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Now James applies the broad theme of humility to the specific theme of the tongue. The unity of these verses as a paragraph is supported by stylistic features reminiscent of other passages in the letter. The paragraph is introduced with if anyone (as in 1:5). It is tied to the preceding verse with repetition of the verb stumble (is at fault in NIV). And it concludes with the likewise statement in 3:5 (houtos as in 2:17, 2:26). James makes application specifically to the tongue because he sees the controlling of one's tongue as a decisive matter, influencing the entirety of one's life. He explains this fact first, before instructing his readers in the specific errors of an uncontrolled tongue.
To explain this, first James states his basic principle: If you control what you say, you can control the rest of what you do. The intent seems twofold: to prove that we all stumble in many ways (for we fail even in the simple everyday matter of speaking) and to motivate us to diligence in speech (because it is so influential over the rest of our lives).
Second, James illustrates his principle with two analogies—the horse's bit and the ship's rudder. Both images have to do with steering, and so refer to the directing of one's whole life. Both images emphasize the size of the accomplishment (the whole animal and the ships so large . . . driven by strong winds) and so emphasize the magnitude of the tongue's influence.
Third, James concludes the analogies with the summarizing principle in 3:5. Thus far his emphasis is largely positive, describing the tongue's potential for good, in keeping with his intent to motivate us to diligence in this matter of speech. Positive application should be made: that learning godly ways of speaking will help us learn godliness in other ways. Therefore the issue of speech should not be put off while one works on other areas of behavior. If you want purity and Christlikeness to characterize your life, here is a valuable secret of strategy: start with your tongue!