1 Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment. 2 For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well. 3 Now if we put the bits into the horses’ mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well. 4 Look at the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires.
I’m pretty sure James had me in mind when he wrote this section of his letter. As he concluded his section on deeds and faith, he has turned now to our speech. He opens this section by exemplifying the power we hold in our tongues. No, I don’t mean how much weight we can lift, but rather how much our tongue guides us and leaves an impression on others.
I know by experience that words spoken can leave a lasting impression, good or bad. His opening sentence reflects this as he warns against becoming a “teacher”. One who speaks more than most people and in fact relies on his/her communication skills to perform their duties, a teacher is held at a higher expectation in speech in comparison to the common populace. So then, James warns us that by becoming a teacher (not just of the Word, but of anything) we will be judged more strictly and watched more closely. I have heard that nowadays, teachers must allow perspective employers to surf their facebook profiles just to see how they communicate with the world. Leading into verse 2, we see this standard.
James’ statement of a “perfect man” is not necessarily perfect in the sense of without sin, rather a mature, professional person of sound and bridled speech. He says that if a man is able to watch his tongue, then he is also able to watch what he does. To me, this indicates that watching your speech is much harder than being able to control your actions. This might make those of us who are still working on perfecting our actions feel like our speech will forever be flawed. Indeed it should feel that way and in turn motivate us to work harder than ever if we truly want to glorify God and respect others with what we say.
By taking care of how we speak, however, we in turn will be able to control our actions. Why is this? What is the connection here? I believe it is the heart. You see, things we do and say are merely reflections of our heart condition and our true, innermost being. This has been James’ point from the start. We all know that there are many thoughts we have that we do not act on, because we “know better”. However, there are many thoughts we have that while we may refrain from acting on them, we still speak what we are thinking. It’s easier to say just something instead of do it, especially when we have accustomed ourselves to play it off as a “joke” or a temporary lapse of control: “the filter between my brain and my mouth wasn’t working.”
In James analogy of the ship, rudder, and pilot in verse 4, I’d like to make the literal connections with ourselves. The ship is obviously our body. The rudder is the tongue. Who is the pilot? We can agree that the pilot will determine how the rudder turns and as a result, where the ship will go. If we look at the pilot being ourselves (our brain), we can then introduce the downfalls of man: pride, need for control, rash decision making, thinking we know what’s best when we don’t have a clue, etc. However, if we let Christ be the pilot, He will set the best course for us and for the Kingdom.
Who is piloting your ship?