Indeed, we put bits in horses’ mouths that they may obey us, and we turn their whole body. Look also at ships: although they are so large and are driven by fierce winds, they are turned by a very small rudder wherever the pilot desires. Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things. See how great a forest a little fire kindles. And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell.
Man through his own power and his natural spirit, which is dead in trespasses and sins, is unable to control his tongue. James illustrates this with three clear and well understood examples. The bit in the mouth of the horse, the rudder of the ship and the spark of fire which sets a forest ablaze. Given our sin nature which exists in the hearts of all people, we alone under our own power are unable to control our tongue one-hundred percent of the time. Our sin nature and the fallen world around us produces envy, strife and especially pride. And it’s pride which James mentions here as the “little fire that kindles an entire forest.” And those wicked desires, which stem from the evil in our hearts, that give rise to sin, which is then displayed in our speech. James further drives home this point with his examples. For instance the majestic and powerful horse is controlled just by a small bit in their mouth. A large ship which carries many men and cargo is controlled by a small rudder.
And yet the tongue which is the smallest member of our body can tear lives apart and bring incredible destruction. And why is that so true? Because from it spews the contents of an evil heart set on destruction. It’s important for us to understand, that what we speak comes from the source that feeds our souls. If that source is not God in Christ, then it’s this dark world and the things of Satan. However, despite this, all is not lost. Because what is impossible for sinful man is possible for a Holy God. And when believers who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit turn their lives over to the Lord, seeking His will in humility and meekness. They gain the ability to control their tongues by the work and the power of the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who guides and leads us. This is possible because we have turned our lives over to Christ Jesus our Lord. That’s why this ability does not come from us, but comes as a result of our faith. It is another gift of our salvation. And this in turn gets back to James’ point in chapter two, that this is yet another work of God, which is evident to those around us by the changes in our outward behavior. Changes brought about by our salvation and God’s work in us, which is yet another indication to others watching us, of the genuineness of our faith.