Sorry this is a week late, we have had no internet for a week.
See part 1 for the introduction to this series.
TEST NUMBER 4: My TONGUE
We thought earlier how James looks around at the way we behave in everyday situations to spot the symptoms of a deadly disease, this proud, adulterous heart we think we hide so well. So often we have the wrong heart attitude towards God, the wrong heart attitude towards others and how we often have a wrong heart attitude towards ourselves.
So, on to another of James’ diagnostic tests and it is linked to the last three:
There is no clearer test of what’s going on in my heart – and it’s pink and wobbly and lives in my mouth. My tongue! The most powerful muscle in my body. When the real me comes out into the open. James has a lot to say about our words in his letter…Why?
Because the stuff that comes tumbling out of my mouth will very quickly reveal the state of my heart.
My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent, and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you. James (1:19-21)
So, here’s the test: Are you quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to get angry? Or the opposite?
slow to listen,
quick to speak,
and very quick to get angry?
It’s the old saying – We’ve got two ears and one mouth, so we should use them in that ratio, but we so quickly get it the wrong way round.
And as I constantly tell my little darlings at school: as soon as you start speaking, you stop listening. And if you stop listening, you’re more likely to put your foot in it, speak angrily, which James says:”does not bring about the righteous life God desires ” It’s not part of his “making me more like Jesus” project that we thought about earlier.
Why are we so fond of the sound of our own voices?
Why do we speak when we should listen?
Isn’t it that once again, just as we saw earlier with our desire for a trouble-free life; the way we judge and mistreat others, our desire for wealth and status – and the way we think others should treat us – we just think far too highly of ourselves! Much more than we ought. It is once again a symptom of our proud hearts.
It’s like the accountant who applied for a job enclosing his 43-page CV which included a reference from his scout leader, his first aid certificate, and a photograph of his wife and child. We love to blow our own trumpet!
We may think we are good at controlling what we say, but, it’s when we get nudged, isn’t it! Like teacups on a tray
When someone contradicts us or interrupts us
Someone doesn’t pay us the respect we think we deserve
Someone irritates us
It’s when I’m alone in my car, driving, and someone cuts me up…
… or doesn’t thank me for letting them out
… or gets in my way when I’m in a hurry
Have you ever noticed that when someone is driving slower than you, you call them an idiot and when someone is driving faster than you, you call them an idiot?
It’s in those situations that the real me comes out into the open and it’s not a pretty sight or sound.
We not only like to put others down we also like to big ourselves up.
Now, over time, we devise clever little tricks, little phrases which we think disguise our boasting:
Repeating someone’s praise of us to others
Telling people what we do with our time, how busy we are…how tired we are
Fishing for compliments by putting ourselves down
But no one is fooled, really.
We’re just too polite to challenge each other: “Are you boasting again?”
No! We just think bad thoughts about each other:
“She’s so big-headed”
“She thinks she’s the bee’s knees”
“She’s so manipulative”
“She’s not an easy person…”
“She’s always fishing”
But why does it make us so cross when people talk about themselves?
Well, because actually, we hate their implication that we’re not as important as they are; or as ill, or as busy, or as tired – whatever it is – they should be focusing on us!
Do you do that thing when someone is telling you a story about themselves or something that has happened to them and you find yourself trying to trump their story with one of your own that’s better, funnier, more dramatic? I do it all the time. I like to call it empathy – making connections. Actually, all it is, is me secretly thinking I’m more interesting or amusing than they are, what I have to say is more important.
That’s why we try and outdo each other in conversation. Isn’t it
“Anyway – enough about you…”
And James goes on …we use our tongues too much but we don’t use our ears enough.
We can deceive ourselves that we are good listeners. We can claim to be those who regularly listen to God’s word, we can even be moved or challenged by it, and then walk away and do nothing.
But real listening leads to change.
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it— he will be blessed in what he does. (James 1:22)
Here’s the test: Do you just listen to the Word of God and so fool yourself, or do you do what it says?
James uses this great everyday illustration of the mirror. Think how often we must look in a mirror! But it’s strange, isn’t it, how we do forget what we look like. As I stand and talk to you now, I can’t picture myself, my features, my expressions.
We’re always fascinated and often horrified when we catch a glimpse of ourselves on video or in a shop window. It’s not just vanity, we are surprised! We see a photo of ourselves and think, “Oh that’s what I look like!” or, “Ooch. That’s what I look like?”
Now, picture yourself at a wedding reception. You’ve enchanted the other guests all evening with your wit and poise. You’ve conducted yourself perfectly, laughed in the right places, been attentive and charming, and now you need the loo. You excuse yourself. As you’re replacing the lipstick, you spot it. Just a glimpse. You smile at yourself in the mirror and…
Horror of horrors!
Oh yes – it’s there!
Wedged on your left incisor.
A large clump of fluorescent spinach from your Egg Florentine starter. That was about 40 minutes ago! You are mortified and you immediately set about removing the offending vegetation! Of course, you do. You wouldn’t leave it there once you’ve seen it.
Well? James says “Don’t then do the same with God’s word!”
I don’t know about you but as I’ve studied James, I’ve been left feeling like I’ve seen the spiritual equivalent of Aldi’s super 6 in my teeth.
Well? James says. What are you going to do about it?
Don’t hear it, feel bad temporarily and then just forget everything you’ve heard. Don’t come here, hear God’s word, then walk away and ignore what it says.
That is either the height of pride. “God, you are wrong! I don’t need to change how I speak or how I treat people – whatever it is… “
Or it is the height of disloyalty: “Yes I suppose God has got the right to challenge my speech and behaviour but I don’t intend to do anything about it. Either because I can’t be bothered or I don’t think it’s that serious. Or it’s just too costly, involves too much personal sacrifice?”
Well. James says if you are all talk and no action listen up:
If anyone considers themselves religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on their tongue, they deceive themselves and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. James (1:26-27)
This person James is challenging obviously claims to be ‘religious’ with their mouth, but then uses their words in a worldly way. James says, “You are deceived and your religion is worthless if you can’t control your tongue.”
Put your money where your mouth is!
Stop talking about your spirituality and do something about it!
To use an old cliché: Walk the talk!
Look after widows and orphans
Root out the worldliness that pollutes your life
So rather than risk condemning ourselves with empty words about how godly we are, we should quietly get on and do the stuff that God accepts. We should act like Jesus and care for the weak and vulnerable around us.
We should watch how we speak.
Here’s the test: Do you show your faith by what you do not just by what you say?
James goes into a lot more detail in 2:14-26. Let’s read 2:14-18:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.
Notice: The person claiming to have faith – using their mouth to declare their status before God – needs to prove this faith is alive by what they do. Words without actions is dead faith.
I’m not saved by my actions… but my actions show I’m saved.
Now. We who belong to evangelical churches may be in grave danger here.
We may be very hot on ‘The Truth’. We love our Bibles. We know our creeds. We love a good sermon [and complain bitterly about bad ones …] And yet, our churches are merely like Strictly come Preaching or Preaching on Ice if we just sit and listen, give the preacher marks out of 10 and then don’t act on what we hear.
We may be very ‘cold’ when it comes to actually physically, materially, sacrificially caring for people in need.
“Ah – but what people need is the Gospel,” we say.
OK True enough!! But actually people need both! They need their daily bread and the bread of life “AND” says James “look who I’m talking about in v15 “- Your brothers and sisters who already believe the Gospel;
Are you going to sit back and let them freeze and starve?”
“Well,” James says, “I’ll show you my faith by my good deeds!” It’s got to be both … faith in action.
It’s what Jesus did – he got his hands dirty. He mucked in. He helped people in the mess and hurt of their lives. He lived out his message. He was a servant. WE are called to be servants of God
How? by serving each other.
We are saved to serve.
We must adorn the spoken truth with actions that do other people good. Otherwise,
we are no different from the demons who can also say the creed, James writes in verse 19:
You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
James gives two examples from the Old Testament, somewhat contrasting: The father of all God’s people, Abraham, and Rahab, a prostitute.
But they both demonstrated their faith in a faithful God by their sacrificial actions, not just their words.
Abraham was willing to obey God at extreme personal cost.
On the basis of God’s promise, he was willing to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice.
Abraham figured it like this: if God wanted him to sacrifice Isaac who was the child of promise – through whom God’s people would descend – then it must mean God would raise Isaac to life again. He trusted God and put that trust into action.
James says – Do you see? His faith and actions were working together.
Rehab also willingly helped God’s people at extreme personal risk- again because she believed what she had heard about the God of Israel. She took him at His word based on his past record. She followed the spies’ instructions to hang the red chord out of her window and she was spared destruction. That is faith in action. Such a beautiful echo of the Passover – the red cord like the blood of the lamb: Act according to God’s proven character, and follow his instructions even if it is costly- and you will be spared his judgement. Rahab knew that God always keeps his promises.
So: Our adulterous pride, in this case, is our scary ability to speak about our faith:
Participate in Bible studies
Lead Bible studies
Indulge in a bit of Sunday lunch sermon discussion
And yet do little to demonstrate our faith in action.
We are play-acting at loving God and we may fool others. But we certainly won’t fool God! We prove our faith in God not just by our correct words but by living a risk-taking, knife edge, God proving sort of existence that generously benefits those around us.
Here’s another test: Who’d be a teacher?
James now moves swiftly on to warn us that we should not rush into being teachers of God’s truth.
Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check. (James 3:1-2)
Why shouldn’t we presume to teach?
1. Because teachers will be judged more strictly by God
2. Because it’s blatantly obvious that none of us can claim to be perfect because we can’t control our tongues
So, why will teachers be judged more strictly?
In our culture, teachers come pretty low down the professional food chain. And I know because I am one!
“Those who can’t – teach.”
If I had a pound for every time I’ve heard that!
And as for Vicars and Pastors? Well, they just raise a sad smile, don’t they?
It’s a great conversation killer at a party:
“So what does your husband do?”
“Oh, He’s a Bible teacher.”
But in Scripture it’s a very different picture. The Bible teacher’s job is very important. Why?
Because they are passing on, implanting, God’s Word of Life. Notice, it’s the teacher’s job is important, not the teacher.
Because they are entrusted to speak this Word of Truth, the Lord holds them highly accountable for the way they use their tongues. He is not happy when a teacher of his Word – or any Christian, but particularly a teacher of his Word – is uncontrolled and sinful in their speech.
It’s interesting. James then goes on to illustrate that actually, it’s impossible for anyone to control their tongues.
It’s the tiny bit, he says, that controls a half-ton horse
It’s the tiny rudder, he says, that controls a thousand-ton ship
And It seems to be that it’s not us that control the tongue but the tongue that controls us and – gets us into heap loads of trouble
It makes grand speeches, for a tiny bit of muscle
It’s like a tiny spark that sets off a forest fire.
Listen to this:
The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. … no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. (James 3:6 & 8)
James says it like it is!
Isn’t that a bit excessive? No, not really. I bet if we spent a minute thinking over our own lives, we could each come up with at least one incident where our little pink tongue has caused a big load of trouble!
Our words are powerful. That “sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me” thing? Rubbish. Words don’t just hurt, they can destroy people.
If we need proof that we are proud adulterous Christians, just look at what trips off our tongue. It’s where our disloyalty comes out in the open.
With the tongue, we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. (James 3:9)
Take an average Sunday in an average church – one minute we’re singing hymns of praise, next minute we’re scrapping and bitching about each other over a cup of tea. We say terrible things about each other, don’t we!
We are past masters at wrapping it in phrases that stop us looking completely – I use this word cautiously – bitchy! We say:
“She’s sweet, but…”
“I was so hurt/sad when so and so did…”
“I’m sure she’s got her good points.”
“I’m not being funny, but…”
“Do you think I should say something to so and so? It’s just that…”
“I really think we need to pray for…”
And off we go, slagging people off in the name of constructive criticism, taking the moral high ground as we point out others’ faults, being two-faced. But, of course, it’s evil and actually, it reveals something very sinister.
Because a test of our loyalty to God is seen in our loyalty to people made in the image of God.
With the tongue, we praise our Lord and Father, and with it, we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. (James 3:9)
The very people God has put us on the planet to serve – we slander.
The people God commands us to love – we libel.
James says this is just wrong!
Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can fig-tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water. (James 3:11-12)
Have you ever had that experience of putting salt in your tea instead of sugar? Have you ever eaten an olive expecting it to be a grape? It’s just WRONG in your mouth!! Well, James is saying blessings and curses in the same mouth are just Wrong! They cannot belong together in the servant of Christ.
And nowhere is disloyalty as deadly as it is in the teacher of God’s Word. Someone who sets themselves up to be the implanter of God’s Word is in big trouble if they actually use words to destroy people’s reputation.
James uses a very shrewd argument here. Why would anyone want to be a teacher? What’s the motive?
James knows that of all people the teacher is going to be in danger of being proud… awkward moments for the Bible teacher…
Is it that I love the sound of my own voice? Is it that I think myself clever? Isn’t the expert king these days? Held in high esteem, treated with respect? Don’t I deserve that?
It’s good to be clever – knowledgeable – we think.
James says, “No! It’s good to be wise, and that’s not the same thing.”
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. (James 3:13)
Remember that choice we make all day every day about which path we will take. A wise person is one who sees themselves as they are in relation to God – small – and behaves accordingly.
The wise teacher will be the one who concentrates on true humility, not their great reputation.
Whose life demonstrates Christlike servitude, not how clever they are.
A teacher will be judged on their deeds, not their gifts.
But if you harbour bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. (James 3:14-16)
James talks about bitter envy and selfish ambition in the heart – and boasting about it? It seems an odd thing to say doesn’t it, because leaders don’t actually openly boast about such things.
For example, we didn’t hear Theresa May campaigning to be the leader of the Conservative Party declaring, “I’m standing on the bitter jealousy and selfish ambition ticket.”
No, she will have put forward the argument that she was the wisest, the most experienced, oh and by the way, the others are all weak and wrong…
It’s the same with church leaders. You would rarely hear a minister claim to be harbouring bitter jealousy and selfish ambition. But you may hear them slating other preachers; criticising other modes of ministry; claiming special knowledge of God; putting themselves up as a super-preacher, the man of God.
James says “such wisdom” is earthly – not from heaven but from the Prince of this world’s training school. Pride is Satan’s greatest problem and it’s in all of us too. We will always be able to spot worldly wisdom in action because it always leads to disorder and evil practices.
If we see division in our churches, someone somewhere is speaking in a proud and envious way – Satan’s type of wisdom,
and someone somewhere is listening to it.
So there’s another test from James. What comes out of your mouth?
We may not all claim to be teachers but we’ve all got a tongue.
- Do I put people down – criticise – secretly hoping to make myself look better in the process? That’s pride!
- Am I quick to take offense so I can make someone feel bad? That’s pride!
- Am I prickly and awkward, always getting the wrong end of the stick, so people are uncomfortable around me, giving me a feeling of power? That’s definitely pride!
- Do I boast about my knowledge of God’s truth and yet deny it by my selfish desire to be admired? That’s pride!
- Do you turn every conversation back to yourself, that’s pride!
It’s all so underhand, isn’t it? Yet it all comes from an adulterous pride – a divided heart, one that claims to love Christ, but loves self a lot more.
In a book called The Fall by Albert Camus, one of the characters says, “I, I, I, is the constant refrain of my life. You can hear it in everything I say.”
Do you listen to yourself sometimes and hear that? James says, “Brothers, Sisters, this should not be.” These are all symptoms of jealousy and selfish ambition.
It’s all a by-product of an adulterous heart.
Then, one last mention of words from James 5: 12:
But above all else, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.
Perversely I nearly skipped over it because it seemed so out of the blue but then I spotted the “above all else” bit!
Above all else must mean this is a big deal. James then, nearly word for word, repeats Jesus’ command from Matthew 5:34-37.
Now I think it is clear James isn’t talking about bad language here or even using God’s name in vain. He is referring to the common Jewish practise of the time – when people made an oath to convince someone they were telling the truth or would keep their promise.
So the modern equivalent might be “I swear on my mothers grave…”
Jesus forbade Christians from doing this and James is echoing that command,
and the issue seems to be the importance of words again and their power. It’s all about TRUTH. Honesty should be the absolute norm for the Christian if they are to reflect the nature of Christ. Our simple Yes or No should be completely binding since deception isn’t an option for us.
Let your Yes be Yes and your No be No
We are people who have put their faith in JESUS – the Word of Truth, so we should be known as those who speaks the truth; who speak honestly; who keep their word and can be trusted. Are you?
More diagnosis and bad news next week, but you have to know the bad news before you can appreciate the good news.
Ann Marie Thomas is the author of four medieval history books, a surprisingly cheerful poetry collection about her 2010 stroke, and the science fiction series Flight of the Kestrel. Book one, Intruders, is out now. Find out more at www.annmariethomas.me.uk