“If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. 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. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.” James 3:3-6
James devotes a large part of his letter to warning of the danger of the tongue. He starts by using examples of how large ships and horses are controlled by something really small – a bit in the mouth of a horse will guide it and a rudder will direct a large ship to wherever the captain wants to go. Being small does not limit the power it has to affect the course. And so it is for the tongue. It is small in size compared to our arms or legs, but it is mighty in power. The tongue controls so much of the direction of our life. The words we say will open up opportunities for us, or shut them down. By our words we will make friends or enemies. We will build people up, or tear them down.
We need to realise the power there is in our mouth. We cannot just let words flood out without thinking. When we just let words spew out we risk “setting on fire the entire course of life”. During World War 2 there was a slogan “Careless talk costs lives” warning people not to share sensitive information that German spies could overhear. But I think it is true for us too. James is effectively teaching us that careless talk can cost souls. We need to be careful about what we say!
Proverbs gives us several reminders to be careful about what we say. Proverbs 15:2 teaches “The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly.” We want to be known as people who are wise, who do not pour out folly, who do not set on fire the entire course of our life and those around us. So before we speak we must ask God to give us wisdom, to guide our words and let them be used by Him, rather than being like the fools who just pour out whatever comes into their mind. Proverbs 17:28 teaches “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.” Sometimes less is more. At times when you don’t know what to say it can be better to say nothing rather than babble on and spew out foolishness. Better to say nothing and have people think you are a fool than to open your mouth and prove them right.