We can make a large horse go wherever we want by means of a small bit in its mouth. And a small rudder makes a huge ship turn wherever the pilot chooses to go, even though the winds are strong. In the same way, the tongue is a small thing that makes grand speeches. But a tiny spark can set a great forest on fire. (James 3:3-6, NLT)
I have a modest collection of hand tools in my garage, one of which is a hammer. It, like most hammers, weighs around 20 ounces. It’s amazing what a 20 ounce hammer can do in the hands of a 175 pound man. He can use it to build a wall or he can use it to tear down a wall. The point here is that the hammer itself is neutral. It depends on the intent of the users as to whether it is used productively or destructively.
This is the point that James is driving home in the above section of chapter 3. The tongue is relatively small but disproportionately powerful. He illustrates this with three commonly understood examples: the horse’s bit, the ship’s rudder, and the spark of a fire. While it is tempting to parse these illustrations down to the bone, I’m not sure that’s James’ intent. He simply wants his audience to know that though it is small, the tongue can yield significant influence and impact. It can be used to provide guidance and direction, like the bit and the rudder. It can also be helpful, such as building a fire for cooking or warmth.
But when it is out of control it can lead to ruin. It can drive the proverbial ship into danger or burn down an entire forest. Like the hammer, the tongue is neutral. It depends on the individual whether it is used to bless and build or used to curse and destroy. What comes out of our mouths is a reflection of what is within our hearts. Therefore, we need to make sure we are listening to ourselves, for that may be the clearest indicator of what lies within our hearts and minds.