James 3:1-12 -- The Weight of Words
James 3 presents us with a challenge: to watch our words. James teaches us about taming our tongues. Get ready to explore the meaning of this phrase as we continue our Bible study and learn about word pictures.
Word pictures make Bible reading so much more fun. They are like sermon examples meant to help us better understand and relate to the author's message. James uses them a lot.
For example, he likened reading the Bible without applying it to looking at your face in a mirror but walking away before fixing what is wrong. He said doubting God was like being the surf of the sea that is tossed around by the wind. He also explained his point about favoritism using real-life examples.
These are word pictures, and we are about to see even more in the book of James.
The key to interpreting word pictures and most figurative language in the Bible is to focus on the main point of the example. Don’t over-interpret word pictures.
For example, one could muse that when the surf of the sea is tossed by the wind, it disconnects from the rest of the ocean, and so, doubting God can break a believer’s fellowship with the Church. Whether or not that is true, this is bad Bible interpretation! It’s taking word pictures beyond their intended meaning. James made no such statement.
We can really get on rabbit trails when we focus too much on the word picture and not enough on the message it was supposed to relay. It can lead us to really bad theology, that is, to believe something that is not actually true about God. So, we need to be really careful.
This is seriously one of my soapboxes. Christians so easily fall for over-interpreted word pictures. They seem to be this unlocked treasure that a preacher has found. And now we get to pass on this new take on Scripture. But here is the problem: the Bible has not changed, nor are there any new treasures in it. It's the same old message it is always been, and that is good!
The Bible has so many amazing things to tell us. We don't have to make up new messages.
We don't have to try to find something that no one else has discovered before. Instead, let's read what it's saying. Let's hear what James wanted to tell his audience and how it can challenge us even today. It's the same message because we serve the same God who is unchanging. That is good because it means we can rely on God and who He always was and always will be.
So let's be excited about what Scripture actually has to say and about the fact that we are learning how to study Scripture well so that we can be good stewards of it. The Word of God is alive and active. We do not have to add to it. In fact, we shouldn't. Let's read these word pictures in the context of this book of the Bible.
In this passage in James 3, let's find out the true meaning of "taming the tongue”. What did James mean when he talked about taming the tongue? He will bring in examples - word pictures - to help us understand the significance of our words.
The Words of a Teacher
James actually starts out this discussion by saying that not many believers should become teachers. Why in the world would he say that? Why isn't he encouraging many of us to step into this leadership role?
James points out that teachers, because of the responsibility they took on, will be judged more strictly. “With great power comes great responsibility,” as the saying goes. This is true for Christian leaders as well.
Teachers, of course, use words to teach and relay information. They should be extra careful to make sure that what they teaching is true and not misleading anyone. Being a false teacher is certainly a big deal and will be judged severely. In this sense, teachers really need to watch their words.
The Rudder that Steers the Whole Ship
James uses several examples to illustrate this point: Words are powerful and can steer us one way or another. Are you ready to interpret these word pictures as they were intended? Here we go.
First, James uses the illustration of a bit that is placed in the horse's mouth to make them obey. If you have never seen this before, the bit as a part of the rains is placed into the horse's mouth, so that when the owner pulls the reins on the left or the right, the animal knows which way to turn. What's the main points here? One small piece is causing the whole horse to turn.
Secondly, James brings up the example of a ship that, though it is very large, and driven by strong winds, is steered with a very small rudder. You probably knew this about ships as well. Whenever the pilot steers the rudder, the whole ship will turn. It is really quite amazing that one small object controls the directions of such a large entity.
Now James brings this back to the tongue, which really stands for our words. The tongue is the part of our body with which forms words. It is in that sense that the tongue has power. Ultimately though, James is pointing out the power of our words. Like the bit and the rudder, the tongue is a small part of our body, but it can make great boasts.
Before explaining this any further, he brings in yet another word picture. He points out that a great forest fire is set on fire by a very small spark. Whereas his other examples were somewhat neutral - a horse or ship turning left and right signifies the tongue being able to lead us both directions - he is now bringing in a different kind of example. A forest fire is a disaster. A small spark can bring on this big calamity. Similarly, a few poorly-chosen words can have a significantly negative impact.
James uses his analogy to say that the tongue - that is, our words - are like a fire. It can corrupt us and send us in the wrong direction, even a direction that leads to hell. Wow! Words really are powerful.
Still want to teach?
Now, remember that James began this passage by addressing teachers. False teachers truly can corrupt a whole group of people with their false teaching and ultimately usher them straight to hell.
Before you decide that you will never, ever be a teacher in fear of doing just that, here is my word of encouragement: God honors our heart. If you feel Him calling you to be a teacher, don't shut the idea down. Instead, see this passage as an admonition to be an excellent student of God's Word, so that you can also be an excellent teacher of it.
James is not trying to discourage all of us from becoming teachers. Rather, he is pointing out that this position comes with great responsibility. Our words can easily deceive those who are listening and send their lives in the wrong direction.
So when you consider becoming a teacher of the Bible, a small group facilitator, or a Christian mentor, see these roles as a great responsibility. Cling to God's Word end walk closely with Him. Be careful what you say around the people who look to you as a leader. Your words are powerful.
The Tongue that Can't Be Tamed
Another bold statement about words! James says that all kinds of animals, birds, reptiles, and sea creatures have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. He calls it a restless evil full of deadly poison.
Oh my goodness, does that mean there is no hope for us? Why is James making such a strong statement about words?
Here's what James points out: His observation is that humans both praise God with words and curse those who have been made in His image. Is that your experience? Let's be honest. We praise God with our lips, but how often do we say unkind things to or about people?
This, of course, is not how it should be. James uses another word picture here. He compares our words to freshwater and saltwater flowing from the same spring, which, of course, is not possible. Neither should it be possible for us to praise God but, at the same time, speak ill of those He created.
James' other example is a fig tree that bears olives or a grapevine that bears figs. These fruits are not the befitting of the plant. Neither is it right for a person who claims to love God to dishonor His people.
In a third statement, James says that a salt spring cannot produce fresh water. Similarly, we should consider it an impossibility to speak ill of God's people when we claim to love Him with the same mouth.
Friends, what would it look like if we decided that gossip, disrespect, and words that cut down are simply not befitting of us as believers? What if we pushed them away from us and said, "This is not for me. I will have nothing to do with it. It is not who I am.”?
It is my prayer that all of us will take these word pictures to heart and realize not only the power of our words but also the importance of speaking as those who love God. This is not only a warning for teachers to avoid false teaching but a challenge to all of us to lift up the people of God, not tear them down. If we want to truly honor God, we need to love His people with our speech.
James points out that this struggle with God-honoring words seems to be a continual, seemingly untamable struggle. It is my prayer that God would help us honor Him in our speech. May the Holy Spirit tame our tongues as we take to heart James 3.