So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! (Jas 3:5)
We all remember the song we learned or taught to kids in Sunday School. “oh be careful little hands what you do” and one of those verses says “Oh, be careful little mouth, what you say!” This verse may well have been inspired by this section in James!
So James has just explained how the small rudder or small bridle is able to control such force of strength in the horse or the wind, allowing the driver to go in the direction that he wants to go. I think it would be worth putting out the thought that we are all heading in some direction. It could be Heaven, it could be Hell or it could be ‘in circles’. (which is the same thing as NOT heading toward Heaven). James says the tongue is a big part of that direction.
It is small and, really, it is. While other parts of our body are easily seen, the tongue hides away. Unless one opens his mouth, it doesn’t say anything. However, it can say so many things and as James points out, it boasts of great things. I understand this use of the word ‘tongue’ to refer to what we say, how we speak, and really that all gets back to our heart because the mouth speaks what is in the heart. (Mt 15:18) James wants to warn them of the trouble you get into by boasting. Prov 21:23 says “Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble”
Great boasters of the Bible would include Lamech (Gen 4), Goliath (I sam 17), Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 6), Jezebel (I kings 19), Haman (Esther), Korah (Num 16) and who can forget the little horn of Daniel 7 or Rev 13? Indeed, we can point to sinners and rebellious ones who turn their backs on God, boasting in their own abilities but what about those other great boasters!
Peter (Mt 26:33), Samson (Judges 16:20), Jephthah (Judges 11:30), and Moses (Num 20:10) represent the other side of the equation, using their mouth to promise things or say things that they had no ability to fulfill. These, who would be followers of God and were men of faith, (all of them are mentioned in Hebrews 11-the faith all of fame) yet their tongue got them into trouble and brought misery into their life. Moses, in particular, was denied entrance into the promised land. Ouch!
“I am a great teacher” some may be tempted to say. Others boast in those who they follow. (I cor 1) Some boast in the future (James will talk about his later) saying “I will be profitable”. Some boasted that they had faith (James 2:18) All of these things are vanity and puffing up your own self.
Boasting in the things which you say you have, or which you say you can do, or will do, or even did do is truly a vanity. James has already said in Chapter one that the poor should boast in their exaltation (not that it is of themselves but of the Lord) and the rich should boast in their humiliation (because only the humble rich man will ever see Heaven. Knowing that your riches don’t count is a big step). And Paul exemplifies this principle of not boasting in vain things when he says that he forgets what is behind and presses forward, being too busy reaching the prize in Jesus to boast of his own accomplishments.
In applying this, we can once again go back to chapter one and this time, verse 19 “let a man be quick to hear and slow to speak…”
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. (Jas 3:1-2a)
It seems appropriate that James would start a lesson about the use of the tongue with teachers. James gives two reasons that closely link together for not becoming a teacher. One is that teachers are judged with greater strictness and since two, we all stumble in many ways, it is imperative that we exercise caution.
It is not that James doesn’t want brethren to grow to the point where they could be teachers. The Hebrew writer chastises his audience for not yet being teachers. (Heb 5:12) However, it seems that James’ audience was only too anxious to be teachers…even if they were not ready.
To be a teacher is to open yourself up to many different criticisms. Timothy was under pressures that would be brought up against him because of his youth. Paul exhorts him not to let men despise his youth. In all likelihood, “don’t give them a reason” to look down on your youth. (I tim 4:12) Timothy was to set an example to the believers in speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity. All of those items that Timothy is to exemplify would be the same thing that James would want his audience to have.
Paul tells Timothy that those who are to become elders are not to be novices or new converts or else they MAY fall into conceit and the condemnation of the devil. So one thing that we could conclude is that if some of these people James was writing to were new converts, it is better to urge them not to be teachers.
Peter shows that even great teachers can stumble. In Galatians 2, Paul recalls the time he had to rebuke Peter for an error that he made which caused a great problem between the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians. Even Barnabas was carried away with the problem.
Looking just at speech, since this is the primary context, what should a teacher be teaching?
Not another Gospel (Gal 1:8): Don’t teach something other than the Gospel that Jesus authorized. All Authority belongs when him and so Peter’s admonition to speak the oracles of God so be our rule. ( I peter 4:11) Teachers might get caught up in explaining God’s and wind up contradicting it . (Mt 15:3) or debating questions that are of no vaule. (I tim 1:3-4)
Not what people want to hear: (2 tim 4:3) It may be easy to fall into the trap of not preaching the Gospel people need to hear but we do not need to give into ‘itching’ ears. The truth is that many do not endure sound doctrine. Churches spring up all over the place catering to the whims and desires of the audience. When the Lord died for us, he said “Follow me” he didn’t take a survey to see what would be more palatable to the audience. Paul assured his audience he was trying to please God not men (Gal 1:10)
Not what brings the teacher glory: (Acts 20:30, 3 John 1:9) Everyone likes to be praised for doing a good job and it is no different for a teacher. Sometimes we like to think we know all things and have all wisdo, so we spout of this or that theory. Gaining followers after one’s particular viewpoint is not uncommon through the ages but, for the teachers of the Gospel, the only one that should receive the glory is God. Take Paul’s perspective: As long as Christ is preached, it doesn’t matter who does it. (Phil 1:18)
As I read through James’ letter, it seems that many of his audience would not be ready to even avoid the ‘nots’ that were listed. How could they avoid other problems both of the tongue or action? It may well have been a teacher in James 2 who said to the poor man “you sit here at my feet” or taught a faith that did not have works.
We should all strive to mature in Christ to the point that we can teach, just be aware that there are difficulties in the job, and glamour should not be the attraction and motive. We need to be ready for those trials and it comes with maturity. Even Jesus waited until being 30 years old to start his ministry. We should be willing to let other take the lead and learn from them before wanting to be teachers.
One other thought worth bringing out. Humility is an important part of being a teacher and knowing your own short comings will help you a lot. I am impressed that James say “we all” stumble and also with Paul’s request for prayers:
praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak. (Eph 6:18-20)
Paul is asking for prayers to preach the Gospel!!? The same Paul who traveled everywhere confronting false doctrine, wrote much of the NT, established congregations, trained preachers, appointed elders, had the gifts of the Spirit!? THAT Paul asked for prayers?!?
If Paul needs prayers…..Well, who am I? but one who needs even more prayers!
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. (Jas 1:19-20 ESV)
Part of not being deceived (see a previous post) is knowing what is right and true. James does not want these beloved brethren to fall into the trap of deception. Some types of knowledge are a necesary thing.
James is going to give them knowledge that is essential and applicable in so many ways. It is certainly good advice to listen more than you speak in social situations. In sales, good salesmen are those who listen more than they talk. However, James’ advice (while applicable in relationship to others) is directed at our relationship with God and towards listening and responding to Him.
Be swift to hear: When you want to do something, you are quick to get to it. If you are going to play a game with friends in the morning, you shower fast, dress fast, eat fast, and rush out the door. Excitement motivates you. (Hopefully the same excitement happens on Sunday morning for worship services….but I digress).
Someone once said “God gave us two ears and one mouth; we should use them in that proportion.” James would agree.
Slow to speak: The pause between another’s expression of thoughts and the words starting out of your mouth should be more than 5 nanoseconds. Allowing the time to fully digest the words to which you were intently (i.e. swiftly) listening will allow the nutrition of them to be processed and used more readily. This can sometimes take 10 full seconds…or even longer.
In this context, David’s words may apply. The righteous one “meditates” on His law. (Psalms 1) Hearing God’s words and then thinking about them and considering them before you act or speak rashly is a good idea.
Slow to wrath: Those with a quick fuse are going to have problems. In fact, by this point in the book, James might even be expecting some anger as his audience hears these words read to them. Read back from verse 2 to this point and see if these might not be responses in a person who was not quick to hear, slow to speak or slow to wrath:
- “What do you mean rejoice in trials? Life is hard, there is no joy!”
- “Why does my faith have to be tested? I am faithful. God shouldn’t need to test me.”
- “I didn’t know what to do and asked God, he didn’t answer me.”
- “What do you mean I didn’t have the faith in my request?”
- “I am what? double-minded?”
- “What exaltation? I am poor and that no good greedy rich guy won’t share his money so I am going to go occupy his Jerusalem, Rome, and Antioch” (oh wait, that thought won’t happen for 2, 000 years from when James wrote this.)
- “Why should I be humbled? I am rich. I should be treated better.”
- “God does too tempt me. It has to be Him, it can’t be my fault!”
For any one of these responses, God has something to say and James is delivering that message to these Christians. It is not, of course, an exhaustive list, nor does it need to be. If we will simply put into practice the art of listening to God and not trying to talk our way into what we want to do, or getting angry when things don’t go the way we want them to go, life will be better-especially the one to come.
Consider that he says ‘the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God’. How true that was with Cain. He brought an unacceptable sacrifice and became angry. God spoke to him but he was not willing to listen. He ended up killing his brother.
There is a difference between the anger of man and of God. God’s anger is directed at ungodliness whereas the anger of man is generally directed at godliness, especially when such godliness is showing their faults.
The reason why James wants us to listen more than we speak is because you can learn something when you listen. I have had the occasion, several occasions actually, to debate a point with someone only to discover after the conversation was over and time had passed, that his point was a good one or that we actually agreed and were arguing over semantics.
James will tell us what to do once we accept this simple advice in the next few verses. When a person will actually remove anger, stop talking and start listening, much can be accomplished.