When we as believers appear before the judgment—seat of Christ, we will be held accountable for three things: 1) the truth we understood; 2) the opportunities He gave us to share that truth; 3) and how we responded in obedience to Him. “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briers. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” (Luke 6:43-45)
Today, we begin the 3rd chapter of James. The first half of the chapter is about Taming the Tongue. James writes about the tongue just as he concluded writing about deeds (actions) we do because of our faith. I believe that James wants us to know that no matter the deeds we perform or actions we take because of our faith, if we speak with an evil tongue, we can negate it all, especially in the eyes of non-believers.
“Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check. 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.” (James 3:1-5a)
God holds us all accountable for what we have learned as well as how we instruct others. In the various situations of life, we are often both receiving instruction and giving instruction, so he warns that we need to examine ourselves closely and realize that God holds those accountable who would instruct or correct others, whether toward the brethren, our mates, our children, or our friends. “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” (Psalm 139:23-24)
Teachers, of course, will have great opportunities to admonish people to grow in the Lord. If they lead them astray—as the false prophets were doing—or act out of selfish ambition rather than obedience, they will be held accountable. “If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.” (1 Cor. 3:12-15)
We all make mistakes—and probably a majority of them are verbal. The challenge before us is to learn to control our words and use them effectively in dealing with others. For followers of Christ, “effective use of words” is using them as Christ and the Father do. If we do anything less, we stumble and run the risk of offending. So great is this challenge that, if we can master our tongue, we have in essence come to master our entire bodies. We could conclude from this that our bodies function as they are instructed. We instruct our bodies and minds through words, whether spoken or thought. In other words, the mind speaks, and the body follows. We lead ourselves, as well as others, with our words.
Since the tongue is so difficult to control, those who control it perfectly gain control of themselves in all other areas of life as well. James uses metaphors from common experience to illustrate his cardinal point that great results can be achieved by small means. The tongue is a small part of the body that is capable of creating great disasters.
- The horse (a powerful animal) can be rendered as docile as a puppy by placing a small bit in its mouth, through which it learns to obey every command its master might give it.
- Words, like wind, can be unbelievable forces of destruction that leave nothing and no one standing in their paths. But tamed, slowed down and controlled, they can be refreshing, fragrant breezes across our faces.
- The wind will blow, toss, even destroy the ship’s rigging, but the rudder guides the ship exactly where it directs.
James wants us to contemplate—as horses are controlled by bits in the mouth and ships by rudders below the stern—what tools we might use to control our words, which can be as dynamic as a horse or fierce as the wind? Learning to use that bit and rudder is the challenge!
James warns that the size of the tongue is no measure of the power it wields. The tongue is a little member (v. 5), but its power and influence for good or bad are out of proportion to its size. A person may do seemingly selfless, good works, and yet their words betray the true intentions of their hearts—pride, lust, and dishonesty. The tongue and the spoken word are powerful and can set the course of your life. Though you try to suppress the sinfulness and hide the selfish ambitions within, these often are revealed by what you say. This is why you need Jesus Christ to sanctify—or transform—you from the inside out, and give Him mastery over your tongue.