The Bit, the Rudder, and the Power to Control

Scriptures: James 3:3-5
by Jacob Abshire on September 23, 2019

The electrician was not just informative, he was humorous. “Look here, you see these two lugs? They draw power from the utility company—after they run through your meter. That’s what they use to suck you dry.” Summers are hot in Houston, so our electric bills are steep. I was following him. 

“These lugs are always hot. They feed this panel where they are distributed to all these little breakers. When you need to kill the power to the kid’s room, you flip this.” He paused, then moved his pencil up to the top of the panel. He used it as a pointer. “This vertical switch, this here is the master switch. Flip this one and everything turns off.” He turned his head toward me. I could tell he was forming his words in his mind. What he was about to say would be climatic. “I wish my wife had a master switch.”

We could all use one.

In James 3:1-12, we are brought through the trial of speech. It is designed to put our faith to the test. God uses it to reveal the validity and maturity of our faith, because a transformed heart produces a transformed mouth. This notion ought to make every honest believer sit up straight. 

The tongue is always hot. It has an unending supply of sin that readily and easily turns loose. Even worse, it leads the charge. When the tongue spits, the body follows. For this reason, the tongue earns us the “greater strictness” (Ja. 3:1). There is no denying its power. There is only controlling it. In our passage, James incites us to the power of the tongue by spotlighting two illustrations that hit us square between the teeth.

“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.” (Ja. 3:3-5a)

The Bit

In the 18th century, miners began to replace horses with steam engines. A simple mathematical equation, discovered by James Watt, the inventor of steam engines, determined that a horse could pull a weight of 150 pounds at 2.5 miles per hour. This is approximately 33,000 foot-pounds per minute or 550 foot-pounds per second. The amount of horses required would determine power required from the steam engine. This measurement became known as “horsepower,” a term still used today.

The power of a horse is relatively evident to all who can observe it. When I was young, my grandfather kept a few horses at his ranch. They were occasionally saddled-up during our visits. My cousins were rather comfortable around them—and on them. I, on the other hand, had a strong reverence for these large animals. I kept my distance. I suppose the idea of a 90 pound pre-teen with two leather straps in his hand didn’t quite match the strength of a two ton beast. It is with this perspective that James appeals to our imagination.

“If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well” (Ja. 3:3). The word “bit” refers to a metal tack that rests inside a horse’s mouth between its incisors and molars where there is no teeth. It’s held in place by the headstall, a strap around the horse’s head. Finally, a loose, leather harness is attached to either side of the headstall near the bit. 

This is called a bridle. The term was used in James 3:2 to speak about one’s ability to restrain the body. It seems that this prompted his illustration. A bridle functions through the principle of negative reinforcement. It relies on the timely release of pressure to reward the horse for a correct behavioral response. It is how the rider controls the steed.

In the trial of speech, the concept of control is prevalent. The word peithesthai, translated “obey” means “to persuade” (Ja. 3:3). In the same verse, a form of the word metago means “we lead around.” The passages that follow convey the ideas of governing, willing, kindling, taming, and more. When James relates to us about the Christian tongue, he wants us to think about control. A small bit in the mouth of a large animal guides its whole body. Who has the reins to your tongue?

The Rudder

The second illustration is introduced in the same spirit. Instead of a small bit, it is a small rudder. “Look at the ships also,” James says (Ja. 3:3). He doesn’t specify what kind of ships we are to imagine. In Acts, we find Paul aboard a large vessel carrying a cargo of wheat from Alexandria to Rome (Acts 27:38). It was large enough to have four anchors (Acts 27:29) with an additional set on the bow (Acts 27:30) as well as a small rowboat for short runs (Acts 27:16, 30). On board, there were 276 souls. Some suggest that it was about the size of a nineteenth century sailing vessel.

James only tells us to imagine ships that are “so large” that they must be “driven by strong winds” (Ja. 3:4). His lack of details suggest that the size is actually subject to your imagination. In fact, the word telikoutos, translated “so large” in our English text, is used three other times in the New Testament in ways that allude to enormity. The first describes a death of great magnitude (2 Cor. 1:10). The second describes a salvation with endless value (Heb. 2:3). The third describes an earthquake more powerful than any man has experienced (Rev. 16:18). It is an abstract word used to refer to something bigger, wider, and more powerful than you first imagine. 

“Imagine enormous ships,” James says, “they are guided by a very small rudder” (Ja. 3:4). A rudder is a navigational instrument attached by hinges to the stern. It works by redirecting the water past the hull. When the helmsman turns the wheel, it alters the angle of the vessel’s rudder causing water to strike with increased force on one side and decreased force on the other. As the rudder goes, so the stern goes and the ship turns “wherever the will of the pilot directs” (Ja. 3:4).

Again, notice the use of “control” words. A form of the word metago appears again. The large ship is “being led around” by the direction of the euthunontos or “the one steering.” The direction is determined by the “will” or “impulse” of the pilot. He decides where the ship sails. He turns controls the rudder. So, who is at the helm of your life steering your tongue?

The Power to Control

These two pictures highlight a very awkward imbalance of size and power. Although the horse is a large animal, it is controlled by a very small bit. In the same way, the ship is a large vessel, yet it is controlled by a very small rudder. The smaller device holds power over the large. “So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things” (Ja. 3:5). Don’t mistake the tongue as weak because of its size. Also, don’t mistake the control you have over the body.

The two illustrations bring life to a point James made in the prior verse. Paraphrasing, “if anyone can bridle his tongue, he can bridle his whole body” (Ja. 3:2). By controlling the tongue, a more powerful member, you can control the entire body, the less powerful member. It’s an awkward imbalance of size and power. The tongue is like the bit and the rudder, it turns the body. It is the master switch of your life. Turn the tongue off, and you silence the body.

True faith is demonstrated by how well you pull the reins attached to your bit, steer the wheel that turns your rudder, or trip the switch that powers your circuits. This work, however, is not done by your strength, but that of God. “No human being can tame the tongue’ (Ja. 3:8), but “of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth” (Ja. 1:18). 

The God who transformed your heart can transform your tongue. Who holds the reins of your body? Who is at the helm of your ship? What does your tongue boast? Surrender your words to Him. Trust His wisdom and ways (Ja. 1:5-6).

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