Four Small Things

In James 3:1–8, we find four examples of small things that have a big effect. James gives three examples that correspond to the fourth, the tongue, which is the theme of this chapter. All four seem relatively minor and insignificant, but they can have a tremendous effect, good or disastrous.

In verse three, the example is the bit in a horse’s mouth. The back of a Clydesdale can be up to six feet tall and the animal can weigh 1,600–2,400 pounds (as much as a small car). That’s a massive animal! But this huge animal is turned, stopped, and controlled by a small piece of metal in its mouth. Compared to the size of the horse, the bit is tiny; however, it makes a big difference! A little metal controls a huge and powerful horse.

In verse four, the second example is the rudder on a ship. A huge ship can be turned and guided by a relatively small rudder. Compared to the size of the boat, the rudder is not that big, but it affects the whole ship.

Now we might be tempted to think that these examples have to do with control: the bit controls the horse, and the rudder controls the ship, and so we should control our tongues. In fact, James speaks of “bridling” one’s entire body in verse two. However, James goes out of his way in verse eight to say we cannot control our tongues: “the tongue can no man tame.”

James’ point is not that we should control our tiny tongues; rather, the examples show the opposite: tiny things boast great results. The “punch line” is found at the beginning of verse five: “Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things.” Just like the bit is small but affects a huge animal, and just like the rudder is small in comparison to a big boat, so the tongue is small and seems insignificant, but it can have a huge effect.

James gives one more example: a raging fire. The second half of verse five speaks of a huge forest being set ablaze by a tiny spark. Out West, massive forest fires destroy thousands of acres every year. Are these fires started by gigantic fireballs or flamethrowers or huge explosions? Rarely. Usually they begin from a discarded cigarette or a campfire that somebody forgot to put out. That little spark or glowing ember seemed small, but it caused an enormous conflagration.

And, as James tells us in verse six, “The tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity.” The words we say may seem insignificant, but they can have a huge effect. They can destroy people. They can feed the fires of jealousy, greed, and lust. They can tear down a testimony that has taken years to build. We need to take our tongues seriously. They may be small, but they pack a big punch.

July 2008

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