Don’t be in any rush to become a teacher, my friends. Teaching is highly responsible work. Teachers are held to the strictest standards. And none of us is perfectly qualified. We get it wrong nearly every time we open our mouths. If you could find someone whose speech was perfectly true, you’d have a perfect person, in perfect control of life.
A bit in the mouth of a horse controls the whole horse. A small rudder on a huge ship in the hands of a skilled captain sets a course in the face of the strongest winds. A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything—or destroy it!
It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell.
This is scary: You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue—it’s never been done. The tongue runs wild, a wanton killer. With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women he made in his image. Curses and blessings out of the same mouth!
My friends, this can’t go on. A spring doesn’t gush fresh water one day and brackish the next, does it? Apple trees don’t bear strawberries, do they? Raspberry bushes don’t bear apples, do they? You’re not going to dip into a polluted mud hole and get a cup of clear, cool water, are you?
Do you want to be counted wise, to build a reputation for wisdom? Here’s what you do: Live well, live wisely, live humbly. It’s the way you live, not the way you talk, that counts. Mean-spirited ambition isn’t wisdom. Boasting that you are wise isn’t wisdom. Twisting the truth to make yourselves sound wise isn’t wisdom. It’s the furthest thing from wisdom—it’s animal cunning, devilish conniving. Whenever you’re trying to look better than others or get the better of others, things fall apart and everyone ends up at the others’ throats.
Real wisdom, God’s wisdom, begins with a holy life and is characterized by getting along with others. It is gentle and reasonable, overflowing with mercy and blessings, not hot one day and cold the next, not two-faced. You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor.
Some of us have no trouble talking. I listened to the NIV being read for many years, anywhere from a time and a half to maybe three or four times a year. That translation comes across basically clearly while maintaining accuracy. That’s been my passion for a long time, to communicate. I’m willing to understate and oversimplify things to an extent, just to try to get the main message across.
That’s carried over to maybe some good, but also some things that may not be quite as good, or perhaps not good at all. What I mean is that when we open our mouths, whether literally, or with words online, we need to be careful to take care with reference to the impact that might be made. It’s not like no feathers can be ruffled. Look at the entire book of James itself. James certainly wasn’t afraid to speak hard truth, but he was a pastor, in fact the lead pastor of the early church in Jerusalem. He had authority from God to do so. But even he acknowledges here that he is not infallible or above criticism over what he says. This letter would definitely be an exception since it’s a part of Scripture. And part of the point here is to be wary of our own words, watch our step, and be willing to backtrack and take back some of them when need be. Of course better not to go there in the first place. This is a quandary and a conundrum, or to put it in a way that I prefer, just plain hard, when you think you see danger and want to warn others who think quite the opposite.
All of James’ words so aptly rendered here by Eugene Peterson need to be carefully read, weighed, and taken to heart. What comes across for me during this time is the importance of making sure our lives are in line with what we profess, that we are in no way part of the problem. But according to James, if we say much at all, we’ll inevitably have to remove some part of our foot from our mouths, because we simply won’t, indeed can’t get it all right. That should make us reticent to say much at all, and when we do speak, carefully weigh every word. If what we say isn’t animated by love, and specifically God’s love in Christ, and in harmony with Scripture, especially the main point of Scripture, the gospel, then it is best for us to remain silent, and just pray. Prayer should mark our lives anyhow, just as was the case with James himself, who was called “camel knees” due to his known practice of prolonged prayer. And to work through the hard matters so as to preserve relationships. That comes across to me in these words, though everyone of them matters. Are we caught up in the fire of hell, or are we intent in remaining in the light and love of heaven, even in a world that might reject that? Oh for the wisdom James talks about in this letter, and in this passage. Sorely needed today, beginning with me. In and through Jesus.