James writes that the ability to use the tongue correctly is the mark of a mature believer. When he says that such a person is perfect, he does not mean sinless. A sinless individual does not exist on earth. Instead the word translated as perfect has the idea of maturity or balance. If a person can use his tongue appropriately, he can be relied upon to use his other faculties correctly, says James.
He points out that the controlling feature of a person is his or her tongue. We can see that controlling is the concern of James from the illustrations he uses, that of the bits in a horse’s mouth and of the rudder of a ship. We might be surprised by this understanding of the tongue because we might have assumed that the controlling feature would be the mind or the heart. Yet we know that it is the tongue that reveals what kind of person an individual is and perhaps more importantly it tells us where the person is going. After all, the reason why a horse has a bit and the ship has a rudder is for them to get somewhere. We can tell where a person is going spiritually by the way he speaks.
This is true when an individual speaks correctly. It may have been the case that James was thinking of Jesus and the ways he spoke in the family home in Nazareth. When we think about his perfection, we are full of wonder about his way of speaking in the many passages of the Bible that record his words. James had had the privilege of listening to Jesus for over twenty years and he had always spoken in a way that revealed he was consistent and upright. Moreover, his words also revealed his destiny. This was true when he was speaking of his earthly life or when he was referring to his future after his resurrection.
Yet even if James was thinking of Jesus, he did not limit this role to Jesus. In addition, it could be said of any believer that he or she is mature if their tongue speaks gracious and truthful words. A person who is able to speak appropriately is an individual who can be trusted because others will know that he will speak the truth and help them find the right direction in life. This is the positive use of the tongue, designed for the benefit of others.