I’ve mentioned before that the book of James echoes a lot of themes from Proverbs (my favorite book of the O.T.), and today’s passage is a great example of that. Solomon said that “The tongue has the power of life and death,” so when James is talking about this small muscle that causes so many problems in our lives, we need to pay attention.
He starts out with a rather counterintuitive warning in verse one. Teachers were extremely highly regarded in Jewish society (which is why Pharisees craved being called “Rabbi”). And one of the most popular ways people would use their tongue was teaching, so it makes sense to start out a passage on our speech with this. If an opening for a teaching position comes up, and I’m invited to it, I need to think and pray long and hard before I say “yes.” Because if I’m teaching someone the word of God, I’d better get it right. Someday the Lord will hold me accountable not just for me, but for everyone affected by my teaching. If I lead them astray in any way, I’m going to regret it. Also there’s the fact that if I’m teaching the word of God, I can do much more damage to the Kingdom if I’m caught in a sin. Therefore, my Lord is going to hold me to a stricter standard than any non-teacher out there.
Of course, you might not be a teacher in a formalized position, but to the degree that you influence other people, especially less mature believers, you’re a teacher to them, and God is going to hold you accountable as such.
This leads right into James’s general instructions about our speech. He says that all of us fall short of God’s standard in many ways: The sins I struggle with may not be the exact ones you fight. But all of us have trouble with our tongues sooner or later. The rest of the passage tells us why:
· Its power over our lives is wildly disproportional to its size. James gives three illustrations: A horse’s bit, a ship’s rudder, and a small spark. In each of these cases, you have something really big controlled by something much smaller than itself. In the case of the spark, its power is mostly viewed as destructive more than constructive. Why is this? Again, we can find insight in the other book that talks about the tongue: Proverbs. That books says that “When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, but he who restrains his lips is wise.” In other words, if you talk long enough, the laws of probability indicate—given our sinful nature—that eventually we’re going to say something wrong or foolish or sinful.
· Too often it controls us instead of us controlling it. James contrasts the tongue with all the animals we’ve captured and tamed: horses, dogs, even lions and tigers can be trained and put into circuses, where they perform for our entertainment. But James says that. . . how many people can tame the tongue? Nobody. Nada. In our own strength and using our own resources, we’ll never tame this monster. That’s a major problem since this particular beast has poisoned fangs. And it’s a “restless evil,” meaning it’s never satisfied. Not until it’s wrecked everything we care about.
· It shows a disconnect between what we claim about ourselves and what we really do. We believe that every human being is made in God’s image/likeness. That means that every person has infinite worth and value, not based at all on their skills, background, or whether they’ve hurt you. When we praise our Lord and Father and then turn right around and curse someone who’s been made in the likeness of that Lord, there’s something wrong. A fresh spring doesn’t produce salt water. A fig tree doesn’t bear olives, nor a grapevine bear figs. There’s a horrible inconsistency if I claim to love my God and yet curse those who’ve been made in his likeness.
So what’s the solution? Well, with any person who’s got an illness, you have to diagnose
properly before you can prescribe a treatment, right? And in the context of the rest of Scripture, if I have a frequent problem with my tongue, that’s a symptom, not the root of the problem. What did Jesus say about this? “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.” You ever hear the saying that that the eyes are the window into the soul? I don’t know about that, but I do know that Jesus taught that your words are a window into your soul: Your mouth speaks what your heart is full of.
So if I’m noticing that my words aren’t what they’re supposed to be, what do I do? First and foremost, I need to ask the Lord to search out my heart, to make sure there’s no lingering, unconfessed sin there. “Cursing” other people, such as gossiping about them, slandering them, lying to them, etc. is a symptom of a deeper problem. That’s the point of James at the end of the passage. For more on guilt and what to do about it, see here.
So how’s about your “water” and your “fruit”? Is it what it’s supposed to be? What do you intend to do about it?
And for your enjoyment, I present "Nothing At All" by Third Day. Please be advised, this is a little more "rockin'" than some of the songs I've posted here.
Father God, I belong to you, and when it’s convenient I readily proclaim that. But my other words sometimes contradict it. They cause people to be confused about me. May my words point them straight to you. May they clearly demonstrate a clean heart, one scrubbed inside and out by your Holy Spirit.