TAMING THE TONGUE James 3
“If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check” (James 3:2).What we say about others says more about us than about them.
Even teachers must watch their tongues (3:1–2), which must be tamed and harnessed (vv. 3–12). True wisdom is not ambitious but pure and peace-loving (vv. 13–18).
Understanding the Text
“We who teach will be judged more strictly” James 3:1. James wasn’t thrilled and happy that so many Christians present themselves as authorities on the faith. It’s certain that some who covet the title of “teacher” are spiritually immature, not realizing that a teacher bears a heavy responsiblity. Because teaching is such a responsibility, teachers will be judged “more strictly,”—that is, their lives will be more closely scrutinized. Note that it is the teacher’s life that is given close scrutiny. Why? Because Christianity is not just a set of beliefs, but life-changing truth. A person who communicates the Christian message must model what he or she teaches. In some ways Christianity is like a style show. A new line of clothes is being introduced, and the designer parades models wearing that new line for potential customers to see. After all, you can’t really tell how clothes will look, if they’re just hanging on the rack. Through the Gospel, God is introducing His new line to humanity. And folks can’t tell how Christianity looks on the rack either. Every believer is to model the faith in daily life, and teachers have the greatest responsibility of all. “We all stumble in many ways” James 3:2. James, possibly the most respected person in the Jerusalem church, included himself with the stumblers. From Scripture and early Christian literature we know that “stumble” indicates commission of sin. As we know from the stories of saints like King David, and from modern televangelisms’ scandals, the great as well as ordinary believers remain vulnerable to sin. One of the great mistakes you and I can make is to suppose that our faith is so strong we are invulnerable to temptation. We need to remain humble, and rely completely on the Lord. It’s when we think that we stand that we are most likely to fall. “He is a perfect man” James 3:2. The word “perfect” is again used in the sense of maturity, not sinlessness. To James, one mark of maturity was the wisdom to overcome our tendency to keep our mouths active when it would be best to keep them closed! A person who can control his or her tongue is well along the way to Christian maturity (see DEVOTIONAL). James 3:3–6 says that as the bit in a horse’s mouth is used to guide it, so our tongue has a powerful influence on us—and on others! We Christians must be especially careful in our talk, because words have such great impact for good and for ill. “The tongue also is a fire” James 3:6. James spoke of the tongue earlier. In 1:19 he wrote, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.” And in verse 26 he wrote, “If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.” Talking without reflecting on what we say is not just foolish, it’s harmful, to ourselves and to others. As I frequently say to Sarah—without making much impression—“God gave us two ears and just one mouth. So we ought to listen at least twice as much as we talk.” “This should not be” James 3:7–12. James didn’t get into theology the way Paul did in his letters. But James’ comments reflect a deep understanding of both theology and our personal dilemma. James was well aware that Christians have divided hearts. We want to please God. But there is always a twisted delight in sin that churns within us too. The divided nature of our hearts is shown most clearly in what we say, one moment expressing a godly thought, and the next a sinful sentiment. You and I will never gain complete control over our tongues (v. 8). But let’s remember that the new life God has given us is a pure spring, from which refreshing waters flow. Let’s commit ourselves to refresh others with everything we say, and keep mean and hateful thoughts unsaid. “Who is wise and understanding?” James 3:13 The word translated wise, sophos, was the technical Jewish term for a teacher or rabbi. James thus picked up the theme of verse 1 and reinforced it. A person who is qualified to be a teacher must “show it by his good life.” In an earlier time, Robert Ingersol traveled our country giving lectures that ridiculed Christianity. While on a train a well-meaning Christian spoke to Ingersol, sure that if he only understood the Gospel, he would be converted. Ingersol interrupted the Christian’s rather halting explanation, and asked, “Is this what you mean?” He went on to explain the way of salvation with perfect clarity. The great unbeliever had the ability to explain Christian beliefs. Let’s not be impressed with how well another person can speak. God is impressed only with how well we live what we believe and teach. “The wisdom that comes from heaven” James 3:14–18. So many Christians seem to delight in partisan defense of the truth. The more anger and selfish zeal, the better. Perhaps that’s why so many appeals for contributions picture the sender as the one existing barrier to corruption of the faith by other Christians, who are cast as conscious or unwitting enemies of Christ. It’s nice to get appeal letters like this. I don’t even have to pray about whether to give or not. I just toss them in the wastebasket. “Such ’wisdom,’ ” James tells us, “does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil.” “The wisdom that comes from heaven” James 3:17–18. James’ comments on wisdom are intended to promote self-examination. I may use the principles to evaluate appeals for contributions. But the really important use of these principles is to help me evaluate my own attitude in various situations. If I sense “bitter envy” or “selfish ambition” in my heart, I’m in no condition spiritually to make a wise or godly decision. And I am definitely in no condition to teach others! But if my understanding and application of Scripture has led me to a grasp of truth that makes me “pure; then peace loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere,” then-perhaps-God intends to use me to teach.
Whip-Cracking Time(James 3:1–6)
He walks confidently into the cage. Nervous lions and tigers perched on stools watch him with veiled eyes, now and then roaring, or slapping at him with outstretched paws. Then, when the lion tamer seems about to lose control, he cracks his whip, and the beasts settle back or perform their tricks on command. One of the most important things we need to learn as Christians is to recognize situations in which you and I need to crack the whip, and keep that wild and unruly tongue of ours under control. Here are a few typical ones. One of your friends comes up and says breathlessly, “Did you hear about Sally Price? I understand she. . . . ” You open your mouth, about to tell what you’ve heard—and it’s whip-cracking time! Gossip is definitely a no-no. A young friend comes to you for advice. You try to help him think the issue through, and give him some biblical perspective. You’re not sure he’s going to do what you think is wise, and you’re about to tell him what he’s got to decide—and realize it’s whip-cracking time. You know he has to be responsible for his own decisions, and that you need to give him room to make them. Your spouse has put the dishes in the wrong space in the cupboard, again! You know he’s trying to help, but this is the umpteenth time he’s gotten it wrong. You feel yourself getting angry, and you open your mouth—when you realize, it’s whip-cracking time. Men! You smile, glad you’ve got a husband who’s willing to at least try, and remember that men are constitutionally incapable of figuring out where dishes belong. Everyone’s so enthusiastic, you get carried away too. You’re just about to commit yourself to going along with the gang when you stop. It’s whip-cracking time. You’d better not make a decision till you have time to think about it! These are just a few of the situations where that wild and unruly tongue is likely to carry us away before we even stop to think! Learning to recognize such situations, and taming our tongue, is vital for our growth toward Christian maturity.
Learn the value of remaining silent when you most want to talk.
“The best time for you to hold your tongue is the time you feel you must say something or bust.”—Josh Billings