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Words Matter for People of the Word: James 3-4

May 8, 2012

Following the more noted and remarked upon second chapter of James, it is tempting to view the remainder of the epistle as little more than a collection aphoristic wisdom.  That’s not too say that wisdom, aphoristic or otherwise, is a bad thing.  It is what it is, and quite useful at that.  But as we discovered in our session last week, there’s more going on in the third and fourth chapters of James than first meets the eye.

Chapter three opens with a discussion on taming one’s tongue.  Good advice to be sure!  Who hasn’t gotten in trouble with an unkind word or mistimed remark?  As James vividly illustrates, the tongue – like the rudder on a great ship or a bit in the mouth of a powerful horse – is a small member that can boast of great, and greatly damaging, exploits.  Better to think before we speak.  And sometimes better to not speak at all.  As your mother told you, “If you don’t have anything nice to say about someone, don’t say anything at all.”  Or as the Greek philosopher Zeno taught long ago, “The reason we have two ears and only one mouth, is that we may hear more and speak less.”

For the Christian, however, there is more at stake than being nice and keeping ourselves out of trouble.  Words matter when you are people of the Word.  James writes, “With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the image of God” (3:9).  Two points emerge here.  First, there is utter hypocrisy in blessing God in our speech in one breath and then turning around and speaking ill of a fellow human being.  This is vital advice for the Christian (and one that most of us would do well to implement more fully in our daily living).  Martin Luther pushes this further in his explanation of the Eighth Commandment: “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray them or slander them, or destroy their reputations.  Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light” (from Luther’s Small Catechism).  We are not simply to avoid speaking ill of others but to seek to speak well of them.

James’ exhortation drives deeper still, bringing us to the second point.  When we use words to speak ill or evilly of those created in the image of God, we use God’s creative means against God’s own creatures.  How does God create?  Through speech.  Who was with God – who was God – in the beginning?  The Word.  Who is the Word?  James’ own brother, savior, and Lord, Jesus Christ.  We are people who were created through words and redeemed by the creative power of the Word.  As people made in God’s image, our words have creative power, too.  We shape the world around us through our speech, for good and for ill.  In ourselves we have no power over our tongues and we create destruction around us.  But an “implanted word” (1:21) lives in us.  By the power of that Word, we are able to serve God’s creative purposes through our speech.

When our tongues are given free rein, our lives become subject to the dangers James unpacks: earthly wisdom, envy and murder, judgment of others, and boasting in our false sense of controlling the future.  With the implanted, creative Word that is Jesus Christ upon our lips, we have the power to seek heavenly wisdom, curb our envy, accept that we are not judges, and trust in God’s goodness.

What words will be upon your lips this day?  Remember that these words have the power to create and to destroy.  As children we chanted in sing-song, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.”  It’s a nice sentiment, but it’s not true.  Words can be the most hurtful thing of all.  But they can also be the most encouraging.  Words can give new life.  May the Word that is Jesus shape your words today.  May we all remember that we are people of the Word.  And may we unstop our mouths to let words of grace, peace, mercy, forgiveness, and love gush forth.

“From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.  My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.”  James 3:10

From → Scripture

One Comment
  1. Good, sound, Biblical advice — and harder for some to follow than others. For those of us who struggle with ADHD — the most challenging behavior to check is speaking out of order (“ready, shoot, aim” instead of “ready, aim, shoot”). Thank God for medication.

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