For an introduction to this series, click here.
November 27, 2007
This chapter begins with a very strange warning: "Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness." (3:1) It is a serious matter when we are dealing with the Word of God. When we are standing in front of a group of people, whether it be an entire congregation or just a small class, we are responsible to proclaim to them the whole counsel of God as best we can. It is certainly a blessed opportunity, and it is an honorable calling. But it is not something to be taken lightly.
"For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison." (3:2-8)
This is an incredible indictment of the power of the tongue. James says here that if you can avoid sin with your tongue, you are pretty near perfection. The words we say have so much impact, we hardly realize it. But we realize it when somebody says some harsh and thoughtless words to us.
"With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water?" (3:9-11)
We are such inconsistent creatures. We can be praising God and saying wonderful things one minute and then criticizing someone else the next minute. We can be encouraging someone who is hurting and then later cursing because something bad happened. The tongue is a powerful force for good or for evil. We need to acknowledge it and strive to use our tongues for good. An encouraging tongue is a blessing to all who hear the words coming from it. You know that as well as I. We all know someone like that. There is someone at your church and hopefully somewhere else in your life who always has an encouraging word to say, and who is a joy to be around. And you also know people who never have anything positive to say. They are always criticizing you or someone else. They are never fun to be around, they are only a drag.
"Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace." (3:13-18, ESV)
Now James goes deeper and explains the source of our words. Our words come from our own deepest feelings, and sometimes they even surprise us. But, without trying to sound like a psychoanalyst, they are there, and our goal should be to rid our minds of the wrong thoughts. We need a heart that is clean. A clean heart can only come from the work of the Lord in our lives. James talks about two kinds of wisdom here: wisdom from above and wisdom from below. Actually, I put them out of James' order, but you get the idea. The demonic wisdom likes to stir up strife, envy and pride among people. It takes its joy in making itself look good at the expense of others. Godly wisdom seeks peace among everyone, even among those with whom we disagree or think are doing wrong. It takes its joy in lifting others up at the expense of itself. The demonic wisdom comes easily to our flesh. We are prone to attitudes of pride, jealousy and other such vices. The Godly wisdom takes work. Not that we have to work to earn it, but we have to work to mortify our flesh and learn to walk in the Spirit. Certainly the Lord will help us when we yield to His working in our lives, but we have to consciously take steps in that direction.