For in many things we offend all. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body.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.
What I am about to say is simply the thoughts and opinions of one man, but to me, this is simply one of the most vivid and descriptive passages in all of God’s Word. As we have covered, James is teaching the point that one of the ways we illustrate Christian maturity is by learning to control our tongue. He has also made the point earlier that by controlling our tongue, we can control the entirety of our bodies.
This seems rather like the two greatest commandments, the ones given by Jesus to the questioning Scribe in Matthew Chapter 22. When the scribe was attempting to trip Jesus up by pinning Him down to stating one commandment as more weighty than another, Jesus neatly rolled them all up in two simple directives: Love God above all else, and love one’s neighbor as oneself. The reason He did this was to show that by doing these two things, all other requirements would naturally follow as an outflow.
The tongue is like that. We can see in Verse 2 of our passage James stating that if a man can learn to control his tongue, he can control his entire body. James doesn’t seem to mean this in a literal sense, but in a metaphorical sense regarding the whole of our behavior. In other words, if what issues from our mouth tends to be God-honoring and God-exalting, then likely the rest of our behavior will be as well. Then he moves on to show two very clear examples of the smallest of things exercising the greatest of control.
The first example is that of a horse. It’s quite amazing, really that an animal weighing in at over a half a ton can be easily controlled by a 100-pound rider simply through a tiny metal bit in their mouth. Likewise, the direction and course of a large ship can be controlled by no more than a small rudder which is only a fraction of the size of the ship.
Our tongues and our speech are like the bit or the rudder. They are only a small part of us physically, but they can and do turn us in whatever direction they point. If our speech is Christlike, then we will be likewise Christlike. If our speech is the opposite, then our behavior will be as well.