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The Power of the Tongue

3 Now if we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we direct their whole bodies. 4 And consider ships: Though very large and driven by fierce winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5 So too, though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts great things. Consider how a small fire sets ablaze a large forest. 6 And the tongue is a fire. The tongue, a world of unrighteousness, is placed among our members. It stains the whole body, sets the course of life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. (James 3:3-6)

In this section, James shows that, despite being a small part of the body, the tongue has great power, shown in three illustrations. Starting with verse 3, a rider uses a bit, a small assembly of metal components that can be placed inside a horses’ mouth, to direct and turn the head of the horse, which in turn, controls the direction of where the rider wants to go. With verse 4, even though there may be “fierce winds,” a sailor can use the rudder, which is very small in comparison to the size of the ship, to steer the entire ship. The final illustration is found in verse 5 in the second half, how a small flame could become a massive uncontrollable wildfire.

These illustrations are all summarized at the first half of verse 5, “So too, though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts great things.” Like how the bit is able to direct the horse, the rudder being able to guide the ship, or how the small flame can start a wildfire, the tongue, although small, can serve both good and bad purposes, depending on whether it is controlled or not.

And unfortunately, the tongue, due to our sin nature, is “a fire,” “a world of unrighteousness.” James gives three aspects of the tongue to warn his fellow believers. First, “it stains the whole body.” It has the power to corrupt and defile the entire personality, giving a bad testimony to others. Second, “sets the course of life on fire,” meaning that an uncontrolled tongue can cause damage that lasts through an entire individual’s life. Finally, the tongue is “itself set on fire by hell,” meaning that Satan has influence over the tongue.

Although the tongue is a small part of the body, as we have seen through these illustrations, it can do great good, but, because of sin, tends to be destructive if left unchecked. Therefore, may we be mindful of what we say, relying on God’s strength to overcome the temptation to do harm with our speech, and instead, as Paul says in Colossians 4:6, “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”


Isaac De Guzman


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