Teaching and the Tongue
In this passage, James gives us some gold that we should all remember, cherish, and strive with might and main to live by. It’s all about the tongue and how powerful it is. Indeed, it is so powerful that few people should become teachers because the tongue is so easy to trip over: “For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle his whole body.” And this is the reason few should aspire to be teachers—it’s so easy to get things wrong, so easy in the moment to say the wrong thing, or just the wrong word. It’s so easy to offend, or to compromise for fear of offending. Words are supple things and easily misunderstood. Indeed, every preacher should feel a sense of dread when he stands behind the pulpit and why Sunday School teachers should feel that same sense of responsibility for what they say to their students. Remember that your primary audience is the Lord Almighty—that should provide you with the sense of gravitas needed for the occasion.
But as I said, this passage is more about the tongue than about teachers. And it leads into harsh description about the tongue which we shall take up tomorrow. But for now, I want to focus on those words, “And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle his whole body.” The gold that James gives us is one of the primary means of self-control, and that is to control our tongues. But the tongue is such a small thing! Yes, so are bits and rudders by which we guide animals and vessels much larger than ourselves. To paraphrase: “Control the tongue and you control your body,” James says.
I confess that I had never thought of matters this way. But James seems to suggest that if we have enough willpower to control our tongues, we should have enough to control other aspects of our bodies as well: eating, drinking, and our varied passions. Perhaps even control over our minds might occur as we plug evil or simply vain words from coming out and see to it that only blessings and necessary speech comes forth. Plugging the garbage might just change our habits of thinking.
Let’s face it: We talk too much. The novices in medieval monasteries weren’t allowed to talk at all—for years—so concerned they were for sinning with their tongues. Our social media world has no such scruples; Christians should. Let us learn again to control our tongues (and our electronic devices), and we might discover liberty in other matters of our lives as well.