Lord Jim and the Apostle James
Could something strip you of your discretion?

There is a scene in Joseph Conrad’s novel Lord Jim where the main character believes he has been called a cur, a term that means either “a contemptible man” or simply a mongrel dog. We’ve all seen examples where someone reacts poorly to being called a name (“Nobody calls me chicken!”). Maybe you’ve even overreacted to an insult hurled in your direction a time or two.

Conrad’s commentary on this moment is particularly interesting: “A single word had stripped him of his discretion—of that discretion which is more necessary to the decencies of our inner being than clothing is to the decorum of our body.”

What does it take to strip you of your discretion? And do you understand how important it is to control your tongue? Conrad says it’s more important than putting your clothes on in the morning!

To be discreet means to show restraint in our speech and behavior. Mr. Ron Fraser wrote in the November-December 2004 Royal Vision: “Discretion is a combination of knowing just what to say, when to say it, and how to say it.” Yet many seldom control their tongues at all. Scripture confirms that he who refrains his lips is wise (Proverbs 10:19), but also warns exactly how dangerous the tongue can be. The Apostle James compares the tongue to an out-of-control horse, a ship battered by wind and rain, and a raging fire! (James 3:3-5).

Many of the problems that both adults and teens experience are a direct result of not carefully monitoring what we say and how we say it. And as strong as those verses are, James 3 gets stronger still: “And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell. For every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind: But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison” (verses 6-8).

Not only is our use of the tongue out of control, no man can control it. Many barely make the attempt. Men are able to tame all sorts of wild animals, but not the tongue—for that, we need something special. When you ride a horse, that is a powerful set of muscles underneath you, and you need the bit to be in its mouth. Each of us, as God’s children, needs a spiritual bit in our mouths.

Otherwise, as James warns at the beginning of the chapter, we will constantly offend people: “For in many things we offend all. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body” (verse 2). How do we offend people? By gossiping about our friends and neighbors, by corrupt language and by thoughtless comments—whether spoken out loud or written online. You need that spiritual bit in your mouth that only God can supply; you need to keep your hands firmly on the helm of your ship with His help.

We praise God with the same mouth that we use to curse men, James observes. Your mouth speaks both good and evil—and this should not be so (verse 9-10). If we are wise, we will show “… out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom” (verse 13). If we are submitted to God, we will speak positive, uplifting, edifying words.

James details the results we will receive if we submit to the wisdom that is from above: “But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace” (verse 17-18). If you are really asking God for His help in how you deal with your words and with other people, you will be someone who makes peace.

In reality, no one had called the indiscreet Lord Jim anything: A dog really was passing by and the ill-timed comment was aimed at the animal. Jim had allowed a stray word to strip him of his discretion.

To learn to use our tongues in a more godly way, let’s look not to Lord Jim, but to the Apostle James—and always keep a spiritual bit in our mouths.