A message based on James 3:1-12.
I love to have opportunities to preach. It is such an honour to be able to dig into the Scriptures and to build bridges between the original context and our present setting. And yet what passage am I assigned? I get to preach about the danger of the words we speak and how easy it is for us to say the wrong thing. Not only that, this passage says those who teach, which would include preaching sermons, will be held to a much higher standard and those who do it wrong will face judgment. So basically I get to preach a sermon that reminds me that if I do it wrong, I am in trouble, not just from council, but from God himself. Remind me to thank our pastor.
Having said that, this is an important passage that is incredibly relevant for us today. There are some parts of the Bible that you wonder where the application is, but this passage is one that quickly reveals things have not changed at all from James’ day to our own. What I am going to try, very, very carefully, is to understand what James was saying and to look at some practical ways for us to apply this to our life.
Before talking about James, I want to share with you a very basic but important principle for interpreting the Bible. Ignore chapters and verses. The biblical writers did not use them and they were added much later. Why is this important? Looking at our Bibles, it would look as if James talked about faith and works last chapter and now he has changed subjects to talk about taming the tongue. That is not the case at all. We are still on the same subject.
We think of faith as being something completely internal but it was not so back then. Faith was about the words you spoke. It was about the Psalms you sang or the prayers you prayed or the confession that you spoke that Jesus was Lord. This is how Christians were so easily persecuted, they identified themselves with their words.
Words are about faith. But words are about works as well. James is taking the big picture of faith and works that he just explained and bringing it down to this specific example. If faith and works are working properly together, it should demonstrate itself in our words. However, people had just as much trouble doing that then as we do today. We will get more into that soon.
But what about the strong statement about teachers? In that day, even more so than today, teachers held a very high position. One of the reasons for this was the low literacy rate. If you were going to learn something, you were going to have to hear about it. Think about how important this was in a church context. I have heard false teachers preach in churches and I knew it because I could compare it to the Bible. Early Christians could not do that, either because the New Testament had not been compiled yet or the Old Testament was too expensive to have a copy. False teachers, whether intentional or not, could have a devastating effect on the church. James wants those who become teachers to go into it with their eyes open. Teachers will be extremely influential and there was no room for error. If they were taking this position for the sake of the prestige, they would be judged for that.
With that background, let us fast forward to today. What do we do with all of this? I am going to keep it very simple. We are going to look at what we should not do with our words and what we should do with our words.
What Not to Say
1. Gossip. Unfortunately, gossip is one of the most common problems in the church. This is how it plays out. Something unfortunate happens to a person or a family. The story is passed on under the cover of “prayer request.” No one prays about the situation but everyone looks at the person differently because of what happened. So how do we know the difference between gossip and genuine care for a person? What is your initial reaction to the news? Is it sadness or is it excitement about the juiciness of the information? Have you actually prayed? Is there any point in actually telling someone else? Consider asking the person if it is okay to share. It is always safe to keep the information to yourself.
2. Criticism. Criticism is a difficult one because unlike gossip, there is a positive role for criticism. I teach at a Bible college and when my students pay their tuition, they give me permission to be critical of their assignments and exams. But that is the key. Criticism is only good when both parties have agreed to such a relationship. That person who does something that irritates you has not given you permission to criticize. This is the criticism that is often called nitpicking. If you have ever watched someone nitpick a child’s hair, they work hard to find something. That is the type of criticism that will destroy a church.
3. Thoughtless Words. Many of the examples that I have shown are intentional. The next example is not but can be even more dangerous. Sometimes the most painful wounds are the thoughtless words of others. They are not meant to hurt, they are just words spoken without a thought of what they might do. Many years ago, I was in a Christian fellowship group. During a prayer, one of the most popular guys in the group pulled me into the next room. He was in tears because of the thoughtless comments of others. No one thought it was a problem because he seemed so secure. Unfortunately, I can remember many times when it was my words that were hurtful toward others. Not intentionally, but damaging nonetheless.
4. Negativity. This is another example that is not meant to harmful but it is. There are people who seem to exude negativity. No matter what is happening, good or bad, they share only negative comments. Not to be negative, but I call these the emotion-drainers. Five minutes with them and the energy is sucked right out of you.
5. Ignorant Advice. This last one is not meant to hurt, it is not meant to be neutral, it is actually meant to be helpful. But it is not. Something bad happens and people feel the need to explain why it happened and how God could have allowed it. We have experienced this, both with the miscarriage of our first baby and with the autism diagnosis of Logan and Abby. I know that people mean well, but the truth is that you don’t know why this happened and you cannot read God’s mind. Sharing what you don’t know can actually be harmful.
What to Say
1. Encouragement. It is not enough to stop the bad comments. We need to make the good comments. Start with encouragement. Before opening your mouth, ask your self if your comment will bring down or build up the person you are speaking to. Look for ways to say something good. There have been times when I have been going through a difficult time and someone shared a word of encouragement. It really made a difference. It was not addressed to my situation, in fact the people did not know, but encouragement breathes in strength. If people do not receive encouragement, their emotional energy withers away. Look for these opportunities.
2. Praise. This is a hard one for Christians. Did you know you can praise a Christian for doing a good job? Did you know you can praise a pastor for doing a good job? Christians often think that such praise leads to sinful pride and should be avoided. While sin can be a danger, taking the time to praise someone for doing a good job is a good thing. I will take it one step farther. It is okay to receive that praise. It does not make you God’s superstar, it just means that you did a good job that one time.
3. Compassion. Many people do not understand compassion. Compassion is not pity. Pity is a one-way relationship from the person who is not suffering to the one who is suffering. The word compassion literally means suffering with. It means entering into the experience of the other person. This does not mean explaining their suffering, nor does it mean that you know what they are feeling. I can’t tell you what compassionate words are, I can only say that when you feel true compassion, you will know what to say and not say.
4. Prayer. Prayer is one of the great spiritual resources we have and we should use it. But it means more than just saying, “I’ll pray for you.” Too often we say that when what we really mean is we feel sorry for what they are going through and we don’t know what else to say. Half the time we forget to pray. If you are not going to pray, don’t say it. Try to pray with them at the moment or have a silent prayer immediately after the conversation. Otherwise it is not likely to happen.
5. Nothing. I have nothing to add. Really, I need to add nothing to the list. Sometimes the best thing we can say is nothing. We feel the need to fill the silence but we don’t have to. It is okay to be quiet and to be present. There is something so powerful about silence that it can be more than just the lack of noise. Your choice to say nothing may be the most important thing that person will hear that day.
What I love about James’ letter is that it is so practical. He sets out the issues of life and religion and then expects something will happen. He writes, not just to get a letter in the Bible, but because he expects people are going to change. James presents to us in this passage the danger of the tongue. It is capable of devastating damage to the individual and the church. But James is not looking for mental assent to his thesis. James, and the Holy Spirit who inspires him, want us to change. While it will never be easy, to a certain extent we can choose what we will say. We can speak to tear down or we can speak to build up. With the tongue that we confess our faith, we can demonstrate bad works or good works. What will we say?