Passage – James 3:1-12
1 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2 For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. 3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. 4 Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5 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! 6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. 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. 7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.
Complete this sentence, “If only I hadn’t [blank].” In this passage, James is going to explain to us why, for most of us, the next word in this sentence is “said.” Even if our regret is rooted in what we “did,” most bad actions begin with an unconstrained tongue: playground fights, hasty promises we couldn’t keep, exaggerations we couldn’t fulfill, or betrayals of those we love. To borrow James’ metaphor, the spark that fuels are greatest regrets gets sparked by the tongue.
James’ approach to correcting this problem is to help us see it. This is one of the most vivid passages in the Bible. James uses metaphor after metaphor to help us see what we’re doing in those moments when poison seeps from our tongue into our dearest relationships. James loves us enough to force our self-awareness to grow, even if it makes us wince. With that in mind, let’s have the courage to study this passage together.
Harnessing for Good (vs. 1-5a)
While it can be easy to overlook, this passage picks up where the previous passage on “faith without works” left off. James 2:14-26 can be summarized as, “Words are not enough. They must be put into actions by faith.” James 3 picks up and says (paraphrased), “The more you know about what God expects, the higher standard God holds you to.” Christianity is not about passing a theology test (knowledge), but God does expect his people to embody sound doctrine (faith).
This is why James says it’s dangerous to be a teacher (v. 1). If you know enough to be a faithful teacher, your level of knowledge raises the bar on what God expects of you. Our passage doesn’t root this in social dynamics (i.e., “people will think you’re a hypocrite”), although this is true. It indicates this is God’s standard. God expects those who embrace the Truth to live differently, or he deems their assent to true things to be empty, void, dead, meaningless (all words from James 2:14-26).
If you look at James’ first set of metaphors in chapter 3 – horse, bit, ship, ocean, rudder – and examine what he’s saying, you realize these verses are about stewarding the power of the tongue for redemptive purposes. Horses and ships were the primary tools of farming, transportation, and commerce. Bits and rudders were the small-but-powerful things that harnessed the potential of horses and ships.
The relative size of the objects reveals much of James’ point. Horses and ships are big and get our attention. Bits and rudders are small and are easy to ignore. In the same way, offensive actions tend to get our attention, but the words that sparked those actions (especially if we spoke them) are easy to forget.
Think of the classic interaction between young siblings:
Caleb: “Mama, my brother hit me.”
Mama: “Caleb, why did you do that?”
Devin: “Caleb called me a dufus sandwich.”
Caleb: Avoids eye contact with mama.
Devin’s clinched fist and swinging arm get all the attention. Caleb expects mama to side with him. The words “dufus sandwich” (whatever that means) seem small, not worth mentioning, compared to a bruised shoulder. But the small words redirects Caleb’s entire afternoon to an hour of community service helping mama with whatever chore needs to be done (yes, Devin should receive a punishment as well).
This vignette only illustrates the small-words-big-impact dynamic James is talking about. But it’s too negative to accurately represent James’ primary point in this paragraph. James’ positive imagery would be more accurately portrayed in this dialogue:
Caleb: You’re really good at math, Devin, can you help me with my homework?
Devin: Thank you. I would be happy to. What are you working on?
Caleb: Fractions, and I don’t understand them.
[Caleb does well on his math test, trust grows between brothers, and mama is happy… so everybody is happy on this fictitious evening.]
In the course of a busy evening, it’s easy to miss a compliment (i.e., “you’re good at math”), a kind response (i.e., “I would be happy to”), and a productive study session. For all intents and purposes, these statements are non-events. Father never learns of them when he gets home. A fight between brothers gets attention and consequences. A quiet, fruitful study session gets overlooked in the freneticness of life. They’re small, like a bit or a rudder. James is saying: don’t miss good words used well; they’re too powerful to overlook.James is saying: don’t miss good words used well; they’re too powerful to overlook. Click To Tweet
Limiting Destruction (vs. 5b-8)
While James highlights the positive, he isn’t under the delusion that positivity can remedy the human condition. James is just as vivid in his portrayals of the tongue’s potential for destruction – fire, restless evil, untamed beast, and deadly poison – as he was the tongues potential for good.
James vehemently disagrees with the childhood rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Based on this passage, that is the equivalent of saying, “Big lions and large bears may eat my flesh, but a small little snake can’t really hurt me.” The big-small contrast should not be used to mean snakes are safe any more than to say that words are inconsequential.
The vividness of James’ word pictures can make it easy to miss his point. James is saying, “Look at the consequences of your words… look at the burnt forest, feel the death caused by poison, see the evil unleashed by careless speech. Don’t turn your eyes and excuse them with, ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it.’” To do so would be like the smoker who flipped a lit cigarette that burned a forest and consumed people’s homes saying, “My bad. Didn’t realize that was going to happen.”
James is asking his readers to grapple with the reality that forethought is essential to change. Taming – James’ constructive metaphor in these verses – requires forethought and intentionality. No one ever accidentally trained their dog to do tricks. No one accidentally domesticated a horse to be ridden or pull a plow. “I’ll do better next time” is mindless good intentions; it is willfully turning a blind eye. James says, if we’re serious about our faith, mindless good intentions are not good enough.James says, if we’re serious about our faith, mindless good intentions are not good enough. Click To Tweet
Some of us might object, “This feels harsh and judgmental.” That’s understandable… IF you’re only thinking as the person who spoke the destructive words. But what if you’re the person who was lashed out against? Calling the angry person to own the consequences of their actions is protection and validation.
To appreciate this, we need to understand what kind of counsel is provided in the book of James. It is written to a church (group of people living in community with one another), not an individual (counselee receiving private care). For this reason, James must minister to both sides of the relational strain. Most care provided in the church is like this. It is care provided in the context of shared relationships (plural), not a private relationship.
This is why reading the book of James as a whole is essential for good care. Section by section James is addressing different sides of their experience. He begins by caring for the suffering they are all facing (1:1-18) and the temptations that come with it (1:19-2:26). In chapters 3 and 4, James focuses on the destructive communication before returning to the hardships that prompt it again in Chapter 5.
There are parts of James’ pastoral ministry we don’t get see in this letter. Where all harsh speakers counseled or disciplined the same, or where more severe speakers dealt with more firmly? In what ways and on what timetable were those lashed out against asked to trust those whose words were like fire and poison? Short answer: we don’t know.
We do see James avoiding the error of acquiescing to the most outspoken (those speaking harshly) and spiritualizing it as the “gracious” thing to do. James had the pastoral courage and theological integrity to hold prominent members – from 3:1 we can safely assume some of these harsh individuals were leaders in the church – when their words were hurtful to their fellow brothers and sisters.
Seeing the Contradiction (vs. 9-12)
Did we just slip that phrase “theological integrity” into the previous paragraph? No. In the coming verses, James extensively roots what he’s saying in the relationship between the first and second great commandments (Matt. 22:37-40). He’s not siding with the more sensitive church members because they told him the more compelling version of events. He is making a principled assessment.
James alludes to these great commandments in verse 9, “With it [our tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.” He affirms that they are aspiring to “bless” God with their lives but points out the contradiction of “cursing” those made in God’s image. Again, James gets metaphorical – pointing out that this contradiction is like saltwater coming from a fresh water well or a fig tree bearing olives. It cannot be excused away as, “Well, it just happens that way sometimes.” No, it should never happen that way.
In his tone here, James is following the example of I Thessalonians 5:14 where Paul says, “And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle [unruly], encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.” In their harshness, these sharp-tongued believers were not fainthearted or weak, so they didn’t get the more tender pastoral approach. They were being unruly, so James came to them in the tone of admonition.
This is another observation that is easy to overlook as we study the Bible. We can miss the context clues that reveal why a biblical author, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, chooses the tone of a passage to address that audience. But in counseling-related ministries, this is vitally important. When are we firm? When are we encouraging? What do we address later and what should be addressed sooner?
Dozens of decisions like this are made in every helping conversation. If we’re not careful, we default to our personality: are we conflict-avoidant or prefer to deal with things head on? But when we’re in the “counselor / helper” role our decision shouldn’t be made on the basis of our preferences. As helpers we need to bring more intentional assessments – like those found in I Thessalonians 5:14 – to guide our decision making.
In many ways, this passage is an extended commentary on Luke 6:45, “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks,” and how to minister this truth.
This passage holds forth five key points and models what it looks like to avoid letting one of these points minimize the significance of the others.
- You are responsible for your words.
- Your words reveal your heart.
- There is hope because Jesus changes hearts.
- Cheap hope justifies sin, but real hope requires responsibility for our actions.
- Don’t lose sight of the timid person when counseling a domineering friend or spouse.
The question for you, whether you are the helper, the harsh one, or the timid one, is: Which of these five points do you tend to neglect of the others? Which of these points is so forefront in your mind that it causes the others to fade into the background? This is not a passage we should use to reinforce our biases, but one that that should cause us to see our blind spots and change.
- What percentage of your “If only I hadn’t [blank]” statements are either things you said or a domino from careless words you spoke?
- Think back over the last month. What are some easily unnoticed statements (small comments like a bit or rudder) that steered your life, marriage, or relationships in a healthy direction? What can you do to call more attention to the redemptive non-event moments?
- What are the worst applications of the “sticks and stones” rhyme that you can remember? How does this passage change how we should respond to those moments?
- Does James’ directive to look at the consequences of your words feel harsh or judgmental to you? How does the metaphor of “taming” and principle of intentionality help you see the redemptive impact of this instruction?
- In what ways does James 3:1-12 help you see what it looks like to choose between the tones of I Thessalonians 5:14 based on what fits the situation rather than what is most comfortable to your personality?
- From the five summary points of this passage, Which of these do you tend to neglect of the others? Which of these points is so forefront in your mind that it causes the others to fade into the background?
* * * This article is part of a series entitled A Counseling Commentary on James.
* * * If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in my series A Counseling Commentary on Philippians.