Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder.

James 3:4

When I was a young boy, my Dad offered me some fatherly advice that has stuck with me through the years. It has in fact “saved my bacon” more than once. He said, “Son, remember divine mathematics: God gave you two ears and one mouth.” What we say, how we say it, and whether we say anything at all are timely considerations.

James—the brother of Jesus—became leader of the early Church in Jerusalem. Laced throughout his New Testament letter is practical advice about living together in community, but near the beginning he shows his pastoral concern about how we speak to and of each other:

Know this, beloved: let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger; for human anger does not produce the righteousness of God.

A bit later James uses the nautical image of a rudder to emphasize his point about our speech: Rudders are by comparison quite small, but they control large ships. He couples this image with those of a guiding bit in a horse’s mouth, and the potentially destructive power of even the tiniest flame. For good or ill, our tongues can pack a punch!

James recognizes human frailty and propensity to “stumble in many ways.” But if we do not trip over what we say, how we say it, or whether we say anything at all, it certainly can indicate that we are in firm control of the rest of our lives.

He also recognizes that despite our best intentions we can be inconsistent or even duplicitous with what comes out of our mouths:

With our tongue we bless our Lord and Father,and with it we curse people who are made in the image of God.

In his address, “The Weight of Glory,” delivered during World War II from the pulpit of Oxford’s Church of St. Mary the Virgin, C. S. Lewis says,

“It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter [in heaven]; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his [earthly] neighbor. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship…There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.”

If this is so, if we are in some sense caretakers of God’s image in others—however faint it might seem to us at any given time—then we do well to take care how we speak to and of them. Not mincing any words, even our Lord in his Sermon on the Mount said, “Anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”

In this awareness we turn to a prayer written by Eric Milner-White, once Dean of King’s College Cambridge and later of York Cathedral, with Anglican hymn writer George Wallace Briggs:

Set a watch, O Lord, upon my tongue,

that I may never speak the cruel word which is untrue,

or being true, is not the whole truth; or being wholly true, is merciless

for the love of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Michael Denham

Author: expositionalvision

Michael Denham has served many years as Director of Music Ministries at The National Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC.

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