Words & Rudders & Bridles

Words & Rudders & Bridles

James 3:1-12

I love words.

My days revolve around words. When I wake up, I read the Word and then journal some of my own words in response. Then I spend much of my day using words to talk to people, and when there aren’t any people around, I’m prone to talk to myself. I have fun playing with word choice when I write sermons and blogs and articles. I’m even using words right now!

I love words!

And boy – do I hate words.

Maybe “hate” is too strong – but words are dangerous, aren’t they? They fly out of our mouths with far too little regulation. They show our hands, betray our poker faces. They get misinterpreted. We go to bed at night or wake up in the morning thinking, “Why did I say that?”

Words: So good; so harmful.

James knows that the danger is real. He says it like this:

“How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire” (James 3:5-6).

And if that doesn’t convince you of the imminent danger, listen to Smokey Bear.


There’s a reason Smokey wants us to be so concerned about just a little spark: it can turn into an out-of-control blaze. Only YOU can prevent wildfires; only YOU can prevent gossip or slander or a betrayed confidence. We have to be constantly vigilant, dousing our campfires and holding our tongues.

But that’s not all. A “wildfire” implies damage done out there – outside of ourselves. But words do inward damage, too. What we say shapes who we are and how we live. James says our word-shaping tongues are like a rudder on a ship or a bridle on a horse: a relatively small part controls the direction of a large vessel.

Unfortunately, our tongues don’t come with steering wheels or bridles.

But fortunately, those examples give us important clues as to how we might control our tongues and our words.

First, the rudder. The power of a rudder is incredible. An aircraft carrier can be over 1,000 feet long – but it’s controlled by two rudders just 29 x 22 feet in size.

aircraft carrier

This is how words are like rudders: just as a few words can send our lives reading in a whole new direction, a slight movement of the rudder redirects the whole, massive ship.

As long as the ship is moving, that is.

Growing up on the Gulf Coast of Florida, learning how to drive a boat was a rite of passage. A laughable part of that initiation is when the newbie tries to steer the boat when it’s not in motion. The rudder only works if a boat is moving. If the boat is relatively still… you can spin the steering wheel all you want but the boat ain’t turning anywhere.

Our tongues aren’t so different. Yes, they can have a tremendous effect on our lives. But if you aren’t moving your tongue, it’s as powerless as a rudder on a boat in still water. We can control our tongues in the same way, by keeping them still. We can’t say the wrong thing if we’re saying nothing at all!

I want to offer you two modes of silence that might help you control your tongue: contemplative prayer and listening.

Contemplative prayer is prayer without speaking (and ideally, even thinking). Instead of filling your prayer time with a monologue of words, try sitting still and keeping your mouth shut. Gently cast aside any thoughts that come in, and focus instead on a sacred word like “Jesus” or “Love.” The recommended time is 20 minutes – but if that seems impossible, don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Start with 5 minutes. Try to get your mind as still as a boat in quiet waters. See if just a few minutes of intentional silence helps control your tongue during the remaining 15 hours and 55 minutes of your waking day.

Next comes listening. We know what listening is – we don’t need a definition for that. Or do we? We spend far too little time listening to each other. It can be as though our tongues are quivering in our mouths – someone else is speaking, and we can hardly wait to jump in to have our say. Listening requires silence. Real listening requires a lasting silence – maybe sitting in silence for a few seconds before speaking.

If our tongues are like rudders on a ship, we can control them by keeping them still – by silence.

The other metaphor James works with is to compare our tongues to a bridle on a horse. I’m no cowgirl, but I know some folks who are. The bridle, they tell me, is the headgear that goes on a horse. The rider tugs and pulls on the bridle to control the horse. But the thing is, it doesn’t take much. Horses are sensitive – sensitive enough to feel a 5-milligram fly on their one-ton bodies. A rookie rider jerks the bridle; the experienced rider has soft hands with the horse.


In other words: gentleness. Gentleness can help us control our tongues.


Think about the words you use on a daily basis: the topics you address, the people you talk to, the language in your vocabulary. When do you fail to be “gentle”? This is subjective – but we usually know the difference. “Gentle” isn’t weak; a gentle touch of the bridle controls a whole horse. Gentle can be firm or strict; gentle can set boundaries or speak out against evil. But gentle is always compassionate. Gentle cares about the feelings of others – even our enemies. Gentle avoids unnecessary harm.

Train yourself to notice when you are using your words like an inexperienced rider, jerking around with unnecessary roughness. Learn to speak with gentleness.

Silence and gentleness. Those two techniques might go a long way toward controlling our words.

A long way… but not all the way there.

Just as James knows that words are dangerous and need to be controlled, James also knows that it’s impossible to completely control our words. “But no one can tame the tongue,” James writes (3:8). Even a carefully monitored fire can get out of control; even expertly driven ships sometimes get tossed by the waves; even experienced riders sometimes get tossed by a spooked horse. No one can tame the tongue.

When we fail, there’s one last and very powerful tool at our disposal: repentance.

Later, in chapter 5, James advises using our words for the confession of sin. When we sin with our words – say the wrong thing, break a confidence, get caught up in the moment and speak in anger – then we repent. Remember that repentance isn’t just feeling bad about something; repentance is recognizing a wrong with the intentions of doing differently in the future. James goes so far as to encourage us to confess our sins to each other; sometimes, that is the only way forward. We say, “I’m sorry.”

And then, we forgive each other – because no one can tame the tongue, so what right would any of us have to withhold forgiveness?

I love words.

I’ve loved writing and re-writing these words, all week long.

Sometimes, I hate words – because I, like you, can’t completely tame my tongue.

But in the end, the benefits of words outweigh the costs. We can use these words to proclaim the love and grace and power of God.

May we learn ever more to control our tongues – so that we might use them to proclaim the gospel and tell the world of God’s great love.

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