James is famous for his bold, convicting rebukes regarding the use of our tongue. But it is important to see that James’ discussion of the tongue is just one illustration of the many ways that we all offend God: “We all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body” (3:2).
Our use of words is not the ultimate example of our sinfulness; it is just one example of many!
The Untameable Tongue
Just as a big horse is guided by a small bit, and a ship is governed by a small rudder, and a huge fire is started by a small flame — the tongue has disproportionate power to do good or evil (vv.3-5). This small tongue that has such a big effect should be easy to control, right? Just like the horse’s bit, the ship’s rudder, and the small flame. But we can’t control our tongues! Why?
Sinclair Ferguson observes,
“[The tongue] is so small. It has no bone. And yet it is so powerful to build up and destroy. Why does it do that? Because it carries the breath of our souls into the world in which you live.”
The wickedness of the words we speak is the breath coming out of our souls; it is an expression of what is in our hearts. And so too often our tongue is doing evil, in fact a world of unrighteousness: “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” (v.6).
As these small examples of big influences, just so is the tongue among our members. “Our” — the apostle and brother of Jesus includes himself among those who have this affliction, this sin problem that is displayed in a tongue problem. But notice the flow here: the “whole body” is defiled by the tongue; because it inflames what is already in our nature; and this tongue-flame itself comes from hell, from something deeper and darker within us.
In other words, the big problem is not that we use our tongues the wrong way. The problem is that our sinful nature leads us to say wrong and wicked things, and then the nature of others helps this small flame to catch on and blow all over the place like a forest fire.
The problem is the nature inside us that guides the tongue, and the problem is the nature in other people that gives wind to the flames we start with our tongue!
The Perfect Man
Truly, we all stumble in many ways. The wicked way we use our words is just one of many examples, James says, of the depravity of our hearts.
Thus, the answer for our tongue problem — as with the many other ways that we stumble and sin — is not, “Clean up your act, and start using your words in better ways.” James pointedly insists, “No human being can tame the tongue” (v. 8). Just as no one can overcome any other sin, or their own sinful nature, in their own strength or by mere force of will.
Let’s go back to verse 2: “If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.” While many Bible students rush to say that “perfect” here means “mature,” is it possible that James actually had in mind a perfect man?
James, the brother of Jesus, had seen a perfect man; he had observed first hand someone who had never stumbled with a single word; he knew someone who had bridled his whole body!
James is convinced that, because we all stumble in many ways, none of us can bridle our tongue. But James is pointing us to the only “perfect man” who has ever lived. He is our only hope, not only for overcoming sinful words, but for successfully bridling our sinful nature.
We all stumble in many ways, but Jesus did not stumble even in his use of words. We need this “perfect man.”