STUDIES IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are 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 3:1-5, ESV)
A man, being convicted of his sin, set out to do better. He reasoned that his evil thoughts often caught him off guard and might be difficult to change. His evil actions, he decided, were often a product of his thoughts and words. So he decided he would first focus on his words. If he could catch himself before he said something he’d regret, he would also have more control over the things he did and, in time, perhaps even over the things he thought.
For a while, the man was very successful. He didn’t speak without considering what he would say. As time when on, though, he found himself back to his old habits. He hurt people with what he said and created problems for himself. He tried even harder, and committed himself to being more diligent, but the more he tried, the more he failed. He finally gave up.
If only we could tame our tongues! If only we could say the right thing every time. If only we could always speak with clarity and precision. If only we could tame our tongues to say the things that build each other up rather than tearing each other down. If only . . .
Sadly, as our text points out, “we all stumble in many ways.” Our tongues cannot be tamed. We try, but the harder we try, it seems, the worse we do. “If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.” But we are not perfect. Neither our tongues nor our bodies are bridled. And so, we confess with Paul, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24 ESV)
Are we doomed to live this life in a never-ending battle against a tongue that would just as soon destroy us as it would honor the God of our salvation? True, the battle will go on for each of us. But all is not lost. None of us is the perfect man, but there is One Who is. Jesus is the One Who bridled His tongue and His whole body. He lived the perfect life you and I cannot live. He always said and did just the right thing. He deserved none of what He received at the hands of those who nailed Him to the cross, but suffered as He bore the burden of our sinful tongues. Jesus was “like a sheep that before its shearers is silent.” (Isaiah 53:7 ESV) He bridled His tongue even in the face of death so that we might receive His righteousness as He now lives in us.
In Christ we receive the forgiveness of sins. In that forgiveness, God makes us perfect–and thus renews us, strengthens us, and guides us according to His will. What’s impossible for us is ours in Christ, the Perfect Man.
Robert Sauers is pastor of Luther Memorial Church in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, and a member of the CLC Board of Missions.