1 signals a new topic with the introduction ″My fellow believers″. The author now turns the readers' attention to how our words affect our lives. As usual, he mixes issues, proverbs, and examples together to encourage his readers.
In reading James' first statement, we get a distinct sense that he was worried about too many people pushing to become teachers too quickly. In the ancient world, a teacher was often seen as a leader, and the position carried more authority than it does today; a ″teacher″ then may have been more like ″pastor″ or ″professor″ now. Since people were seeking the position whether they were qualified or not, James warns that ″we who teach will be judged more strictly″ (v. 1).
It is not clear what prompted his concerns. Were there increasing numbers of teachers who taught inaccurately? Or were there increasing numbers of teachers who knew the material intellectually, but whose words showed them to be immature or hypocritical? Both of these scenarios would have damaged kingdom growth. Teaching others, especially in spiritually-critical situations such as a Bible study or sermon, should not be undertaken lightly. James quickly adds, however, that no one is perfect. If it were possible for someone to always speak well, they would be perfect (v. 2)! Next we have three examples that flesh out James' concerns on speaking and teaching. In his letter, the word ″tongue″ (v. 5) is used to depict our way of speaking to others.
First, James compares our ″tongue″ to the metal bits placed in the mouths of horses to control them (v. 3). Second, he compares our ″tongue″ to the rudders of large ships (v. 4). The point he is making in both cases is that a small object (the tongue, bit, or rudder) directs a much larger object (the person, horse, or ship). In other words, just as a small rudder can steer a big ship the wrong way, so too can a small word from a person's mouth steer that person the wrong way, such as through ″great boasts″ (v. 5). When we speak carelessly and hurtfully to others, it steers our lives toward sin.
Third, James compares our ″tongue″ to the spark that starts a huge fire (v. 5). The point he is making is that even though the spark itself may be small, the damage it causes is extensive. He also notes that the tongue becomes like this fire, but the fire of the tongue does not just harm others-it also consumes the speaker (v. 6)! Our temptation to boast and speak unwell of others starts from our sinfulness. If we speak evil, it is like a fire that ″corrupts the whole body″ (v. 6); it engulfs us in flames and destroys the trajectory of our lives. It is a challenge to always speak well, but one that we believers must undertake.
Why is the tongue so damaging in our relationships with others? What about with God?
What are some concrete or practical steps we can take to prevent our tongues from controlling us?