Lesson Focus: James shows us how an uncontrolled tongue can destroy what God is doing in our lives and our church. Our tongues can be controlled when we seek God’s wisdom.
Lesson Outcomes: Through this lesson, students should:
Understand that James isn’t just talking to teachers.
Understand that the words that we speak can have drastic and eternal consequences.
Be encouraged to submit ourselves to the wisdom of God through the power of the Holy Spirit, which will help us with our speech.
Catch Up on the Story James’ main concern is that his readers would understand and practice what he calls “pure and undefiled religion.” Related to James’ desire is that we live wisely, practicing our faith through our outward actions. As much as James is concerned that we act out our faith, he’s also concerned with how our words either help or hinder us in that matter. We’ve already seen that how we listen and respond either indicates that we are working along with God toward righteousness in the world, or we’re working against God.
This week, words and wisdom return to the forefront. We’ll split chapter three into two sections, 3:1-12 and 3:13-18.
Not Many of You… James begins advising his readers that they should not aspire to be teachers. At this point, some of you may be thinking, “Well, I’m not a teacher in the church, so this section of the letter doesn’t pertain to me.” You would be wrong. As far as New Testament scholars are concerned, the jury’s out if James is addressing only teachers in the church or the general populace. I contend that while James has teachers in mind, he’s addressing everyone because the advice is pertinent for how we, as individuals and as a community of faith, seek to live as witnesses in the world.
The reason James tells his friends that not many of them should be teachers is that “teachers will be judged with greater strictness.” If someone is charged with teaching people about the nature and character of God, we’d best try and have a good grasp on those things. Certainly, no one is ever going to have a complete understanding of who God is and what God would have us to do.
According to some, a common understanding was that teachers would be judged on a level different from everyone else.
Another motivation might be at play here, too; the level of expertise teachers needed in James’ day, when only roughly 10% of people could read, was extraordinary. Teachers were often persons of honor in their communities. So, James might also be warning his friends not to aspire to be a teacher just because of the honor it might bring you and your family. Because James says, we’re all prone to make many mistakes.
It may be that James understands that those who teach end up talking a lot. As with most things, the more repetitions you have of something, the more often there arises a chance that a mistake will happen. Preachers feel the threat of this risk in significant ways. Not only do we have/get to get up in front of people each week and deliver a sermon that seeks to honor the biblical text, the work of the Spirit, all the while communicating effectively, we are also called upon to offer opinions and advice on all sorts of things.
It’s not just that teachers make mistakes; it’s that the ramifications of those mistakes can be devastating. Here is where I think James is talking to all of us, not just the teachers. What we say about who God is, what God is doing in the world, and how we fit into that functions either as a faithful witness pointing people toward Jesus, as a stumbling block that causes people to trip. Quite literally, what we say has eternal consequences.
Ok, so that’s rather heavy, and I don’t mean to scare you or make you feel guilty, or anything like that. After all, we serve a God who is gracious and merciful, slow in punishing, and full of steadfast love and faithfulness. There is grace. Always. The God of all good and gracious things gives us chance after chance to live into the calling to which we have been called.
Three Metaphors It’s at this point that James employs three metaphors. The first comes in the second half of verse 2, “Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle.” James continues to talk about how we can control a horse with a relatively small bit of metal. When employed right, the bit can change the course of a horse, either guiding it where you want it to go. With a bit, you can keep yourself and the horse from danger.
We can read this metaphor in two ways, individual and communally. Individually, your tongue is a small part of your body, and it can guide and direct the whole course of your life. If it is uncontrolled, well, that can cause you a world of hurt. If it’s controlled, well, you’ll have a better time being faithful.
Communally, when handled properly and maturely, the teacher’s tongue can steer the whole body, which is the church. This is what James means when he says, “who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect.” In the same way, if a teacher can’t control the tongue, if those persons aren’t mature, they can lead the church in rather bad places.
The second metaphor James use is fire. Imagine a vast forest with threes tall and robust. There are bunnies and deer, hiking trails, a pond for fishing, and maybe even a quaint little cabin with a beautiful view. Everything in the forest is right and good. A gentle breeze blows, the birds are chirping, and the brook babbles. It is a Bob Ross painting.
Then, along comes someone who cannot control their tongue. It could be a teacher who has some crazy ideas about who God is, ideas that have not been communally discerned by the body of believers in the power of the Spirit. Or, it could be someone who just can’t control what they say. The flaming tongue meets a bit of dry and brittle branches, and poof, a giant forest fire rages out of control. Such a tiny, insignificant thing has such power to destroy.
The final metaphor James uses is of the tongue as a “restless evil, full of deadly poison.” Have you ever had food poisoning? It’s bad. When I was in seminary, I ate something that had enough E.coli bacteria on/in it that I got rather sick. I will spare you the details, but so ill that I would not wish it on my worst enemy. I went to the doctor, and they determined that I had E.coli and gave me some antibiotics. They assured me that these were good antibiotics, so good that they would kill all of the bacteria in my stomach, the good and the harmful bacteria. I distinctly remember the doctor saying, “It’s going to get worse before it gets better.” Worse! On top of that, they severely restricted my diet. I was only to eat bananas, rice, apples, sauce/juice, and toast. Well, apples and I don’t always get along, so they were out. I ate so many bananas and so much rice. It was the most glorious day when, after a few weeks, they told me I could add some broth to my rice. Flavor!
Again, I think James is talking to us as both individuals and as members and leaders in the church. Your tongue, if it is not controlled through the power of the Spirit, can make the healthiest body gravely ill.
I don’t think we often realize how much what we say affects our outlook on life. Constant negative words will reinforce a negative outlook. Critical words will only enable your judgment on others. Fearful phrases will only cause your fear to grow and will make others afraid as well. All of those things in the church can be absolutely devastating to the mission to which God has called us. They are poison.
By now, you’ve got James’ point. The tongue, especially for teachers in the body of Christ, is a small object that, when misused, can cause a world of destruction and sickness. But James isn’t done.
He’s got one more point to make. It is with these tongues that we bless our Lord and Father. And it is with these tongues that we curse others who have been wonderfully made in the image of God! “Out of the same mouths come praise and courses.” James isn’t talking about the words you’re not supposed to say, you know, the bad ones. He’s talking about the way we speak toward and about each other. In one breath, we sing praises to God, and in the next, we’re setting a forest on fire. We’re unleashing E.coli, tearing down our neighbors.
James wraps up the section by saying that fresh and saltwater can’t come out of the same spring. Neither can a fig tree grow olives? We will know, God will know, the world will know us by the fruit we produce. The fruit of love and joy, peace and patience, goodness, kindness, genteelness, self-control.
So What? The so what of today comes from the second section in the chapter, verses 13-18. “Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” He goes on to talk about two kinds of wisdom, the wisdom of the world, which traffics in bitter envy and selfish ambition. It is boastful and does not tell the truth. It’s prone to disorder and wickedness.
The second kind of wisdom, the wisdom that is from above, is pure and peaceable. It is gentle, willing to yield. It is full of mercy and without partiality or hypocrisy. This is the wisdom we seek.
Like many things in the Christian life, God isn’t keeping this wisdom from us until we’re good enough. There’s nothing we can do, no seven steps to a wiser life that will yield you this wisdom. No book you can buy will make you wiser.
The one thing we can do is to submit ourselves every day to the God who gives graciously and ask for wisdom from above. Every day pray that you might get out of the way enough so that God’s wisdom might be made known to you. God longs to give wisdom to you, but, like Adam and Eve in the garden, all too often, we think we know better.
Specific Discussion Questions: Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
James begins the chapter warning his friends that they should not desire to become teachers. Why would he do so? Is James only speaking to those who have positions of leadership and teaching in the church? What makes you think that?
James says our tongue is like a bit in the mouth of a horse. What do you think he means by that?
James also says that our tongue is like a little bit of fire that can cause a forest to burn. Have you ever witnessed someone’s speech act as a forest fire? If so, describe what that looked like.
James says that the tongue can be like a deadly poison. Have you ever eaten anything that has made you sick? Did it ruin your day or maybe even your week? Do you agree that the tongue can be like a poison that infects the body? Why or why not?
In verses 13-18, James talks about two kinds of wisdom. What characterizes the first kind of wisdom? What characterizes the second kind of wisdom? Which type of wisdom does James hope we have?
Verse 18 says, “And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” What does James mean by that?