A) The Duplicity of the Tongue
Controlling the tongue is something that surely confronts all of us. And controlling the tongue can be a very difficult task – but it is possible. And there is a lot at stake: our relationships, our church’s witness, our own character. In verse 6 we read the dramatic words that the “tongue … sets on fire the cycle of nature” – meaning that the “tongue” can really upset the balance of things … fracture relationships, neighbourhoods, international relations. The tongue can be like a rubbish tip (with the reference to “hell” or “Gehenna” in verse 6). We should never underestimate the tongue’s potency. One of two drops of poison dropped into a community can have a devastating effect (v.8).
Our tongue can build up or tear down. The two extremes: our tongue can do untold damage, or, can be a source of real blessing. Unfortunately, even if we have found numerous ways to bring encouragement, and this is what we mostly do, we still have also found ways on occasions to be negative and do harm. We might be accepting of this … 70% is not too bad! But James, as ever, pushes us to what he calls a ‘completeness’, which does not even accept the slightest slip up. Verse 10: “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing; my brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so”. Sincere regret will lead to our forgiveness … yes; and we don’t want to get bogged down in any guilt – there’s no need to. But sincere regret means that we want to do better, and we will take steps to do better.
The spring that comes from our mouth should be wholly consistent. And God will help us do better; especially as we give God access to those areas of our life where problems lie. For the sharpness of our tongue reveals problems (even areas of darkness) that lie within. The level at which a Jesus-follower is at, when it comes to their maturity, can be noticed whenever they open their mouths. Eventually, what is really going on in their heart, will be exposed through their mouth. So to really take on board the challenge of James here, we need to take inventory, seek help, and open our lives to fresh insight. We need to allow God to fulfil His promise to reform us into a new creation. Let’s not be resistant! There’s more to be gained than lost.
Let’s concede that we are works in progress. We have growth bursts, but also times of plateau and even regression. Let’s also though appreciate the importance of how we use words, and appreciate the strong emphasis that James puts on this. Let’s try and find the right words for each and every occasion. And when we slip up, let’s use this as a learning tool for the next time. We want people to want to listen to us, we want people to be able to trust us. James seems to address two styles of communication here: (i) those in teaching mode, and (ii) those in general conversation. [James handles the whole area of ‘conflict’ when we get to chapter 4.]
B) Finding the Right Words
(i) In Teaching
James poses a seriousness around teaching … specifically here teaching in the spiritual and church setting, but any of this in general terms applies to many situations. There is here a warning against wanting to do something that you’re not really prepared or ready for. This doesn’t mean we should be frightened about or resistant to teaching. It more goes to motivation. The proper motivation for teaching in the church is guiding people closer to God. Teaching like this should never be an ego thing. There are warnings (in verses 14-16) about the negative power of “selfish ambition” and “bitter envy” – how such things compromise the truth; the result is far from inspired or helpful … it is described as “earthly, unspiritual, devilish”, bringing “disorder and wickedness”. In verse 17, James also warns about “partiality or hypocrisy”, which suggests a lack of even-handedness, wholeheartedness and integrity.
On the other hand, there are those who have really been given a gift of teaching, but maybe feel they aren’t ready (and this could rightly come from a place of humility). These ones should be encouraged to step up, at the same time as getting constructive feedback and valuable guidance.
How do we find the right words when teaching?? There has to be prayerful discernment about what is to be said and how it is to be said. Personally, I always start with the biblical text and read over and over it – as if reading it for the first time. I also have in mind the context in which the teaching will be delivered. I trust that God is guiding my thoughts to the most important parts of the passage and bringing some new understandings. After all, the teacher does not always know what it is that the listeners need to know or to hear or to feel. When I start my jottings or typing, I pray that something will emerge which will help someone in their journey.
You can’t teach impersonally the way you might to a mirror, because before you, you have living, breathing, feeling individuals. You have to be sensitive to your listeners. But at the same time, you can’t let this scare you off, because the Bible is full of challenges that can’t be watered down.
Teaching from the Bible requires a good balance of encouragement and challenge: words that will build our faith, and words that will promote change where change is needed. Teaching in church needs to allow the Bible to become more accessible, more helpful, more understandable and more applicable. Teaching from the Bible must always offer hope … hope that the future can offer more blessing, more growth, and a deeper relationship with Jesus. This sort of criteria guides well > what words go in, and what words stay out. It also governs what are the most important things to cover now, and what can be left for another day.
(ii) In General Conversation
When it comes to our general conversation, there are major themes that run through what James is saying. As mentioned earlier, James picks up strongly the inconsistencies that occur with the one and same mouth uttering both blessings and curses, in other words, both positive helpful language and negative hurtful language. We have said something about how to work on that from the inside, however we can also become aware of what is helpful and what is harmful – and sort of keep a watch on ourselves. It is no accident what is added to the end of verse 9!! We cannot worship God with integrity, while we bring hurt and harm to those who have likewise (to us) been created in the image of God. There would be a certain arrogance in this! Some might go as far to say that to curse anyone else is to curse God.
There is no lack of challenge here, to any of our harmful words, to any person at all! We want to build all our communications into a more consistent, reliable, trustworthy whole. [And this would certainly include all written communications (emails, letters), and our use of social media.] From God’s channels there should only be words that build up others. And I don’t think it matters if that person is present at the time or not.
So, we surely know what would be OUT!?!
· hasty, careless, ill-considered words; abuse
· lies; anything that flirts with dishonesty; uninformed gossip (often laden with selfish agendas)
· harsh criticism (in no way based around helping a person; revealing judgemental attitudes)
· cutting put-downs, insults, insensitive labels (that undermine self-esteem)
· speaking before listening
What has been said can never be unsaid, and the ramifications spread without control. Often our tongue is operating while our brain isn’t. And sometimes we can fall uncritically into how the general culture communicates, without thinking more carefully about the fallout. Sometimes shock, frustration or disappointment break free of any control we might have. If we are well aware of our vulnerabilities, we need to take the necessary steps to heal ourselves so that we don’t go on hurting others.
Proverbs 12:18 – Rash words are like sword thrusts,
but the tongue of the wise brings healing.
C) The Words of Wisdom
Verse 17 gives us some measuring sticks for our words. And these are still measuring sticks, even when dealing with difficult people and frustrating situations. This is called “wisdom from above”, i.e. the highest wisdom. This wisdom is based on how God relates to us. Wise words can bring blessing and healing. James gives four categories in which we may find words of wisdom:
(a) PURE – this is where we don’t force our agenda on other people, or see other people as simply vessels to meet our needs; we have open space for the other person. Any advice or guidance we bring is given gently, and with the other person’s growth in mind. This is akin to being Spirit-filled and a natural channel of God’s blessing.
(b) PEACEABLE – this is where we don’t go out to cause distress or conflict; quite the opposite – we try to guard, prioritise, maintain and promote peace and harmony. This is not peace at any price; this not a peace that ignores injustice, but a peace that looks to community well-being …’shalom’. This is not harmony for the sake of it that ignores apathy, but rather a peace that seeks space for the potential in others to surface. Verse 18 speaks about PEACEMAKING, where our words would proactively seek peace in places where peace and opportunity don’t currently exist.
(c) GENTLE & WILLING TO YIELD – this is being open to other thoughts and new learnings; where we accept and show that we have much to learn, and are willing to hear other opinions, and sensitively understand different points of view. Different experiences of life often lead to very different ways of viewing the world. Even those who gather together as Jesus-followers often have very differing views on certain issues. We may never agree with such points of view, but we can often learn much from the place where they originate.
(d) FULL OF MERCY AND GOOD FRUITS – we remember we are forgiven through the grace of God, and thus offer compassion, mercy and forgiveness to others. This is not just a sentiment of forgiveness and mercy, but also practical responses to those in need. We build empathy for where other people find themselves at, try to sense how it feels to be in their shoes.
“The wisdom of God is condensed in Christ [Jesus] and in him crucified. If you know that wisdom, you are eminently qualified to help others.” (Edward T. Welch in Side By Side p.70). This is the vulnerable Jesus, the giving Jesus, the weeping Jesus, the loving Jesus – this is the wisdom of God. If we live and act out of a vision of the crucified One, we will tame the tongue and be a blessing.