James 3:1–18comment (0)
November 19, 2009
By Michael Wilson
Related Scripture: James 3:1–18
Bible Studies for Life
Director, Resource Center for Pastoral Excellence, Samford University
WATCH YOUR LANGUAGE
Scribbled on a piece of paper in my Bible is a saying I heard years ago: “A wise person is known more for what he doesn’t say than for what he does.” I suppose many talk radio and cable TV hosts have never heard this insightful saying. Words and “talk” are certainly in abundance these days. Most of us are eager participants in the abundance. We spend hours each day with the TV or radio on, often just for background noise. Many can’t make the commute to or from work without a risky conversation on their cell phone.
This Sunday’s lesson invites us to consider the remarkable power of our language both to build up and tear down relationships. James’ practical advice is especially relevant for Christians today, as we confront talk that does more to hurt than heal.
The Awesome Power of Words (1–6)
What was true in James’ day is true in our day — people who have the capacity to speak with eloquent words usually are regarded as credible. Some are even held to be authorities on the topics about which they speak. Not all eloquent speakers are credible. In James’ day, there were many false teachers. Our time is no different. For example, many well-meaning Christians have allowed the eloquent — but questionable — teachings of some religious TV personalities to shape their faith and how they express their faith.
God has given us the freedom and responsibility to read Scripture and reflect on the teachings of Christ as we each experience the Spirit’s work within us. However, when we neglect the daily disciplines of prayer, reflection on Scripture and the call to “work out our own salvation” (Phil. 2:12), we are vulnerable to false teachings. Christians are called to live in community with one another for a reason. The collective knowledge of faith and practice shared in community with believers is a safeguard against false teachings.
The Dual Nature of Words (7–12)
There is only one body part people are helpless to control on their own: the tongue. This seems in contradiction to verse 2 in which James calls “perfect” the one who is able to control speech. Later verses show it is God’s wisdom that enables believers to tame the tongue (17).
Interesting images from the creation story are used by James. Humanity has carried out the Creator’s instruction to “subdue the earth,” having brought what was created under control. The tongue is “full of death-dealing poison” is a clear reminder of the serpent’s tempting words, which led to sin and death. The description of humanity being “made in God’s likeness” reminds readers of their uniqueness in creation. These images are the context in which James makes clear the problem of the human tongue: its duplicity. Blessing the Lord and cursing people reflect the best and the worst of human speech. James challenges this contradiction by insisting such duplicity has no place in the behavior of Christians. What comes from people’s mouths reveals what is in their hearts.
The Wise Use of Words (13–18)
The Church is not a place for jealous ambition and envy of others. Such behavior might be deemed tolerable among unbelievers, but it does not represent the higher, better way of the Kingdom. The truly wise are those who live according to wisdom “from above.” The wisdom from above might be thought of as practical insight with spiritual implications.
This kind of wisdom has no comparison to the wisdom of the world of unbelievers. It is first “pure,” or unmixed with evil. It is “peaceable” and does not cause disorder. This wisdom leads to “gentleness,” demonstrated by respect for the feelings of others.
Rather than being narrow and inflexible, wisdom from above is open to the dynamic character of the Spirit’s activity. This wisdom is “full of mercy” toward people who are in the wrong, showing no favoritism or hypocrisy. Wisdom from above is made manifest in behavior and deeds done in peace and humility, motivated by a living faith. The fruit of this kind of living is a harvest of righteousness.