“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 3:5b-6 (NIV)
Talk about a hot take.
James writes like I aspire to write: with a very clear objective and a punchy delivery. As a result, the book of James is still very applicable today. And the passage that this article is focusing on, James 3, is no exception.
I feel that there’s two major messages that can be taken from James 3. The first being that the tongue is extremely powerful, and that power can be used in negative and positive senses. The second is that the wisdom required to use our tongue for good is not natural. The only way we can wield our tongue to build others up is through some seriously holy help.
One of the Classic Blunders
I often use my tongue for negative means. On a daily basis, I say things to my siblings that are certainly not positive and fall more to the side of being disapproving and cynical. However, I can be thankful (in a weird way) that I’m not alone in this, and I can learn from the mistakes of several biblical figures. One that instantly popped into my head while I was writing this was the story of John the Baptist’s dad, Zechariah.
“Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him (Zechariah), standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John…’
Zechariah asked the angel, ‘How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.’ The angel said to him, ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at the anointed time.’” – Luke 1:11-13, 18-20 (NIV)
Zechariah’s words were a clear representation of the human nature. Even though Zechariah was a solid dude and he knew God was all-powerful, his instinctive response was doubt. If we don’t consciously consider our words before we speak, the naturally sinful state of our hearts will show.
This intentional thought process of filtering what we say is generally helpful on a certain level (if you want to have any friends), but more importantly, it’s a biblical command.
“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” – Ephesians 4:29 (NIV)
When we’re having conflicts with people, it’s not hard to let loose and inform them of exactly what we’re thinking. In fact, it’s pretty satisfying when we get to do it. I’ve known quite a few people whose central personality trait is “brutal honesty”, telling the facts straight to people who don’t really want to hear said facts. This ends up trashing a lot of relationships and, from the perspective that as Christians we’re representatives of God, it doesn’t look great.
That’s not to say that honesty isn’t important and that we’re just supposed to make people feel good no matter the circumstances, though. In fact, just a few verses earlier in the book of Ephesians, this is said:
“Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body.” – Ephesians 4:25 (NIV)
So while the main goal is to encourage others with all that we say, sometimes it’s necessary to confront people about, for example, maybe a longstanding sin issue or similar situation in their lives. We shouldn’t sugarcoat during these conversations. But that doesn’t mean that the goal is to devastate these people and give them no hope of ever repairing their relationship with God. In any given situation, our main focus should always be found in building others up.
Live It Out!
The book of James is very application-centric, which makes its concepts very digestible. The hard part comes in the execution. I think a super important thing to remember is that our speech plays a huge part in how people perceive us. Whenever I hear someone being disrespectful, for example, I instantly think of them as immature or kind of jerky. In a strange way, we teach people about ourselves the second we open our mouths to talk. I think Zechariah unfortunately displayed this clearly when he doubted the angel Gabriel. And while we’re thinking along the lines of us all being teachers through what we say:
“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 (NIV)
Everything we say needs to be carefully considered. If all of us are truly teachers to an extent, then James has laid out some pretty lofty standards for us to follow. Do you feel like you keep your tongue in check? Could you honestly say that you encourage more than you discourage? Expectations are high.