Little words, big consequences

Perhaps you’ve had the experience: something spontaneous but thoughtless comes out of your mouth, and as soon as you’ve said it, you wish you could reel the words back in. You can see the stricken look on the other person’s face; your words hit them where it hurts. What next? Do you stop and apologize? Do you minimize or justify what you said? Do you both give in to the downward gravitational pull of hostility and conflict and let it fly?

As we’ve seen, when it comes to how we use our words, James teaches that nobody’s perfect. We make mistakes. We say things that are stupid, selfish, and hurtful. We have to start there, recognizing our ready tendency to say too much (or too little), to use words as weapons, to speak before we think, to be careless with our speech.

But we can’t end there, wryly chalking it all up to the human condition and giving ourselves a pass — for James seems to think the truly faithful should be able to control their tongues:

We all make mistakes often, but those who don’t make mistakes with their words have reached full maturity. Like a bridled horse, they can control themselves entirely. When we bridle horses and put bits in their mouths to lead them wherever we want, we can control their whole bodies. Consider ships: They are so large that strong winds are needed to drive them. But pilots direct their ships wherever they want with a little rudder. In the same way, even though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts wildly. (James 3:2-5, CEB)

James is talking about the outsized impact of little things. When someone of his world thought of a large animal, they didn’t think elephants or giraffes; most likely, they thought horses. And look, he says, at how we can control such a big animal with something as small as a bit. Or let’s think even bigger: a sailing ship, perhaps a merchant vessel. It takes a strong wind to move it, but only a little rudder to steer it.

Bits versus horses, rudders versus ships: things that are small enough to seem insignificant can nevertheless exert a great deal of influence on outcomes. The metaphor goes a little astray when James comes to the tongue; you’d expect him to say something about how this little organ somehow steers or directs the rest of the body. Instead, he says that it “boasts wildly.” A more literal translation would help preserve the little/big contrast: “it boasts great (things).”

Little tongue, big talk. Whereas the examples of bits and rudders are morally neutral, what James says about the tongue is not. Biblically speaking, any kind of boasting other than boasting in God is sinful, and he will make it quite clear in the coming verses just how much evil we work with our words.

. . .

For the moment, however, think with me for a bit. I would guess that you can point back to things that were said to you — maybe even all the way back in childhood — that have stung for a long time. You’ve never forgotten, and those words have shaped you. But were there also little things said that had an outsized positive impact? A much needed word of encouragement or support that gave you hope? Some comment that shifted your perspective, so that you saw things in a whole new light?

I ask because I don’t want us to think that James’ only message to us is Stop saying mean and selfish things! By the time we get to the end of the chapter, he will give us a vision of becoming people of peace. Little words can have a big impact, whether on the negative or the positive side of the ledger. Let us become, more and more, a people who want to use our words to spread peace, in gentleness.

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