James 3:1-12 – Watch your mouth!

This week we’re continuing in the letter of James, which is all about the temptation to be double-minded: trying to be friends with God and friends with the world. Today we look at James 3:1-12.

On the door of one of my maths professors at university, there was a newspaper article about an unfortunate episode in the history of rocket science. It was an unmanned rocket launch that went horribly wrong. The rocket took off OK, but after a few seconds, it did a u-turn and crashed to the ground. Millions of dollars and thousands of hours were wasted. An investigation found the cause: a rocket scientist had incorrectly put a minus sign in one of the equations. It still ranks as the most expensive minus sign in history.

One little minus sign, and all the good work was wasted. Just like one little word can come out of our mouths, and undo all the good work we’ve done.

This is what leads James to talk about guarding our words, not just our actions. You might have noticed that the message of the previous chapter was about how words (claims to have faith) are meaningless if not backed up by right behaviour, by good deeds. At the start of this chapter he turns it around and says that, likewise, all the good deeds you do are important but you can still mess it all up by careless or ungodly words.

For a start, those who are in the business of words – Christian teachers who claim to speak God’s words – need to be especially careful:

3:1 Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. 

Because the self-control we exert over what we say is indicative of the self-control we have over other parts of our lives:

3:2 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. 

That is, the hardest thing to control is what comes out of your mouth; if you can get that right, you can do the rest! (A bit of wisdom literature overstatement, you’d expect, but highlighting the difficulty of controlling our words.)

James then gives two examples to make his point – and throws in a third for good measure. Very straightforward examples – they’re not rocket science, but ones appropriate to the culture of the day:

3:3 When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal.
3:4  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. 

We get the point: small thing affects the whole:

3:5a Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts.

But if you didn’t get the point yet, one more example:

3:5b Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.

Seems like overkill, except James knows what he’s doing. He develops this last metaphor to show the seriousness of the situation:

3:6 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. 

An unchecked tongue is costlier than a poorly-placed minus sign in a rocket launch calculation, leading to a fiery conclusion of biblical proportions. And yet, to control your tongue is one of the most difficult things to do:

3:7-8 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

And here James connects this with our theme of double-mindedness (see the first post in our series), where what we say can show how we’re trying to have it both ways:

3:9 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.

We are double-minded when we worship God with our words, and then turn around and gossip about or slander or insult or demean other people – even our fellow Christians, even straight after church over coffee. (Or the coffee-like-substitutes served in most churches.) We are double minded when we say that other people are made in God’s image, but then treat them like they’re inferior to us (just as the world does – remember chapter 2?)

It’s not on, says James:

3:10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. 

In fact, it shouldn’t be possible for a true friend of God to do this:

3:11-12 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.

Or as his brother would say:

Matt 7:16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?

This is especially important for those of us who are teachers, coming back to what James says at the start of today’s passage in verse 1. From the context we’ve seen, it’s not doctrinal correctness that’s in view here (although that is important), but the way in which we treat others. Just as teachers (especially) need to do the word – not merely teach it – so too must teachers be careful in how they speak to people, or they will undermine their own message.

Even the most godly of Christian leaders can occasionally be careless with their words. I know I’ve been so many times. And sometimes it can be like that minus sign – costly and damaging to their ministry. Maybe not of crash-and-burn proportions, but it can jeopardise a relationship, build mistrust, or alienate sections of a congregation. And it can be difficult to regain trust and respect.

More than a decade ago I asked, in private, what I now realise was a relatively naive question of an internationally renowned scholar. But his dismissive response (and general demeanour throughout that conference) made a lasting impression. I need to remember that all of us have days or weeks like that and not allow that to colour my view of him or his writings – and that everyone finds it difficult to tame their tongue!

To think about

When are you double-minded with your words – speaking to others in ways that are unhelpful, self-serving, or belittling?

What will help you to remember to guard your speech? (Be specific and practical.)


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