James 3 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
The Specific Dangers of the Tongue
However, James's predominant emphasis in the passage is more negative: warning that judgment is real and that we all stumble, intending that we should humbly repent of our impure speech. He dwells then on the potential for evil rather than the potential for good with one's tongue. Three dangers are specified.
We have found James's style to be full of imagery, previously using a wave of the sea (1:6), a wild flower (1:10), a crown (1:12), childbirth (1:15), lights and shadows (1:17) and a mirror (1:23), and already using a horse's bit and a ship's rudder in the current passage. Now he adopts a new image appropriate for his topic: fire. The effect of this choice of image can be shown by comparing it to another possible image. If he had compared the tongue to an ax, he could have portrayed quite vividly a destruction of a large tree by a small tool. Instead of such an isolated act of destruction, however, James chose to portray a spreading destruction. An ax destroys one tree at a time; with our tongues, one act of evil starts a destructiveness that spreads beyond the initial act.
What kind of spreading does James have in mind? It is easy to envision the spreading of evil through a church family because of gossip, slander and criticisms. If Paul had written this passage, we might expect him to employ his image of the church as the body of Christ to describe the injury done to other lives by one person's impure speech. But James's reference to the body appears to be in the Jewish sense of the whole person rather than a figure of speech for the church. His focus is more on the destruction of the impure speaker's own life.
We can envision how this might be so. Spread gossip, and people will not trust you. Speak with sarcasm and insults, and people will not follow you. Yet what is especially on James's mind is not the reaction of others to your speech but the spreading of sin from your speech to the rest of your life. Be hateful with your tongue, and you will be hateful with other aspects of your behavior. If you do not discipline and purify your speech, you will not discipline or purify the rest of your life.
A true exposition of this text should be severe, uncompromising and authoritative in its condemnation of this evil, faithful to James's language, which is neither mild nor restrained. With a rapid succession of images prompted by the devastation he sees, James says the uncontrolled tongue
 is a world of evil--a whole world of wrongdoing and wickedness, "a vast system of iniquity" (Hiebert 1979:215). The phrase implies a multitude of forms that our impure speech may take.
 corrupts the whole person--an image of a staining and defiling spread of sin from wicked speech into all other behavior. The contrasting pattern, using the same term in the form of a negative adjective, was in 1:27--keeping oneself unstained or unpolluted by the world.
 sets on fire the course of one's life--now depicting the tongue's wickedness as a conflagration spreading through the time span of one's life as well as the diversity of one's behavior. But this is more serious even than the length of time involved: the fundamental direction of one's life is affected. James refers to this with a phrase that is unique in all of biblical literature: ton trochon tes geneseos. Its literal meaning would be "wheel of existence" or "wheel of human origin." James uses it as a figurative expression to mean the whole course of his life. The phrase emphasizes the thorough and far-reaching destruction wrought by the uncontrolled tongue.
 is itself set on fire by hell--taking the same verb that described the action by the tongue and now applying it to the tongue in passive voice, to expose the true origin of the tongue's blazing power to destroy. James picks up the term gehenna ("hell") which Jesus often uses in the Synoptic Gospels. It is hard to imagine a more condemning way to conclude this description of the uncontrolled tongue.
The images thus build in a progression. The first phrase points to the multitude of evils contained within and prompted by impure speech. The second phrase warns that the whole person becomes corrupted by the uncontrolled tongue. The third adds to corruption the picture of destruction and extends it to the whole course of the person's life. The fourth phrase provides the climax by exposing the tongue's source of evil: hell itself. It is altogether a devastating denunciation.
The sight of a rapidly spreading fire is terrifying; James has used the image to stir people to swift and radical action. If we come to the realization that the fire's source is unquenchable, the effect is more sobering; James now uses this fact to call for sustained and disciplined action. For this second warning about the tongue, James changes his imagery and speaks of wild animals. He repeats the verb tame in present and perfect tenses so that we make no mistake about how commonplace it is for human beings to tame wild animals. Yet no human being can tame the tongue.
Why is that so? To explain, in quick succession James adds two phrases referring to the tongue. First, the tongue is a restless evil, untamable because it is inherently unstable and therefore, even when brought under some control, always prone to further evil. This requires that we be continually watchful over our tongues, never thinking we have successfully altered the nature of our speech.
James used the same adjective akatastatos in 1:8 to describe the "unstable" man; he will use the related noun akatastasia in 3:16 to refer to the "disorder" that prevails where humility and wisdom from above are missing. We are left with a picture of this instability as characteristic of unspirituality; it stands in contrast to the peace (eirene) emphasized in 3:17-18.
Second, with a sudden change in imagery, the tongue is full of deadly poison. Again we are compelled to be continually watchful--to keep the lid on the poison, to keep the discipline of our speech in place, because we know the power to destroy with our tongues is present as often as we speak.
From all three images--wild animals, restless evil and deadly poison--the application is the same: discipline. Self-discipline is to be practiced actively and diligently, in recognition of the constant danger. It takes discipline to be "quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry" (1:19). And, looking ahead to the next verse, it will mean controlling what one says to stop verbally abusing people who are made in God's own image.
Judgment is not mentioned in 3:9-12, but it is the unspoken implication still being explained from the beginning of the passage in 3:1. What James does describe explicitly in 3:9-12 is the product of one's tongue: the contradictory product of praise and cursing. If we treat this as a relatively superficial matter which he wants cleared up merely for the sake of consistency, we have dodged the force of this paragraph. James's specific language drives us to the serious issue of facing divine judgment. The three phases of this paragraph make this evident.
First, the literal example he gives in 3:9 involves our relationship with God himself. If we praise God and then curse our neighbors, our praise to God is contradicted. James's logic is important to trace.
1. The one we praise is no less than our Lord and Father. This is a phrase not repeated anywhere else in the Bible; James is deliberately bringing into focus the greatness of God with respect to these two terms.
2. The one we curse is made in the likeness of that Lord and Father.
3. Therefore, to treat people with contempt is to treat God's own greatness with contempt.
This principle has huge implications in our day, requiring just and honorable treatment of the unborn, the poor, the sick and the elderly. James's application here, however, is to our speech. He refers to a praising or blessing (eulogeo) of God--a common Old Testament theme with this same verb in the Septuagint (e.g., Ps 103:1-2). He is exposing the hypocrisy of speaking praise to God with the worshiping church or in private prayer while abusing people with ridicule, insults and attacks through the rest of the week.
Second, the effect of 3:10 is to declare such inconsistency unthinkable for Christians. The tone of James's summary in the first part of the verse is amazement that such praise and cursing should come from the same mouth. This evokes immediately the negated verb in the last part of the verse, as if to say: "Praise and cursing from the same mouth? It can't be!" This also happens to be the only New Testament instance of the impersonal verb chre; it conveys the most earnest and blunt emphasis. Adamson describes James's language as "the strongest possible Greek . . . spoken with all the force of protesting condemnation" (1976:146-47). The contradictory speech of praising and cursing "makes moral and logical nonsense from James's theological standpoint" (Davids 1982:146).
Do we today have this same, intense reaction--this sense that praising God and cursing people is utterly unthinkable, abhorrent nonsense? Consider the habitual verbal abuse that occurs in our churches--how commonplace it is for us to speak of others with ridicule or with cutting remarks, how quickly we accuse others of evil motives when they do things we don't like and how easily we can have angry fights in our churches. Where is our biblical sense of shock at all of this?
Third, the examples from nature in 3:11-12 are intended to describe situations that never happen. These are not to be allegorized, and oddities of nature do not negate James's point. He is stating the obvious, normative facts that one spring does not pour forth two kinds of water; a plant of one kind does not produce fruit of another kind; a salt spring does not produce fresh water. The implication is that a true Christian will not make a practice of unchristian speech; and the practice of unchristian speech is evidence that the speaker is not a Christian and is therefore in danger of hell.
This implication is reinforced when one considers James's possible reliance on Jesus' teaching--for example, in Matthew 12:33-37, where the image of a good tree bearing good fruit and a bad tree bearing bad fruit is applied specifically to speech as the fruit of one's inner character. "For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks." Jesus made the divine judgment explicit: "Men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken." Similarly in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:15-23, the trees bearing bad fruit will be "cut down and thrown into the fire" and the ones who praised Jesus saying "Lord, Lord" will be sent away as impostors who are not genuine Christians at all: "Then I will tell them plainly, `I never knew you.' "
James insists on purity of speech if one's faith is genuine. He recognizes that Christians fail in this; he is willing to identify himself with sinful speech--it is something "we" do. But to accept it or to tolerate it, instead of being horrified at it and repenting of it--this must not be! For we, like springs and plants, produce according to our true nature. The production of good fruit is an evidence of genuine faith and therefore salvation itself. James says to each one of us: Purify your speaking, or show yourself to be an impostor and therefore under judgment.
He will not let us avoid this issue with excuses or delays. He writes conscious that his readers worship together and then have fights and quarrels among themselves (4:1). How often do Christians sing "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty" and then leave the worship service with angry complaints about others with whom they have worshiped, or fight with each other at a church committee meeting later in the week? James tells us this must not be! Remember, he is writing to Christians who are facing trials of many kinds, including unjust treatment from rich pagans. Nevertheless, James will not condone participation in worship which is contradicted by a cursing of people, even a cursing of persecutors. He would remember Jesus' saying "Bless those who curse you" (Lk 6:28). People violate this today by singing praise to God on Sunday and then complaining and attacking neighbors, coworkers or employers on Monday.
To the person who speaks praise to God in the worship service and then abuses people verbally at home or at work, James commands, "Purify your speech through the week." With the person who says, "Oh, I know I talk too much," and laughs it off, James is not amused. He insists, "Be quick to listen, slow to speak." By the person who boasts, "I always speak my mind, no matter who gets hurt," James is not impressed. He commands, "Discipline your speaking." Of the person who says, "I know I gossip too much, but I just can't help it," James still requires, "Control your tongue." Of the person who is in the habit of speaking with insults, ridicule or sarcasm, James demands, "Change your speech habits." He expects discipline to be happening in the life of a Christian. Any Christian can ask for the grace needed, for God gives good gifts (1:17) and gives them generously (1:5). There is, then, no justification for corrupt habits of speech in our churches today. We simply must repent.
The Focused Theme: Decisive Influence of the Tongue
Spirituality from God
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