When we lived in Dunwoody, Georgia just outside of downtown Atlanta, one of our neighbors across the street was quite the equestrian. In fact, his whole family was into horses in a big way: foxhunting, steeplechase, show jumping, polo, and more. It wasn’t just about horses either. It was an equestrian community with its own social scene. They were all members of the Atlanta Polo and Hunt Club that also included the steeplechase, galas, and balls (dance parties not athletic equipment) where everyone got dressed up.
I can’t remember just how dad got involved or sucked into this community because I was only about 4 years old at the time. But by the time we moved to Marietta we had horses. My dad was playing polo, fox hunting, and my sister was show jumping. Basically, our neighbor from Dunwoody, his sister’s family, and our family all bought property next to each other in North Cobb County so we could be neighbors, share pastureland, and our love for horses. So, all of the sudden we’re horse people.
Even if you only own horses for joy riding, you know that it’s a lot of work especially if you are involved in competitive equestrian events like rodeo, racing, polo, show jumping, etc. where horses are basically athletes. You have to “work” or exercise them to keep them healthy and in shape so that they can perform at a high level. During the polo-fox hunting-show jumping years we spent several hours per day taking care of the horses. My sister had a friend that would come and spend the night with us occasionally and she would ask, “Is your dad going to make us get up early in the morning to feed the horses?” There wasn’t much sleeping in late on Saturday mornings when I was growing up. The horses needed constant attention throughout the day every day.
You would think that with all that time invested in horses that I would have been a great rider or horseman, but I was not. I never fox hunted or showed horses like my dad and sister. I rode a lot, but I didn’t have the confidence that is required to excel. When riding a horse, you’re attempting to control a large animal that has a mind of its own, which can be scary at times. Horses like other animals and humans have their own personalities. They don’t always like to be controlled or forced to do something that’s why horses have to be broken, tamed, or bridled before they can be ridden safely and effectively. “Bridled” means “to bring under control or curb, to “show one’s resentment or anger, especially by throwing up the head and drawing in the chin”. If you’ve spent time with horses or watched them on TV or movies, when they don’t like something or get spooked, they will rare up or back, jump, buck, or throw their heads back in fear or defiance. Bucking isn’t just when they kick their back legs in the air. Horses are surprisingly nimble for a large animal and can jump, move, and contort their bodies in many different ways to throw you off. Believe me I know.
Even if a horse has been broken it doesn’t mean that they are always easily controlled. It depends on the horse and the rider. It’s a symbiotic relationship. There has to be a certain amount of trust and respect between both horse and rider. Also, animals like human beings are unpredictable which is why I never became very skilled as a rider or completely comfortable in the saddle. In other words, I was afraid. Horses, like other animals can sense that and exploit it. My dad’s horse “Sunny”, a sorrel (red) quarter horse, really had my number. He knew I was afraid of him and he used it to intimidate me. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that we came to an understanding, sort of.
So, what does all this have to do with the book of James and this series?
Chapter 3 of James has two sections. The first section verse 1-12 is titled in some Biblical translations as “Taming the Tongue”, learning to control what we say, or what comes out of our mouths. Check out James’ description of the tongue in verses 5-6.
“Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” James 3:5-6 NIV
Uh, that’s a pretty terrifying review of one of our smallest body parts. In verse 8 he says that no one can “tame the tongue”. It’s a “restless evil, full of deadly poison”. While it may be small it packs a big punch. It is a “world of evil” and “set on fire by hell” itself. Yikes! Then in verses 9-10 he says, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing”. The idiom “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”comes to mind and may sound good but it’s extremely inaccurate. Words can hurt and sometimes kill the body and spirit. Just like favoritism from our study last week in James 2, James addresses another destructive human behavior.
God wants our words to build up not tear down. The Apostle Paul refers to this in 1 Thessalonians 5:11 when he says, ”Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.” However, there are times when it’s necessary to challenge, rebuke, and correct bad behavior. Remember our goal is to be “mature and complete, not lacking anything” to be “holy as he is holy”. Growth and maturity are sometimes painful. My parent’s discipline and correction were not always enjoyable, but it was necessary to keep me from being out of control or in danger of damaging myself in any way. But even when we correct or discipline, we need to choose our words carefully.
James makes a couple of comparisons in this section. He compares the tongue to a “rudder” on a ship and a “bit” that goes inside a horse’s mouth in verses 3 and 4. Both are small in comparison to what they control, a ship and a horse. So that is where my “horse” comments tie in. Of course, the big picture here is keeping the “whole body in check” (James 3:2) or under control, but the tongue is like a wild animal that must be tamed, controlled, or held in check to achieve total body control.
The primary tool for controlling a horse is a “bit” that goes in the horse’s mouth. It is connected to a bridle with reins that are also used for control and for steering the horse where you want it to go. There are different types of bits that you can use depending on the horse. If the horse is easy going and easy to control, you may not need a bit at all, just a bridle and reins. But, if you have a horse like I had in high school, you might need a bit with a little bite. I know that sounds cruel, but it really isn’t that bad which is easy for me to say because I’m not a horse. Anyway Freddy, our buckskin (tan w/black mane) quarter horse, was a wild one. He was great to ride. He was fast and loved to run, but he was unpredictable and extremely hard to control at times. He had two gears neutral and wide open. He didn’t like to walk, trot, or cantor, just gallop. When I would ride him, it was almost like being shot out of cannon. I couldn’t always control where he would end up or whether he would stop when I wanted. So, we had to use a modified “snaffle” bit that would basically pinch his tongue and mouth to get his attention and give us greater control. Basically, I needed it to slam on the brakes when he turned into a speed demon.
His brother Teddy on the other hand was a “teddy bear”, docile, sweet, and probably didn’t require a bit at all. He wasn’t big on a lot of running either, but Freddy was a speed demon, mischievous, and unpredictable. You could say he was a free spirit. I loved him, but he drove me crazy and into trees sometimes. One day while ridding Freddy, he took off and ran me into the woods. It wasn’t a joy ride. I got pretty scratched up, bruised, and may have soiled myself. But, he wasn’t trying to hurt me. He was just running like a bat out of you know where because he loved it. It was just his personality. He would have been a great racehorse. He didn’t know when to quit. Anytime I rode Freddy I had to be ready for anything, and that never changed. We were never able to slow him down, break him, or tame him. But if you wanted adventure and excitement, Freddy was your horse. He was ready Freddy all the time.
This is a great analogy for this topic. Our tongues, what we say, or what comes out of our mouths is not always under control. We say things without thinking or have no filter. We have “open mouth insert foot” disease saying things that are inappropriate or “run off at the mouth” like Freddy in full gallop. Usually when it comes to horses, if you control the head, you control the horse. The same can be said of humans. If what’s in our heads (thoughts and attitudes) and what comes out of our mouths can be held in check or controlled, then our whole body or being is better off and so is everyone else. Just imagine how much better off we would all be if everyone kept a tight rein on their tongues.
In conclusion, we need to remember that James’ primary targets for this lesson on taming the tongue are his brothers and sisters in Christ, those who are “believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ” (James 2:1), those who are “religious”. In James 3:1-2 James says, “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” which is a warning to those who want to proclaim or teach God’s word. Because of what we profess to believe, we’ll be judged more closely and harshly by God than those who do not. Also remember James 1:26 that says, “Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.”
Then James ties it all together in James 3:1-12 when he says, “Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.” An unbridled tongue is never a good thing no matter where or who it comes from, but when it comes from a Christian or followers of Christ, it is much worse in God’s eyes. According to James there “should not be” blessing and cursing, fresh water and salt water, or olives and figs coming from the same source, especially a follower of Christ.
So, to use another idiom, we need to “nip it in the bud” or as Barney Fife used to say, “nip it, nip it, nip it!” Have I used enough idioms in this devotional? They just came to me so effortlessly, but I’ll try to tame my idioms in the future.
By the way, no animals were harmed during the writing of this devotional.
Have a great weekend! Love y’all!
Director of Family Ministry and Facility Coordinator – Andrews UMC