Wednesdays with James
Lesson Eleven: Stressed-Out Speech Sinks Ships
We continue our study in the central section of the Epistle of James today. In the body of this encyclical, the author takes up the three themes he introduced in chapter one, addressing them in more detail and in reverse order. The second theme James discusses has to do with wise behavior in the congregation — we’ve called it “Wise Behavior Makes Peace and Speaks No Evil” (3:1-4:12). The initial part of this section goes right to the horse’s mouth, as it were.
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters; you know that we will be judged more severely. All of us make many mistakes, after all. If anyone makes no mistakes in what they say, such a person is a fully complete human being, capable of keeping firm control over the whole body as well. We put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, and then we can direct their whole bodies. Consider, too, the case of large ships; it takes strong winds to blow them along, but one small rudder will turn them whichever way the helmsman desires and decides. In the same way, the tongue is a little member but boasts great things. See how small a fire it takes to set a large forest ablaze! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is a world of injustice, with its place established right there among our members. It defiles the whole body; it sets the wheel of nature ablaze, and is itself set ablaze by hell. Every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, you see, can be tamed, and has been tamed, by humans. But no single human is able to tame the tongue. It is an irrepressible evil, full of deadly poison. By it we bless the Lord and father; and by it we curse humans who are made in God’s likeness! Blessing and curses come out of the same mouth! My dear family, it isn’t right that it should be like that. Does a spring put out both sweet and bitter water from the same source? Dear friends, can a fig tree bear olives, or a vine bear figs? Nor can salt water yield fresh. (3:1-12, KNT)
Other than the fact that this is a delightful passage, full of colorful language and striking metaphors, there is little to actually discuss here in terms of exposition. The wisdom message of the passage is mirrored in a multitude of proverbial teaching, culled from observing the human experience. Plato, for example, said: Wise men talk because they have something to say; fools, because they have to say something. And Will Rogers put it in clever form: Never miss a good chance to shut up.
Three of the many sayings from the book of Proverbs about speech parallel what James says here:
- He who guards his mouth and his tongue, Guards his soul from troubles. (21:23)
- When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, But he who restrains his lips is wise. (10:19)
- Death and life are in the power of the tongue, And those who love it will eat its fruit. (18:21)
Jesus certainly spoke powerfully about how we use our words:
- What the mouth speaks is what fills the heart. A good person produces good things from a good storeroom; an evil person produces evil things from an evil storeroom. Let me tell you this: on judgment day people will have to own up to every trivial word they say. Yes: you will be vindicated by your own words— and you will be condemned by your own words. (Matt. 12:34-37)
And James himself already introduced this subject in chapter one:
- So, my dear brothers and sisters, get this straight. Every person should be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger. (1:19)
- If anyone supposes that they are devout, and does not control their tongue, but rather deceives their heart—such a person’s devotion is futile. (1:26)
And he will conclude this entire section with a clear exhortation:
- Do not speak evil against one another, my dear family. (4:11)
I don’t think I need to take a lot of time explaining any of these, do I? The truth of these proverbs is self-evident, and each of us feels their sting. They are more suitable for meditation than for exposition, and we would all be wise to memorize them, contemplate them, and recall them frequently. After all, that’s why they were formed as proverbial sayings in the first place!
The only real question is: Why does James focus on this subject in his epistle?
Again, it is good to remember the setting in life of those who received this encyclical. He was writing to congregations of Christians who were under great pressures, and the letter gives us a picture of communities that were experiencing a multitude of “stress fractures” in their lives and relationships. I wrote this in an earlier post:
Whatever the exact nature of the external pressures facing the Christians he is writing, those pressures were causing stress fractures within the congregations themselves. The spectrum of potential divisions would run from those wanting to pander to the rich and compromise the faith to those who were itching to join the Zealots, who sought (sometimes violent) revolution. The very things James writes about in this letter portray a church “tested” by complaining, bitterness, conflicts, and a breakdown of love, unity, and charity.
Chapter one set the scene: these are Christians under “the test.”
And when we are put through stressful testing as individuals, families, and communities, one of the first parts that can malfunction is the tongue.
So, although James’s teaching is beneficial for us to remember at all times, it is especially pertinent in times of great stress.
In such times, we may well pray the prayer of Sirach (Wisdom of Sirach 22:27):
Who will set a guard over my mouth,
and an effective seal upon my lips,
so that I may not fall because of them,
and my tongue may not destroy me?
• • •
Wednesdays with James
- Lesson One: Background and Big Picture
- Lesson Two: To Whom Was James Written?
- Lesson Three: The Ongoing Teaching Ministry of Jesus
- Lesson Four: An Encyclical from James (1:1)
- Lesson Five: Eschatological Joy and Growth through Suffering (aka Life) (1:2-4)
- Lesson Six: Asking for Wisdom (1:5-8)
- Lesson Seven: The Great Reversal (1:9-11)
- Lesson Eight: Taking Responsibility, Receiving from God (1:12-27)
- Lesson Nine: Are You Not Discriminating among Yourselves? (2:1-13)
- Lesson Ten: The Old “Faith & Works” Debate — Completely Unnecessary