January 27, 2021

Wednesdays with James: Lesson Eleven


Wednesdays with James
Lesson Eleven: Stressed-Out Speech Sinks Ships

We continue our study in the central section of the Epistle of James today. In the body of this encyclical, the author takes up the three themes he introduced in chapter one, addressing them in more detail and in reverse order. The second theme James discusses has to do with wise behavior in the congregation — we’ve called it “Wise Behavior Makes Peace and Speaks No Evil” (3:1-4:12). The initial part of this section goes right to the horse’s mouth, as it were.

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters; you know that we will be judged more severely. All of us make many mistakes, after all. If anyone makes no mistakes in what they say, such a person is a fully complete human being, capable of keeping firm control over the whole body as well. We put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, and then we can direct their whole bodies. Consider, too, the case of large ships; it takes strong winds to blow them along, but one small rudder will turn them whichever way the helmsman desires and decides. In the same way, the tongue is a little member but boasts great things. See how small a fire it takes to set a large forest ablaze! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is a world of injustice, with its place established right there among our members. It defiles the whole body; it sets the wheel of nature ablaze, and is itself set ablaze by hell. Every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, you see, can be tamed, and has been tamed, by humans. But no single human is able to tame the tongue. It is an irrepressible evil, full of deadly poison. By it we bless the Lord and father; and by it we curse humans who are made in God’s likeness! Blessing and curses come out of the same mouth! My dear family, it isn’t right that it should be like that. Does a spring put out both sweet and bitter water from the same source? Dear friends, can a fig tree bear olives, or a vine bear figs? Nor can salt water yield fresh. (3:1-12, KNT)

Other than the fact that this is a delightful passage, full of colorful language and striking metaphors, there is little to actually discuss here in terms of exposition. The wisdom message of the passage is mirrored in a multitude of proverbial teaching, culled from observing the human experience. Plato, for example, said: Wise men talk because they have something to say; fools, because they have to say something. And Will Rogers put it in clever form: Never miss a good chance to shut up.

Three of the many sayings from the book of Proverbs about speech parallel what James says here:

  • He who guards his mouth and his tongue, Guards his soul from troubles. (21:23)
  • When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, But he who restrains his lips is wise. (10:19)
  • Death and life are in the power of the tongue, And those who love it will eat its fruit. (18:21)

Jesus certainly spoke powerfully about how we use our words:

  • What the mouth speaks is what fills the heart. A good person produces good things from a good storeroom; an evil person produces evil things from an evil storeroom. Let me tell you this: on judgment day people will have to own up to every trivial word they say. Yes: you will be vindicated by your own words— and you will be condemned by your own words. (Matt. 12:34-37)

And James himself already introduced this subject in chapter one:

  • So, my dear brothers and sisters, get this straight. Every person should be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger. (1:19)
  • If anyone supposes that they are devout, and does not control their tongue, but rather deceives their heart—such a person’s devotion is futile. (1:26)

And he will conclude this entire section with a clear exhortation:

  • Do not speak evil against one another, my dear family. (4:11)

I don’t think I need to take a lot of time explaining any of these, do I? The truth of these proverbs is self-evident, and each of us feels their sting. They are more suitable for meditation than for exposition, and we would all be wise to memorize them, contemplate them, and recall them frequently. After all, that’s why they were formed as proverbial sayings in the first place!

The only real question is: Why does James focus on this subject in his epistle?

Again, it is good to remember the setting in life of those who received this encyclical. He was writing to congregations of Christians who were under great pressures, and the letter gives us a picture of communities that were experiencing a multitude of “stress fractures” in their lives and relationships. I wrote this in an earlier post:

Whatever the exact nature of the external pressures facing the Christians he is writing, those pressures were causing stress fractures within the congregations themselves. The spectrum of potential divisions would run from those wanting to pander to the rich and compromise the faith to those who were itching to join the Zealots, who sought (sometimes violent) revolution. The very things James writes about in this letter portray a church “tested” by complaining, bitterness, conflicts, and a breakdown of love, unity, and charity.

Chapter one set the scene: these are Christians under “the test.”

And when we are put through stressful testing as individuals, families, and communities, one of the first parts that can malfunction is the tongue.

So, although James’s teaching is beneficial for us to remember at all times, it is especially pertinent in times of great stress.

In such times, we may well pray the prayer of Sirach (Wisdom of Sirach 22:27):

Who will set a guard over my mouth,
    and an effective seal upon my lips,
so that I may not fall because of them,
    and my tongue may not destroy me?

• • •

Wednesdays with James
Previous Studies


  1. *insert reproachful comment on the low level of discourse among evangelicals WRT the political situation here*

  2. What popped into my mind when I read this was that controlling the tongue is so opposed to the American ideal of the extroverted, high energy person. Try going to a job interview and speaking quietly, thoughtfully weighing every word that you say. I doubt you’ll be hired above the talker. How many students are judged on class participation which is difficult for the student who thinks first & speaks later?
    So, I love this! It’s ok to think before you speak, to use your words wisely! In fact, it’s good! Especially for those in authority. Thank you Chaplain Mike for this. I will be much more aware today about what comes out of my mouth!

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > I doubt you’ll be hired above the talker.

      I strenuously disagree. The odds of my hiring you will shoot way up. [of course, I do not work in sales, where you want those given to blather].

      > How many students are judged on class participation

      Quality vs Quantity. Everyone remembers the girl who rarely speaks, but when she does – BOOM! – everyone remembers that. This is even a trope in movies.

      Jame’s advice, far from uniquely his, is excellent advice.

      • Sadly, I think that Suzanne’s observations are more accurate on the average. We here at IMonk are definitely not in the middle of the average American personality bell curve. :-/

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          > are more accurate on the average.

          Or such people are rather rare to begin with. Every been an interviewer? Oy….

        • Hmm. Let me think about this. I can hire:

          1. Someone who speaks up to make incisive, relevant comments.

          2. Someone who dominates meetings, then spreads gossip around the water cooler, in between sessions of complaining about their job to everyone who will listen.

          I pick option 1.

          • Adam Tauno Williams says


          • I’d pick option 1 as well, Danielle, but i’ve talked to enough people involved in hiring to know the quiet, thoughtful interviewee often gets less points than the talker. Just had a conversation a few weeks ago with a friend who had to work hard to convince her team to hire the quiet one, who turned out to be a good fit. The others on the team were hard to convince, she said, because they were concerned that the woman didn’t say much durning the interview. So, it does happen. Ask any student doing a group project whose ideas go forward and they will usually tell you it’s the talkative one. Or,bread Susan Cain’s Quiet. Quality over quantity is good but often gets lost in the quantity.

          • I am more optimistic than Suzanne in the professional setting. That may be because I work in a profession (lawyer) where thoughtfulness is highly valued and we have a lot of introverts. And in 2016, so much work and interaction occurs via email that it really levels the playing field for the quieter, more thoughtful folks.

            Socially I am less optimistic. The oft-projected social ideal (especially for men) is the alpha dawg who projects confidence and sureness of self regardless of whether the person has any idea whether he is right. This is also where the “group project” thing comes in.

            To bring this back to Jesus, I had another thought. These passages are about thoughtfulness more than humility, but the concepts are not unrelated. How humble was Jesus, really? Certainly, he served the least of these. But he also was not shy about “tooting his own horn,” telling how things are, or rebuking where necessary. After all, he claimed he was the Son of God — how much more arrogant can you get?? If we were trying to “be like Jesus,” strictly speaking, we might conclude that we should be the same way.

            The thing is–Jesus was God. He *knew* how things were—an advantage none of us have. So, thoughtfulness, self-restraint and humility are prescribed for us because we *don’t* have all the answers.

  3. What has always struck me about the passage is how it begins – in referring to those who want to be teachers. Apparently this inability to control the tongue is somehow related to teaching. In evangelicalism the only qualification for being a ‘teacher’ (of any sort) is that you have a pulse and a somewhat credible Christian testimony (the latter often being optional). Given how many people believe the Bible is a ‘self-interpreting’ magical book, teaching is no big deal – just go around the room asking everyone ‘what does this verse mean to you?’. However, James warns against taking this responsibility lightly. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard an adult Sunday School teacher say something like ‘when I was reading through my lesson book this morning’. Reading through the lesson book a few minutes before church on Sunday morning isn’t usually adequate preparation for something as serious as teaching the Bible (unless you are a real biblical scholar!).

    I know it sounds elitist, but some things should be left to people who take it seriously. Apparently in the early church teaching was left to persons who were prepared (perhaps even ‘called’) to do this, and who did it with authority, not just passed off on anyone who wanted to do it, or whoever they could find to teach the junior high boys. If we really believe this stuff is serious business should be not have teachers who take it seriously and are equipped with training and education to do it? (I’m guessing that in many early churches there was one teacher – the pastor/minister/priest.) Would you go to a doctor who just felt like God wanted him (or her) to be a doctor so that was all the education and training they needed? Or worse, someone who did it simply because nobody else would?

    Enough of my soapbox. Back to our regularly scheduled discussion.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > I was reading through my lesson book this morning…

      Yep. This also might be a driver in the trend toward None-ness/disaffiliation. It was for more me – if this is how seriously this is taken… why bother showing up?

      > I know it sounds elitist,

      That deferring to someone who has actually studied a topic sounds “elitist” is one of the most chilling aspects of Evangelicalism [and much of the Over-Culture of which Evangelicalism is often a concentration].

      > whoever they could find to teach the junior high boys

      Depth-of-pool is a real problem; especially in an environment with a whole lot of churches. Something to be said for the large-church model regarding this issue. Anyone who has been involved in recruiting for an NPO understands this – often “you are willing to do it?” is the only qualification you can afford. Not an issue isolated to churches.

      It takes a whole lot of guts to cancel something because you cannot find a qualified teacher/speaker. I know that I have wimped out of the fight more than once.

      > should we not have teachers who take it seriously and are equipped
      > with training and education to do it?

      Yes! I suspect just resorting to videos or podcasts and then hosting a discussion would be a large improvement over what happens in a lot of “Bible Studies”. Maybe that will happen.

    • Teachers of any kind have a greater responsibility to watch what they say and how they say it because of their position. Even more so in the church.
      As my children went through school, there were far more occasions than I expected that they came home and told me that their teacher told them something that was either factually wrong (easily verified) or misleading (that article was written by a [insert nationality, religion, gender] and so is incorrect in its conclusions. Not, mind you, a suggestion to consider the source while you read. No, the message was that this [gender, religion] = wrong conclusions). It was frustrating.
      I’ve heard church leaders speech indicate that they apparently know absolutely who is going to hell and who is not, who has the correct political views and who does not, which scientific principles are correct and which are not. It’s one thing for someone like me to say things among an acquaintance or two as it would be understood as my opinion to take or leave. When you are teaching, it’s no longer your opinion but knowledge you impart that is understood, because of the position, as being truthful.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        I’ve heard church leaders speech indicate that they apparently know absolutely who is going to hell and who is not, who has the correct political views and who does not, which scientific principles are correct and which are not.

        Whatever would God do on J-Day without Pastor Grima Wormtongue at His right hand to tell him who is REALLY Saved and who isn’t?

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      In evangelicalism the only qualification for being a ‘teacher’ (of any sort) is that you have a pulse and a somewhat credible Christian testimony (the latter often being optional).

      The JUICIER and more SPECTACULAR the Testimony, the better.

      Even if you have to make it all up like Mike Warnke and Ergun Caner.

    • In thinking about how this passage about speech (and starting fires and what not) I (as CM suggests) thought about chapter 1. Apparently some of these ‘stressed’ believers may be considering taking matters into their own hands against their oppressors (cf. 1:13-20 – ‘the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God’ and 5:1-8 – judgment on their oppressors will come in God’s time,so be patient). Perhaps there are teachers in their midst who are ‘kindling the fire’ with teaching that God’s righteous judgment DOES come through the anger of man! Good thing we don’t hear anything like that from Christian teachers today.

  4. And not just teaching in the church, either. James’s advice applies to our personal relationships as well. I especially love these words by St. Ogden Nash:

    To keep your marriage brimming
    With love in the living cup,
    Whenever you’re wrong, admit it;
    Whenever you’re right, shut up.

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