an image of the first page of the letter to James in the Bible

An Overview of James Chapter 3: Maturity in Speech

In his letter, James covers ways we can mature as Christians. The first two chapters cover growth through trials by knowledge of God’s word, by putting that knowledge into action, and by letting go of worldly prejudices. Chapter 3 adds another layer to our Christian maturity by talking about how we use our words in how we teach and in how we generally speak to or about others. The quality and contents of our speech reveals how much we have let godly wisdom truly mature in us.

I’m working from the Christian Standard Bible.

Verses 1–2: A Warning to Teachers

Not many should become teachers, my brothers, knowing that we will receive a stricter judgment, for we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a mature man who is also able to control his whole body.

James 3:1–2

Between his warnings against prejudice and about speech, James sandwiches a small admonition that we should be cautious about teaching. We understand from passages like Matthew 28:19–20 that we are all called to teach. Sharing the gospel is part of how we show love to the world. Here, I believe James is talking about those who take this role on more formally. These days we might call them preachers or ministers — those people who make a profession of teaching God’s word and, in turn, receive respect and a certain amount of authority based on their position.

James says to be cautious about taking on that role, for we all have faults that can undermine the message. In the previous chapter, James talked about the way prejudice can undermine God’s message, and he’s about to launch into an exploration of the way we use our words. In the formal role of teacher, both of these will be tested often. Maturity is a key quality for those who would be the face of the gospel.

Verses 3–12: The Power of the Tongue

Now when we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we also guide the whole animal. And consider ships: Though very large and driven by fierce winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So too, though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts great things. Consider how large a forest a small fire ignites. And the tongue is a fire. The tongue, a world of unrighteousness, is placed among the parts of our bodies. It pollutes the whole body, sets the course of life on fire, and is set on fire by hell.

James 3:3–6

James minces no words when he describes the power of the tongue. Nothing else has destroyed marriages, ruined friendships, and launched wars like the tongue. Yet it is also capable of great good. As powerful as the tongue can be to produce harm, we must also realize that the opposite is true. Through it we can accomplish great good. We must be mindful of Christ’s words in Matthew 15:18: “But what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart…”

Today, we could also say that what comes out of our keyboards comes from the heart. I’ve known Christians who would be perfectly kind and respectful to my face but would only interact with me online to insult and attack me. This is not how we are supposed to behave. When we let online anonymity lull us into a sense of safety to the point where we become harsh and abusive with what we post, then we have let our words become a raging fire and a world of unrighteousness. We should hold our online interactions to every bit as a high standard as we do our spoken conversations.

We praise our Lord and Father with it, and we curse men who are made in God’s likeness with it. Praising and cursing come out of the same mouth. My brothers, these things should not be this way. Does a spring pour out sweet and bitter water from the same opening?

James 3:9–11

We need to understand that the way we use our words with each other affects the nature of our praise to God. God no more accepts words of love and devotion from a mouth full of insults and hatred than we would accept drinking water from a polluted spring.

Verses 13–18: Living True Wisdom

But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peace-loving, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without favoritism and hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who cultivate peace.

James 3:17–18

James uses wisdom as a segue between his thoughts on our words and teachings about humility in chapter 4. Are you mature in your wisdom? Then it will show in your conduct, your gentleness, and your mercy. These qualities will be evidenced by your lack of prejudice, by how you use your speech, and in the humility you show toward others and God. Make no mistake: an uncontrolled tongues is a sign of foolishness in God’s eyes.

In any given situation, are our words gentle? Are they full of mercy? Do they resist prejudice? Do they encourage peace? If they do, then our words reveal a heart full of our Savior’s goodness.

Miscellaneous Thoughts and Conclusion

  • I acknowledge that Jesus, Paul, and Peter did, on occasion, use strong words. However, a handful of isolated events over the course of multi-year ministries do not give us an excuse to ignore passages like this and delve into abusive language on a regular basis.
  • One of the best ways we can prevent ourselves from trying to praise God with an unclean mouth is to simply stop listening to others who act this way. I’m not talking about movies with bad language here; I’m talking about radio, television, and online personalities who frequently devolve into yelling messages of hatred and anger. Their bad company can corrupt your good intentions.

James 4 will speak about maturity in the context of humility.

an image of the first page of the letter to James in the Bible

An Overview of James Chapter 1: Maturity in Faith

James is a book written to help Christians take their faith to a higher level. Based on the text, it’s written to people who already have a faith in Christ, possibly of Jewish heritage, and who understand the fundamentals of Christianity; but they’re having problems putting it into practice. James spends little time on things like Christ’s deity, baptism, or the nature of the church. Rather, this is a letter about putting faith into action. It speaks to what Christian living looks like in practice. It’s about owning our faith and making it a part of who we are — not just a name we wear.

In this and following articles, I’m going to go chapter by chapter, but it’s always best to read each epistle in one sitting. James and the other New Testament writers didn’t include the chapter breaks or verse numbers we use today. Useful as they are for study purposes, they can also make it easy to take things out of context — adding meaning or removing it from larger thoughts.

As a note, I’m working from the Christian Standard Bible.

Verses 1–18: Trials and Maturity

Consider it a great joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you experience various trials, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.

James 1:2–4

James opens with an unexpected theme — maturity through trials. Right after his greeting, James says to his readers that they will endure challenges as Christians. He goes so far as to say these challenges are a good thing because they will result in greater maturity. He then address two seemingly unrelated topics: wisdom and humility. Verses 5–8 say we should ask God for wisdom with confidence, and verses 9–11  tell us we should value humility over riches. In the context, it makes sense that we’d seek wisdom from God in our trials; it’s the eternal question of, “Why is this happening?” Wisdom helps us see past the events of the moment to God’s greater purpose.

Additionally, our trials can challenge us financially. For early Christians, persecution could include the loss of business relationships and even personal property. James reminds us these things don’t matter in the big picture, that we are exulted in humility. Instead of letting trials beat us down, our relationship with God and the love of our fellow Christians can help us emerge with a stronger faith. When we face challenges, persecution, and temptations in this life, we have an opportunity to grow in Christ.

Don’t be deceived, my dearly loved brothers. Every generous act and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights; with Him there is no variation or shadow cast by turning. By His own choice, He gave us a new birth by the message of truth so that we would be the first-fruits of His creatures.

James 1:16–18

James concludes this thought by reminding us that all goodness comes from God. That should be our focus in trials.

  • When persecuted we should look beyond the pain of the moment to remember God’s love for us, and those who persecute us should see that love and hope in our conduct under pressure.
  • When facing temptation, we should remember the promises of God are better than the passing pleasures of sin.
  • When facing personal tragedy or challenges, we should lean on the goodness of our God and our fellow Christians to help carry us past the pain and back to our hope in Christ.

Verses 19–27: Hearing and Doing

But be doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. Because if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man looking at his own face in a mirror. For he looks at himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. But the one who looks intently into the perfect law of freedom and perseveres in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but one who does good works — this person will be blessed in what he does.

James 1:22–25

James introduces a couple of ideas in the second half of chapter 1 that he will come back to later in his letter. The first is that we should watch our speech, and the second is that a complete faith takes action. Verses 19–21 tell us we should be quick to hear but slow to speak in anger. In this direct context, James says we should rid ourselves of “moral filth.” Sometimes, we think nothing of the words we use online and in other public spaces, but this passage equates those angry words with trash. Verse 26 goes on to say that anyone who claims to be a Christian but does not control their tongue has a useless faith. Hateful, cruel, or impulsive speech has no place in a mature Christian’s walk.

In the midst of talking about our speech, James says we need to do more than listen to God’s word. We have to put it in action. It’s a stern warning about our speech that he puts this exhortation right here. He’s essentially saying, “Watch your words. Don’t just listen to God’s word; put it into action, or your words will invalidate your faith.” There are many ways we put faith into action and let God’s word change us, but the direct context here is in our language. If we study God’s word and then we cannot control our own words, then we’re like this person who forgets their own face in the mirror.

Miscellaneous Thoughts & Conclusion

  • Verse 13 should caution us against attributing tragedy to God. I’m talking specifically about statements like, “I guess God needed another angel in Heaven,” or “Well, God has His reasons.” These statements may mean well, but they do not correctly reflect the nature of God as presented by James.
  • In verse 14, James is making the case that God cannot be tempted. In doing so, he presents the path to sin as an equation — desire + temptation = sin. Remove one, and Satan loses his power. He can’t tempt you with something you have defeated desire for, nor can your desires overwhelm you if you don’t invite the temptation in.
  • Verse 25 says Christians are under the law of freedom (or liberty, depending on translation). Consistently, the New Testament writers only speak of spiritual freedoms in Christ. They put no stake in the freedoms of this world, and we too should be careful how much emphasis we place on the civil freedoms we enjoy.
  • The number of times Jesus, James, and other New Testament writers make a point about what we say and how we say it should give us pause when listening to, praising, or repeating public personalities who “tell it like it is” in harsh, vulgar, or otherwise mean-spirited ways.

In James 2, we’ll look at applying the perfect law of liberty to how we treat prejudice, and we’ll study some more about how faith and action compliment each other.

Removing the Sword from Our Words

image of a man shouting into a bullhorn

When Jesus told Peter to lay down his sword, he instructed us all to reject violence and unnecessary conflict. This is not restricted to my refraining from physically attacking you for differing beliefs; it must, by extension, affect our words and attitudes toward those outside the body. If I unthinkingly hurt you with my words, then I am every bit as guilty of attacking you as if I had truly taken sword against you.

Ephesians 6:17 and Hebrews 4:12 both compare God’s word to a sword. It pierces hearts and minds; it divides between right and wrong. It discerns the thoughts and intentions of the heart. But there’s a danger in wielding a sword carelessly or rashly. I recently saw this approach come out in a lesson I was listening to about Catholic doctrine. Setting aside the fact that the preacher was teaching factual inaccuracies, his tone and word choice would have likely driven away anyone who identifies as a Catholic.

He said things like:

  • “They claim to respect the Bible, if you can call what they do respect.”
  • “How can anyone think this is pleasing to God?”
  • “The priests get up and do their mumbo-jumbo.”

I almost interrupted the lesson (and I kind of wish I had). It was unnecessarily harsh and disrespectful to others’ long-held beliefs. Sure, he might have been preaching Biblical truths, but he was doing so in a way to ensure he alienated anyone who didn’t already agree with him. I’ve been guilty of the same in the past, but it’s no more than another form of self-sacrifice to show grace in our speech toward or about those with whom we may disagree.

The place where this seems to be the biggest challenge is online. When we get behind our keyboards, our natural filters disengage, and we write things in posts and comments we would likely never say in person. I’ve even seen it in church families — brothers and sisters who are perfectly pleasant to each other’s faces but who have written extremely thoughtless and mean-spirited things to each other online.

We would all do well to remember some warnings from Jesus and His followers about our speech:

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.

Ephesians 4:29

Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.

Colossians 4:6

From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.

James 3:10 – 12

The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.

Luke 6:45

We should be as careful with what comes out of our mouths and our keyboards as we are about any other potentially sinful activity. Our words need to be thoughtful and intentional, inviting consideration rather than demanding a reaction. Yes, there were times when Jesus’s or Paul’s words gained a hard edge; that’s not in dispute. Those times, however, were the exception rather than a habit. Our habit needs to be one of grace.

Disagreements happen, even among the closest of Christian families. We can have disagreements without being disagreeable. We can talk about doctrine without condescension. We can address controversy without meanness.

Here are some things that might help:

  1. Read Jesus’s words and the letters of Paul in particular. They each have times where they address difficult topics. Looking at how they did so while maintaining a good relationship with the affected parties is a valuable lesson.
  2. Delay commenting. If you read something online that provokes a reaction, avoid posting a comment until the next day. If you’re like me, you might have an easier time wisely choosing battles with this approach.
  3. Turn off harsh voices. This might look like turning off Rush Limbaugh or Tucker Carlson. It might mean unsubscribing from incendiary Facebook pages. It might mean avoiding sites like Daily Kos or The Drudge Report. If we feed ourselves bad examples, we will begin to emulate them.
  4. Pray for the person who made you angry. Don’t just pray that they come to their senses. Pray that you will forgive them and that they will have a closer relationship with Christ.
  5. Be prepared to follow Christ’s example. “What would Jesus do?” is only enough if you are willing to do it.

My hope and prayer for all Christians is that we lay down our verbal weapons and keep doors of opportunities open rather than closing them with a harsh word or unkind attitudes. Every person is valuable to God. We should speak to them like we understand that.

Should We Rant with Those Who Rant?

dislike

Betteridge’s law of headlines clearly states: “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.” So spoilers.

I often think about the time I spend on services like Facebook and Twitter. Recently, I saw one of those exchanges where one person posts something inflammatory that then escalates in the comments. All to often, you see something like, “If you don’t like what I have to say, delete me,” tossed in among other attacks as well as more commenters lining up to take sides. This time, the exchange was between Christians, and the object of debate was far from a spiritual matter. (Actually, those two things happen more often than I would like.)

Romans 12:15 says we should weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice. That’s the primary reason I stay on social media right there. If I’m connected with you on Facebook, I sincerely want to know what’s going on in your life. I want to know what prayers you need, what celebrations you have, what struggles you are facing. That’s part of what being a brother or sister in Christ is about. That’s what being a friend is all about.

However, between adorable pictures of pets/kids and status updates about life, Facebook in particular has become a platform for soapboxes. It’s hard to scroll very far without seeing some post or another about why this group is heartless or why that group is stupid. Toxicity runs rampant. It damages relationships, and it motivates more than a few to take breaks from Facebook or abandon the service altogether.

Then come the times we feel the need to engage — to put someone “in their place.” Or, we jump in and participate in the rant, behaving like bullies toward those who think differently on some secular issue — gun rights, immigration, healthcare, taxes, etc. I’m guilty of this as anyone. Just a couple weeks ago, I caught myself being very mean-spirited on Twitter. Sure, I deleted the tweets after the fact, but the damage had already been done.

Here’s Romans 12:15 in its larger context:

In love of the brothers be tenderly affectionate one to another; in honor preferring one another; not lagging in diligence; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope; enduring in oppression; continuing steadfastly in prayer; contributing to the needs of the saints; given to hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless, and don’t curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice. Weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind one toward another. Don’t set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Don’t be wise in your own conceits.

Repay no one evil for evil. Respect what is honorable in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as it is up to you, be at peace with all men. Don’t seek revenge yourselves, beloved, but give place to God’s wrath. For it is written, “Vengeance belongs to me; I will repay, says the Lord.”

Therefore “If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him a drink. For in doing so, you will heap coals of fire on his head.” Don’t be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

What I don’t see is an exhortation to rant with those who rant, to fight those who incite. Paul doesn’t give us permission to be Internet trolls. (Although, in a manner of speaking, he does give us permission to feed the trolls.) In fact, if I hold some of my past conduct on social networks to the standard put forth in Romans 12, I fall woefully short. Still, I recognize that struggle, and I’m always hoping to do better.

I invite you to look at your own conduct on Facebook and other social services. Are you ranting with those who rant? Stop. Are you inciting arguments and anger? Stop. Stop being overcome by evil, and instead be a source of goodness. And, above all, continue posting about your joys so that I can rejoice with you. Write about your sorrows, so that I can pray for you. I’m not going to unfriend you, mute you, or block you because I disagree with you on some things, but I’d much rather know how I can be a better friend to you than how to vote like you.

Politically Charged Topics and Christian Online Conduct

socialmedia

I’ve been hesitant to write anything about Indiana’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act. I’m an Indiana resident, so it goes without saying that I’ve heard and read one or two things about it, and I do have an opinion about it. But that’s not the point of this post. My opinions are unimportant. What’s important is this: anytime something like this occurs, where a large portion of the Christian population becomes invested in a politically charged debate, conduct becomes the point.

Whenever politics and religion mix, things get ugly, and many things I’ve been seeing from my brothers and sisters in Christ on social media only proves it. I’ve been appalled by some of the things I’ve seen shared and reposted in defense of the bill — so appalled I’ve caught myself shaking in anger that a brother or sister in Christ, who would never speak that way in person, would think it’s a good idea to share the stuff filling my timeline.

James 3:9 – 12 says this about the contents of our speech:

We praise our Lord and Father with [the tongue], and we curse men who are made in God’s likeness with it. Praising and cursing come out of the same mouth. My brothers, these things should not be this way. Does a spring pour out sweet and bitter water from the same opening? Can a fig tree produce olives, my brothers, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a saltwater spring yield fresh water.

Colossians 4:6 says that our words should always be gracious, as if seasoned with salt, and Jesus asks, in Matthew 5:13, what purpose salt serves if it should lose its flavor. When we behave differently from the world, in both speech and conduct, then we are as salt that seasons the lives of those around us and makes God’s word easier to digest. When we act like the world, and when we use mean-spirited and ungracious words to prove a point, we lose our flavor and become pointless in God’s work.

This is especially important when we start sharing and reposting things to social media. As soon as I share an article on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, email, or wherever else, I’m making the words of that article my own. If the author uses bad language, I’m taking ownership of those words. If the author is using mean-spirited words, I’m now using mean-spirited words. If the author is acting like a bully, I’m acting like a bully by sharing. I say I’m praising God while belittling others with what I share. I might as well be trying to get sweet and bitter water from the same spring.

I could write much more at this point about the flaws and dangers of our continuing habit of looking to politicians to do our Christian work for us, but I won’t. Perhaps another time. For now, all I want my brothers and sisters to take away is this: we can choose to agree or disagree on a number of secular topics — Indiana’s new religious freedom act being one of many. We don’t have to be ungracious about it. We can disagree without being disagreeable.

Be mindful about what you post online. Be mindful about the links you share. Be wary of link-bait titles. Would Jesus actually use words like those? Does the post have a Christ-like tone? Does it line up with the kinds of things found in Philippians 4:8? You may agree with the overall point, but we undermine God and the nature of His message when we share things that are harsh and belittling or that cruelly attack those with whom we disagree. (And I’m sorry, but the defense of “calling it like it is” is no defense at all.)

Be mindful about what you post, especially when polarizing issues arise. Don’t post out of anger or frustration. Don’t post to “score points” against the other side. Stop posting things you have to qualify due to harsh tone or harsher language. Avoid using social media as a mask of anonymity through which you can shelve Christian conduct. Exercise kindness and graciousness online. I beg you — I implore you — think before you link.