In Part Three we continue reviewing the instructions James gave to the early church on how to properly live the Christian life. Remember, this letter might have been the first written teaching the Church ever received, predating the Gospels and Paul’s letters, with the possible exception of his letter to the Galatians. This time we’ll cover chapter 3. Let’s begin.
Taming the Tongue
“Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check” (James 3:1-2).
None of us is perfect. We all say and do things we later discover to have been in error. For most, this is a simple matter of correcting themselves. But for teachers, any error on our part goes straight into the minds of our listeners and may influence their understanding of God’s Word for the rest of their life. Those who feel they’ve been called to teach need to have the ability to speak clearly and concisely, relaying only what God has conveyed to them.
We also need to be aware that He’s listening and will hold us accountable for our teaching. It’s not enough for us to fall back on Paul’s admonition to our listeners that they check the Scriptures for themselves to see if we’re speaking the truth (Acts 17:11). We will also be required to justify everything we’ve said.
“When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell” (James 3:3-6).
Paul took up this same thought in his letters. He cautioned us to rid ourselves of all anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from our lips (Colossians 3:8). Our conversations should not be laced with obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place for believers, but rather with thanksgiving for all we’ve been given (Ephes. 5:4).
He warned us not to let any unwholesome talk come out of our mouths but only what is helpful for building others up that it may benefit those who listen. Doing otherwise grieves the Holy Spirit who is sealed within us until the day of redemption (Ephes. 4:29-30).
“All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water”(James 3:7-12).
Jesus said the words that come out of our mouth originate in our heart and these are the things that defile us (Matt. 15:18). Since what we say is a reflection of what’s in our heart, and since the heart of natural man is incurably wicked (Jeremiah 17:9), then the only way we can change what comes out of our mouth is to change what we bring into our heart.
For that reason, I believe listening to what comes out of our own mouth can provide the clearest sign that we are truly a believer under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Remember, James cautioned us to be doers of the word and not hearers only (James 1:22). Let’s be sure that what comes out of our mouths is consistent with what’s in our hearts.
Two Kinds of Wisdom
“Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice” (James 3:13-16).
Let’s remember that James was not referring to keeping the Law when he spoke of a good life filled with deeds (works) done in humility. The Pharisees showed that keeping the Law did not result in humility, but in arrogance and pride. They looked down on the less fortunate and criticized Jesus for associating with them (Matt. 9:10-11). They believed that if the poor simply lived according to pharisaical standards they would be blessed accordingly. Therefore they had no excuse for their misery and deserved neither compassion nor help.
It’s natural for humans to be self centered and envious of what we perceive to be the success of others. It’s part of our sin nature. James said these attitudes are unspiritual and demonic. They promote envy instead of humility and selfishness instead of generosity, and are behind all of man’s evil practices.
Only believers realize that before coming to the Lord we really had nothing of value to Him and yet He gave us everything just because we asked. This is what promotes the desire in our heart to share what we have with others. Our kindness and generosity toward others shows the humility that comes from knowing we didn’t deserve to be saved, and is a demonstration of our overflowing gratitude for the free gift we’ve received.
“But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness”(James 3:17-18).
The wisdom that comes from heaven is not encumbered by ulterior motives and hidden agendas. Paul said the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:23).
No mere intellectual assent that God exists or even that Jesus came to teach us how to live a life pleasing to God can produce the changes in a person’s attitude that both James and Paul are talking about here.
To become the kind of person they describe, we have to put off our old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires and be made new in the attitudes of our minds (Ephes. 4:22-23).
This is the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit, who is sealed within every born again believer. Only He can produce the kind of change in us that allows us to put aside our self centeredness and walk in humility, performing good deeds at every opportunity.
You may be surprised to learn that the origin of this thought is the Old Testament. In a remarkable example that this is what God has always wanted from his people, He had the prophet Micah tell us,
“He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
Live a life pleasing to the Lord and delight in helping those in need, all in a spirit of humility, out of gratitude for what you’ve been given.