“Look at the ships…though they are so large and driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.” (James 3:4-5)

How do you talk? Why do you talk? If we take a moment to seriously consider these questions, we may find them simultaneously strangely simple and yet strangely complex. Just like our ability to breath, our ability to speak is something that we often take for granted and give little thought to.

Yet James makes an important observation that is very much worthy of our consideration. Just like a tiny rudder that commands a large ship, so our use of words is often a powerful and deciding factor in nearly every aspect of our lives. Some of the most terrible and amazing turning points of our lives often hinge on the words that are poured into us from around. We are shaped by what we hear and we react, as do those to whom we speak.

Angry and bitter words can cause wounds that take years to heal. They can cause relationships to crumble and conflict to escalate. They can cause alienation and separation. At the same time, some of the most cherished interactions we experience are built on intimate and heart changing conversations. Encouraging words, when placed at the right time, can cause life changing impact. Our words can heal, inspire and strengthen. Words are the building blocks of relationships. Words have the power to enlighten and expose; to open hearts and build fellowship.

Jesus certainly thought that this was no small matter when he said, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”¹ Solomon would agree as well. The book of Proverbs is full of vivid pictures of the difference between the wise and the foolish, many of which are often defined by their use of the tongue.

It seems like some of the most powerful things in life are the ones that may stand out the least. James calls us to consider carefully our use of the tongue and its powerful potential. Most often we spend our days throwing around cheap words. We don’t consider the power of the opportunity that we have to speak true and wise things into the lives of the people around us. We don’t see every conversation as an opportunity to deepen a relationship. That one small rudder barely catches our eye as we sail through the seas of life. Its no small wonder then, that we find scores of relationships and people that are shipwrecked, as well as those are battling many waves, but aren’t really getting anywhere.


(1) Matthew 12:34-35