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The message of the third chapter of James is desperately needed at this time in world history. From the moment the Holy Spirit inspired these words, they have been wise teaching. Today, they are both wise and needed.
James introduces the subject of our speech in chapter 1. He exhorts his readers to, “be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1.19).
With words that cry out to be heard, he writes, “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless (James 1.26).
James 3 continues the theme of speech. He writes, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle” (James 3.1-2).
Just to be clear, what James writes is not mere suggestions for Christians. They are imperatives. It is God’s will that we do what James is teaching.
(1) Aim to be a good listener, who is slow to speak.
(2) Put a bridle on your tongue, so will better be able to keep control of your behavior.
(3) If you are in a leadership role, it is even more important that you follow what James says about your speech.
I think it is obvious why James’ teaching is so vital at the time in which we are living. Let’s think about it for a moment.
Words and Violence
As you read Jesus’ words below, think about how many fights begin with words that area exchanged between people.
Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5.21-22).
The reason why Jesus judges speech so strongly is because he knows that speech leads to action. Insults escalate into physical violence. Using words to make someone less than human gives people greater liberty to harm others.
So far in 2020, there have been 97 homicides in the Kansas City metropolitan area. I wonder how many of these deaths were started with words.
Words and Leaders
James wrote, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3.1). The words of leaders are powerful and persuasive, whether they come from a parent, a teacher, a preacher, a politician, a sponsor, a small group leader, etc.
The best man in my wedding had to leave home to learn that his first name wasn’t “Stupid.” The words of his father caused him to emotionally limp as long as I knew him.
I was once told that after a pastor has been in a church for seven years, the church’s view of God would resemble his or hers. What a tremendous responsibility we have when people listen to us and watch us, then follow our example.
Maywood has many people who have been hurt in church. I thank God that many people find healing at Maywood. How do people get hurt in church. My guess is that the majority were hurt by words and at times by people in leadership.
If you have any followers on Facebook or another social media platform, you have some kind of influence. Don’t miss James’ words, “know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (verse 1). The admonition from James is be slow to speak and to bridle the tongue is wise counsel for social media too.
The bottom line is that people believe leaders. They believe their words and imitate their actions.
Be slow to speak – why?
The next verses in James provide us with two graphic illustrations as to why we need to be slow to speak by bridling our tongue.
James 3.3-5 – If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. 4 Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.
I am proud of my father for many reasons. One of his best qualities was how he lived by the saying, “a man’s word is his bond.” If he said that he was going to do something, then he did it. My father showed his family and friends the positive message of James. We could rely on his words, because his behavior matched what he said.
We all know, entirely too well, the destructive side of words. James wrote, “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell” (James 3.5-6).
The reason why I began this article by saying that the message of James is desperately needed today is because of the “firestorm” in the world that is being caused by words. It doesn’t matter on which side of the political or religious spectrum you fall, there appears to be (at least in my opinion) a lot of “heat” out there but not much “light.”
The big question for followers of Jesus is how we can be “light” and not just give off the “heat” of our own opinions. I met with a few spiritual friends the other day and they said this was the way they worked at being “slow to speak and slow to anger.”
— One man said, “When I am about to get angry, I stop and pray before I speak.”
— One lady said, “I say to myself, ‘Be slow to speak, be slow to speak, be slow to speak,’ over and over so I don’t speak too quickly.”
— Another man said, “I have to get my inside condition prepared before I start my day or things won’t go well for me.” He does this by spending time in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous and by consciously practising some of the steps.
What about you? What can you do, so that your words direct your behavior in positive ways? What are one or two things you can do, so you will be “slow to speak” this week? Let’s determine to not be “fire-starters” with the words that come from our mouth or on social media.
Dear Jesus, you have the words of life. May our words be like yours. May we live in such a way that our words bring life to people today.