I was sitting in a saddle long before I was sitting at my Kindergarten desk. My dad, who has forgotten more about horses than most people will ever know, started us out young. He taught me how to ride, then later how to saddle, and eventually how to rope. The horses we were astraddle dwarfed me; they were easily twenty times my size. But whether they were plodding along or at a full gallop, I could control them with amazing ease because I held in my hand the most important piece of tack on a horse: the bridle. And on that bridle was a smooth piece of metal called a bit that slipped inside the horse’s mouth. That bit was the equivalent of the gear shift, steering wheel, and brake on this equine vehicle. With a twitch of my hand, left or right, I could turn the horse. With the slightest pull, I could bring him to a dead stop or make him walk backward. As long as that bit was in his mouth, and that bridle in my hand, I controlled the whole animal.
Now let’s suppose something happened. The bridle broke. Or the reins slipped out of your hand. Or the bit fell out of the horse’s mouth. Well, cowboy, now things can get real interesting, real quick. The horse you were just riding is now basically riding you. Should he decide to take off, full steam ahead, there’s not a darn thing you can do about it. All of sudden, he’s the one in control, he’s calling the shots, and he might just decide that person on his back needs to go barreling headfirst into the dirt. Without a bit and bridle, you’re entirely at the mercy of a beast.
James tells us that “we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us.” With it “we guide their whole bodies as well,” (3:3). He’s making the point that “we all stumble in many ways, and if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body,” (3:2). Yes, indeed, I suppose he is. And I would sure like to meet this “perfect man” who never stumbles in what he says. As for me, most of the time, it feels like I’m entirely at the mercy of a beast who lives within me, who chews up and spits out every bit I slip in his mouth.
When I revisit in my mind the very long list of stupid, mean, selfish things I’ve done, every one of them began with me saying something I shouldn’t have. The cutting word I spoke to my wife, which resulted in a cutting word back from her, which soon escalated into a verbal knife fight that left both us with deep emotional scars. The flirtatious compliment to that attractive woman, which resulted in a flirtatious compliment back from her, which by and by escalated into fornication of the heart or body. The little white lie, which soon had to be covered by a gray lie, which soon had to be smeared over with a black lie, lest my guilt be found out. The jab which pained and strained a friendship. The accusatory scream at God for some punishment I fully deserved.
That’s my list. You’ve got your own. That very long list of stupid, mean, selfish things that all started when we were at the mercy of an unbridled beast who rode us to the brink of disaster, then sent us barreling headlong into a pit of woe.
It’s all good reason for us to use our tongues to say something else, something better: “Lord, have mercy on me, the sinner. Lord, have mercy on me, the very imperfect man, who stumbles in what he says, who hates the bit in my mouth, who needs the kind of mercy that only you can give.”
And it’s all good reason for us to remember something that happened long ago, when our merciful God hung upon the cross, with men surrounding him, using their tongues to mock Him. He didn’t deride them, or us. He didn’t tell them to shut up. He didn’t tell them they were all going to hell for killing him. Instead, He said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” That battered man, a crown of thorn crowding His head, nails driven through His feet and hands, his back a torn and tattered mess, still had a tongue in His mouth that worked. And with it He prayed for us. He forgave us. He spoke the only words that can redeem the likes of you and me, “Father, forgive them.”
And He does. His holy words covering our unholy words. His wounds healing our wounds. His mouth a treasure of grace that pours forth speech into our ears and hearts that make us perfect people—people perfected, made whole, by the Savior who not only spoke creation into being, but bespeaks us new creatures.
The tongue of God speaks unbridled grace to you.