First of all, I want to be sure we remember the primary lesson from last week. We can do nothing to earn salvation; all we can do is believe that Christ’s work on the cross is effective, and then receive salvation as a gift from God.
Christians talk a lot about works and deeds because we expect them as a result of a vibrant faith. The Holy Spirit works inside us, changing us, making us more able to love as Christ has first loved us. These changes should be visible to people around us, serving as a testimony to the new life we’ve taken on.
Our reading from James today asks us to consider how we speak to others. As James notes, “all of us make many mistakes,” and we’re all familiar with what we sometimes call a slip of the lip. For the preacher, the advantage of these verses lies in their ability to make everyone squirm. The disadvantage is the preacher has reason to squirm, too. The problem is universal.
Our tongues reveal much about where we are in our walk with Christ. Unless we have reached a state of true holiness, our words will reveal our flaws. And yet, James isn’t saying, “Oh, well, nobody’s perfect.” Instead, he’s making it clear that we need to do better, that we need to develop a Christian way of speaking to each other and to a hurting world in good times and in bad times.
The Book of James was written in what most people would call bad times, less than 30 years after the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. Not every scholar would agree with me, but I side with the view that the Book of James was written by none other than James the half-brother of Jesus, who was the first leader of the Christian church in Jerusalem.
James wrote this letter during a tumultuous time in Jerusalem. Jewish revolutionaries were fomenting rebellion against the Roman Empire. Class distinctions had become much too evident—the rich had gotten richer and the poor had gotten poorer—and there was a lot of angry talk in the streets, in the temple, and in people’s homes. At the same time, the Jewish religious leaders were becoming increasingly concerned about the Christians among them, a group they considered a heretical sect.
Some time around A.D. 62, Jerusalem was between Roman procurators. (A procurator was a kind of governor, sent by the empire to keep the peace.) The Jewish high priest used this gap in oversight to arrange to have James tried by a Jewish court and executed. Some ancient records indicate James was thrown from the highest point of the temple and then finished off by stoning after the fall did not immediately kill him.
By A.D. 70, the Jews were in full revolt and the Roman army came to crush the rebellion. In the process, the temple and most of Jerusalem were destroyed.
This history is important because it gives us some context for James’ teachings about how we speak to one another. This wasn’t some vague theory James espoused. He was trying to show angry people a better way, a way that he must have hoped would help the people of Jerusalem avoid the disasters that eventually did consume them.
A lot of what James says about speech is very practical. Earlier, in the first chapter of James, we are advised to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger, “for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” In many ways, James is simply repeating advice that had been circulating for centuries and still is valid today.
When I worked for a corporation, I had a boss who taught me this principle in regard to e-mail. Thanks to e-mail, text messaging, Facebook, and such, we can now quickly lash out at someone while typing. A short-tempered project manager had used e-mail to attack me for something I had not done. I was furious, of course. My wise boss’s advice: Ignore it for 24 hours. “Write the response if you want,” he said, “but don’t hit ‘send’ until you’ve waited a day and considered it.”
I wrote it, and the next day I read my words again. In a calmer frame of mind, I actually deleted my response rather than hitting ‘send.’ I suppose it was the Christian thing to do. It also was a lot of fun because the project manager figured out on his own he had made a mistake, and for months I could see he was very nervous every time he was around me. I wondered what he was thinking: “Did Chuck get the e-mail? Does he know something I don’t? Is he friends with someone higher up the company ladder? WHAT’S ABOUT TO HAPPEN TO ME?”
Okay, maybe I enjoyed that last part in ways that weren’t so Christian. But the calm approach did have practical results, for angry words, whether they come from our tongue or our fingertips, can be a very dangerous thing. Don’t ever let anyone tell you there’s not practical wisdom in the Bible.
A lot of this really is about self-control, isn’t it? Be the calm one. Be the one who speaks softly when others are angry. Control yourself, and you’ll control the situation. Bite your tongue. I preached on the marks of a Christian a few months ago—perhaps we’ve found another mark, a battle-scarred tongue, one that’s been bitten so often you can see the teeth marks.
There’s more to all of this, however, than just practical lessons. James raises the issue of how we speak, and other issues of behavior, so that we can look at ourselves critically and move toward holiness. Our tongue can act like a litmus strip, telling us if we’re out of balance with Christ.
James is saying we’ve got a problem when anything angry or vile comes out of our mouths. We are revealed as being “double-minded,” a term James uses to describe someone who claims to believe one thing but thinks and lives another way.
Here’s a roundup of kinds of problem speech mentioned by James throughout his letter:
1. Bad theology. In particular, in verse 1:13, he says you shouldn’t blame evils like temptation to sin on God. This ties to his admonition that one shouldn’t choose to teach unless he or she is clear about biblical truths.
2. Making distinctions based on worldly criteria. Christ came for all, regardless of where they were born or how much money they have.
3. Speaking empty words. James reminds us that it’s not enough to say kind words to people in need. Words of grace require acts of grace.
4. Speaking negatively of others, particularly of brothers and sisters in the Christian community. (It’s hard, I know. We spend a lot of time with each other.)
5. Speaking of the future as if we’re in control. We don’t think about this one much, but it’s a powerful indicator of whether we’ve really turned our lives over to God.
If you’re feeling convicted about how you’ve used your tongue—I know I am—you may be asking that question the Jews asked after hearing Peter’s sermon at Pentecost: “What should we do?”
Biting your tongue does help, but it’s not a long-term solution. Remember, we cannot work our way into salvation. You could gnaw your tongue off trying to achieve holiness through your own strength. We begin with faith that Jesus saves us, and works proceed from there.
Do those things that grow your faith. Pray. Study your Bible. Be a true disciple of Christ, and not just someone who walks through the door on Sunday morning on a pretty regular basis.
As we open ourselves to God, the Holy Spirit takes greater control of our lives, as we let him. At some point, he finally gets hold of our tongues, and we then have taken great steps toward holiness. Over time, our words even can bring holiness to places where discouragement and despair once ruled.