God’s Word for You
James 3:3 Bit and bridle
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Saturday, August 1, 2020
3 When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we also guide their whole bodies.
Coach James knows that some of his readers are well-acquainted with horses. In one ancient Greek play by Sophocles it is said, “Spirited horses are broken by use of a small bit” (Antigone, 477). James makes the same comparison. It doesn’t take a heavy harness or a whip, but just a little something in the horse’s mouth to bring the entire animal under one’s control.
The prophet Isaiah has another picture of a bit and bridle. He depicts the Lord God using a bridle to lead the unrighteous away to their destruction (Isaiah 30:29). James shows that we do the same thing with horses and leave the question hanging there in our hearts: Why can’t we do the same thing with our own mouths (and bodies)? Wouldn’t it be better for me to control my mouth with the help of the Holy Spirit today than have the Father come with a bit and bridle to lead me off to hell tomorrow?
We can, but that kind of control is never perfect. Since our righteous attempt at obedience is imperfect, it can never be counted toward our salvation. But James is not talking about how we are saved, but rather how the Christian responds to his salvation which is by Christ alone. Our Confession briefly warns: “It is indeed correct to say that believers who through faith in Christ have been justified possess in this life, first, the reckoned righteousness of faith and, second, also the inchoate [imperfect, unformed] righteousness of the new obedience of good works. But these two dare not be confused with one another or introduced simultaneously into the article of justification by faith alone before God” (Formula of Concord SD Article III:32).
Even a bridle is not always a foolproof way of controlling a horse. I once fought with an unruly stallion during a bad storm, but the animal refused to come with me even though he was wearing a bridle and I had a firm hand on his reins. In the end I had to abandon him to take care of the rest of the horses on the farm where I was working.
It can be that way with our tongues. Even if we have a tight rein on what we say, we still may stumble and fall into sin. But this doesn’t mean that having control of our tongues isn’t a good idea. James coaches us to understand that controlling my own tongue is one of the most important tools we have to seize control of our sinful human nature.
With the help of the Holy Spirit, we can tell ourselves that we are not going to take God’s name in vain, that we don’t want to fill our speech with cursing and foul language. We will beware of gossip, or the exaggerations that amount to nothing else than lies, even when we think that might serve the kingdom of God. What other control must we keep on the tongue? The dangerous vomit of false doctrine must be kept far away from anything we say, and so must the putrid useless spitting of betrayal and of putting one another down for the sake of nothing more than puffing ourselves up. This isn’t why God gave us our tongues and the glory of human speech. These are supposed to be the tools of proclaiming the gospel and for building each other up, of teaching our children, and for sharing our affection with the people we love,
Evening and morning, sunset and dawning,
Wealth, peace, and gladness, comfort in sadness;
These are your works and bring glory to you.
Times without number, We wake or we slumber,
Your eye observes us, From danger preserves us,
Shining upon us a love that is true.
Father, oh, hear me, Pardon and spare me;
Calm all my terrors, Blot out my errors
That by your eyes they may no more be scanned.
Order my goings; Direct all my doings,
As best it may be, Retain or release me;
All I commit to your fatherly hand. (Christian Worship 430:1-2)
Pastor Timothy Smith