In the last study James warned against a faith that was all talk and not backed up in our lives, but now he goes on to make it clear that our talk is a crucial aspect of our lives. The importance of keeping a tight rein on our tongues is something he flagged up earlier in the letter (1:26), but he now gives the matter fuller treatment.
Sometimes this first verse is taken to be the crucial lense through which to view the whole passage, which is taken to be particularly addressed to would-be teachers (and references to “the whole body” are taken to refer to the church). That seems a little strained to me though. The evidence within the letter is that taming the tongue is a church-wide problem – see the many references to angry, boastful, quarrelsome words – and it is a church-wide problem he is seeking to address. He chooses to introduce the topic, though, through this particular application. The warning here is pertinent not simply because “we who teach will be judged more strictly” but because, as Douglas Moo puts it: “The main tool of his ministry is also the part of the body most difficult to control.” It’s the difficulty of controlling the tongue that makes this warning against an overly quick presumption to teach so sharp.
We all sin in all manner of ways, but this particular aspect of our lives is of critical significance. Crucial to a mature godly life is control of the tongue. The two illustrations that follow show why this is so: despite the tongue’s small size, like a horse’s bit or a ship’s rudder, it has the power to effect the course of our lives, shaping what we are and do. Therefore control of the tongue brings control of the whole body – and I take it control implies not merely the ability to say nothing (for the more taciturn of us that comes relatively easily), but also the ability to use it as we should for good.
While still talking about the influence of our tongues over our whole lives, James now speaks of the negative side of this. Our tongues have huge destructive potential. Certainly our speech can be very poisonous in its effect on others (and that seems to have been the case among the Christians James is writing to, as we’ll see in the next study), but here he seems particularly to be saying that it has a destructive and corrupting influence on us. It is an area of godliness we cannot afford to treat lightly, therefore. If we don’t seek to control it, it will control us with ruinous consequences.
James acknowledges this inconsistency in all believers that we can praise God with our lips and then speak ill and cruelly of those made in his image. That inconsistency reveals the contradiction in our own hearts, still full of evil desires (1:14), yet with the life-giving Gospel now taken root. The two illustrations show that we should not be careless about this inconsistency though – it should not be! If our speech reveals our hearts, then we should be determined that our tongues more and more bear witness to the reality of the new life in us.