“Behold, we put bits in the horses’ mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body. Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth.” (James 3:3–4, AV)
We often underestimate the power of what we say. Yet our words are powerful and they can be used for blessing or cursing. James gives us two metaphors focusing on the words we speak. He gives first the picture of a bit in a hoses mouth. The bit is attached to the reins and when the rider pulls on the rein on one side or the other, the horse will change the corresponding direction of travel. Now, the rider is miniscule compared to the horse, and the bit itself is even smaller. However, even though it is small, it will control the directional course of the horse.
It is the same with a sailing ship. The power of the wind in the sails propels the ship. However, the direction the ship travels is at the whim of the winds unless there is a controlling force. The rudder of the ship is a small part in comparison to the ship and yet, in the hands of the helmsman the rudder steers the ship to the desired course.
Relatively small parts such as the bit in the mouth of the horse and the rudder on a ship have tremendous ability to control direction. James indicates that our tongues, that is what we say, has the power to direct lives. The control of the tongue has the ability to control others and one’s self. If we consider this in context with the way James began this discourse regarding words, teachers should be aware of the significant power they have to direct their students (v1). Thus, poorly chosen words or improper teaching will likely have the effect of leading people down an incorrect path. Properly chosen words and correct teaching will have the effect of leading people on the correct path.
Yet, there is another very important thought here. It is not just the words spoken by teachers that have power regarding others. Every person wields a mighty powerful force with his or her words. One’s words can change the atmosphere in a room, a meeting, or a relationship in a minute. When I ran a manufacturing plant and things were not going well, I could make things worse by becoming pessimistic and saying things that would destroy morale or I could be upbeat and encouraging, which would improve morale and improve the overall operation. Our words have a powerful influence on others.
Yet, our words also have a powerful influence on us also. In many ways, how we speak reflects upon our character. Others perceive our character and our character flaws through our spoken words. The net result is that in this way, the perception of others towards us actually controls the direction of our own lives.
For all these reasons, it behooves us to control our tongues. However, our old nature very often jumps up in our speech. We will find it impossible to control our tongues on a consistent basis when we walk by the flesh and not the Spirit. Frankly, we need someone to control our tongues for us so that we do not head down the wrong path. We who have experienced true faith in Christ, have a blessed advantage. We have the Holy Spirit indwelling us. We need to work at yielding to the Spirit in every aspect of our lives. He must be the helmsman of what we communicate, for He will never lead us on the wrong path. He will always lead us on the path of righteousness.