Words are equally agents for evil and for good. They both control and require controlling. They are controlled by the heart and reveal the heart. James uses the images of the tongue and a spark for speech. In our personal lives the language we use both internally and crucially externally influences not only our personal lives but also those around us. James is not here contrasting the Christian to non Christians, he is warning Christians about the effect of sinful speech on their own lives and the lives of the church. Where a Christian’s speech is harmful it will also dramatically affect how the gospel is presented to the world.
A single prominent orator is capable of steering the whole ship, or church, onto the rock of false beliefs and conduct. Such an orator may be driven by self-importance and grandiose claims. ‘So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.’ An indicator of such speech could be how much they talk about themselves rather than Jesus. Similarly a wise speaker will be humble v13 and Christ centred in their speech able to guide the church in ways that are spiritually fruitful whatever the strong winds of circumstances surround them. What applies to the whole church also applies to families, small groups and individuals. Sometimes it only takes one conversation or statement to cause lifelong harm. The evil one delights in sowing division, mistrust and temptation. Things can be said in jest to build oneself up and yet crush the listener. Such speech breaks the Royal law.
Sinful speech: lying, coarse words, hateful words, blame without justification, refusing to forgive, encouragement to sin, expressed favouritism, frequently harms not only the speaker and the immediate hearer, it can damage the entire body of the church. James pulls no punches, sinful speech has life long impact and can be devil sent. ‘The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.’ v6
James then focuses on the source of sinful speech, its origins are the natural human heart. ‘No human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.’ v8 With the same voice we can praise the Lord and then go on to curse the very people the Lord loves and gave his life for. vv9-10 James is clearly concerned that this is a present reality for the church. Where this is the case the matter of the heart has to be addressed. Repentance and sanctification of the heart are necessary. He draws on Jesus’ teaching that good fruit comes from a good heart and applies it here to speech. vv 11-12 ‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’ Mathew 7:15-20
Have you been built up by a fellow believer’s kind and wise words?
Have you a long standing hurt from damaging words and are in need of Jesus’ healing from them?
Is there an area of your own speech you need the Spirit’s presence in your life to rectify?
God is trying to tell you something – Argentina Gospel Choir