Somewhere along the line in my early Christian life I made some connections that weren’t helpful or right. Maybe it was as I sang “Onward Christian Soldiers,” or as I worked on being a good, hard-working, pleasing-to-everyone kid. One particularly poor connection I made was between being a Christian and self-improvement.
If I was a Christian, with the power of God available to me, then life should progressively be improving. In particular, it seemed logical and reasonable that I should more and more improve in my holy behavior. I shouldn’t fail, I should prevail. Out I went, armed with thoughts that if I overcame sin, I would be given the crown of life.
In some sense I was like that proverbial fly that Chris Rice sings of in Deep Enough To Dream. I gathered about my wits and pride and tried again for the hundredth time to get to where I was supposed to be—decreasing sin, increasing personal holiness.
It was only later that I realized that I never break through. Not in the sense I naively thought. Just when I thought I was really improving, I realized that Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount raised the bar way higher than I even had considered. I saw motives and desires and not just behaviors. I was undone.
James 3 is a useful tonic for us who are prone to redouble our efforts toward self-righteousness. In his biting and insightful way, James shows us how powerful the tongue is. This little tiny piece of our body is incredibly influential. And then he lays on the heat. This little tongue sets the forest of our lives on fire! It stains the body, and is restless, full of poison.
I don’t think of my tongue that way, really. But I appreciate his point. And thus I’m tempted to understand him as prodding me to self-improvement. Ok, James, I’ll work on controlling my tongue.
Not so fast.
James actually says that if anyone can control his tongue, that person is perfect. And then he says no human being can tame the tongue. There is no hope for us. He vividly depicts how wrong we are, and then stops. There is no call to improvement. There is no imperative. There is no expectation for a more controlled tongue. He just clearly identifies the horror of our ongoing failure.
Do you see what he is doing? We long to avoid the poison of our own sin. We long to be perfect. But we aren’t. We can’t be. Our tongues are a source of sin because they reveal what is in the heart. And our own hearts are imperfect. So out of our mouths come both blessing and cursing.
James gives us law. Like a word fitly spoken, the law is beautiful. And the law reveals not our incremental improvement but our continued imperfection. James leaves us broken. We can’t hope in our increasing perfection. We’re just never perfect, not on earth.
But we know where life is found, where wholeness actually is. It is at Calvary. It is there that the perfect one paid for our sin, where he demonstrated his love for sinners like us. Our failure, his perfection. Our sin, his righteousness. What an amazing exchange.
So we acknowledge the beauty of a tamed tongue. And we see that we don’t, we can’t, for all our striving, attain it. Not before the cross, and not after. We have to go, humbled, to the one who covers us. And trust, always, in his righteousness for us.
My flesh and my heart may fail, and when they do, I look to Jesus. He has overcome for me. “In the world you will have tribulation,” Jesus said in John 16:33. And we do, even the tribulation of our own failure. “But take heart,” he says. “I have overcome the world.”