You may recall my story about the time I was a hospital attendant with the British Army in North Africa, and the doctor was asking his patients how they felt. He really was not too interested in the answer because the next thing he always said was, "Show me your tongue."
That is really what James is saying in these two verses. If you want to impress God with your religion, the first thing He will say is, "Show me your tongue." He is going to judge from your tongue whether your religion is valid and acceptable or not.
James uses a number of pictures to illustrate the function of the tongue in our lives. First, James 3:2 says:
“We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check.” (NIV)
James is saying that if you can control your tongue, you can control your whole life. You are a perfect man if you can control your tongue. Then he goes on in the remainder of this passage to give some illustrations from the natural world.
James 3:3-8 continues:
“When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” (NIV)
James is bringing out the unique significance and influence of the tongue for the whole course of our lives. The first example he uses is the bit in the horse’s mouth. He says, "If we succeed in putting a bit in a horse’s mouth, we can turn the whole animal around."
The horse, in the Bible, is usually a type of physical strength. James is saying that no matter how strong a horse is, if you can get control of its mouth with the bit, you can control the whole animal. The horse’s strength is brought into subjection through the control of its mouth. The same is true with us. That which controls our mouths controls the whole course of our lives.
Dear Father, I want my life to be guided by Your Holy Spirit. I pray that You would fill me with Your Spirit and that, through Him, You would help me control my tongue. I want to speak Your Word, to walk Your way, and to arrive at the destination You have prepared for me. In Jesus' Name, Amen.