James continues to speak about the need for Christians to control their tongues and to show good conduct done in the meekness of wisdom.
James begins by warning us that not many should become teachers. Obviously there must have been many people in the scattered churches who wanted to teach. The problem was that too many people were seeking the status of being a teacher without the moral qualifications that teaching requires.
How strange it is, that often people who are the most negative in their way of talking want to be teachers! James adds that God will judge teachers with greater strictness, because they influence many people.
He gives three examples of small things that control larger things:
- We put a bit into a horse’s mouth, to make it do what we want; and we have the animal under our control.
- A tiny rudder can direct a large ship, even in the midst of a storm.
- A small flame can set fire to a huge forest.
The tongue is a small part of the body, but it is also a flame that can set the whole world on fire. “Wild animals and birds, reptiles and fish of every kind can all be tamed, and have been tamed, by humans; but nobody can tame the tongue – it is a pest that will not keep still, full of deadly poison. We use it to bless the Lord and Father, but we also use it to curse people who are made in God’s image; the blessing and the curse come out of the same mouth. My brothers, this must be wrong.” (3:7-10 NJB)
A tongue that is not controlled can destroy relationships and break down community. A person who is not right with God, who is not living in daily communion with God in His Word – abiding in the Word on a daily basis and walking with God according to His Word – cannot consistently speak pure and helpful words to anyone; neither to the brothers and sisters in the body of Christ nor to people in the world. The warning to the body of Christ is that if a person does not allow the Holy Spirit to renew the way he or she talks, that person’s tongue becomes a deadly fire, ignited by hell, a wicked world in itself.
It is not only the greater sins, the more visible sinful actions, that destroy the body of Christ. The smaller things, represented here by the tongue, can bring the greater devastation. Only a renewed heart can produce speech that blesses, heals and encourages others. The apostle Paul tells us that our great task is to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we can discern God’s will and live accordingly. How do we renew our minds? Paul gives us the answer in Colossians 3:16-17. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.” (ESV)
Everything we do in ministering to others, whether it is speaking to one another or doing good deeds, all ministry flows out of our abiding in God through His Word.
The reason James spoke so harshly about the refusal of Christians to control their tongues was that it was destroying their community. Gossip was rampant in the churches. It created confusion, which opened the door for temptations of various kinds; it caused the various groups within the church to be alienated from one another. This made it very difficult for people to seek the wisdom that comes from on high. Their bitter envy and self-seeking was a sign that their wisdom was “earthly, sensual and demonic.” (3:15)
A Woman of Godly Wisdom
There once was a great woman of God who was known for her godly character, her wisdom in teaching, and her biblically grounded prophetic ministry. Pastor Jean Darnall (1923-2019) ministered, together with her husband, in nations of Asia and Europe, as well as the Americas. She was a woman who allowed the Holy Spirit to control everything she did. When she spoke, in private conversations or before thousands of people, her words instilled confidence and hope in those who heard her. To hear her speak was to be healed and challenged. It is no exaggeration to say that Proverbs 25:11 described her speech. “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.” She spent much time in God’s Word and in communion of prayer with Him. She walked with Christ in the Spirit, and the Spirit revealed Himself through her life and spoke through her teaching, with “wisdom that is from above.”
Those of us who were blessed to know her and hear her teachings could hear an echo of the apostle James when she taught on “a life shaped (formed) by the Holy Spirit.” These are her words: “I want to define the elements of a life shaped, or formed, by the Holy Spirit. Whatever you are full of, will form you. If you are filled with the Spirit, the Spirit will shape you into the image of Jesus Christ. We are not to be formed by the exterior things around us, but rather by the interior condition within us. Our interior condition should be Spirit- filled. Romans 12:1-2 is the key to a life shaped by the Holy Spirit – a life of total commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ as an act of worship. Then our minds will be reshaped by the Spirit of Jesus.” This is the life that the apostle James is calling us to live.
James makes a clear distinction between wisdom that comes from Satan and wisdom that comes from God. God gives His wisdom to those who abide in His Word. Notice the characteristics of the two kinds of wisdom.
Human wisdom that comes from below:
- Filled with bitterness
- Marked by jealousy
- Selfish ambition
- Creates confusion
God’s wisdom that is from above:
- Considerate, willing to yield
- Open to reason
- Full of mercy
- Shows itself by doing good
- Shows no partiality
- No trace of hypocrisy
“The peace sown by peacemakers brings a harvest of justice.” (James 3:18)
Questions to consider
- How can we deal with a fellow Christian who does not control his or her tongue?
- What are some ways you have learned to speak with words that “strengthen the weary”? (Isaiah 50:4)
- Have you noticed that we seem to have a “mixture” of human wisdom and God’s wisdom in our churches today? How have you learned to discern between the two kinds of wisdom?
- How have you grown in wisdom? Has suffering in your life taught you to seek God’s wisdom? Would you confess that your wisdom is “from above?”