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.
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 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?
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 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.