The Power of The Tongue
With his now familiar and kind address my brothers, James begins with a specific instruction that not many should become teachers. His concern is not to give career counseling. Rather, he is addressing those who aspire to positions of authority in the church. Church leaders are his primary focus now. And what is on his heart is a sin to which leaders are vulnerable—the sin of pride. The NIV reflects this emphasis by rendering the words “become teachers” as “presume to be teachers.” James’s point in the last half of 3:1 (that teachers will be judged more strictly) is driven home in the first part of 3:2 (reminding them that everyone is vulnerable because we all stumble in many ways). It is a warning not to think one has attained an unassailable spirituality. It is a serious reminder to be humble.
Further discussion of the role of teachers in the church will begin in 3:13. The fact that James mentions teachers here but does not specifically return to the topic until so much later does not have to mean this is a later addition to the text, as Davids allows (1982:135). A continuing flow of thought makes sense here. James has been prescribing humility implicitly and explicitly in 1:5, 1:9–11, 1:13–15, 1:16–18, 1:19, 1:21, 1:26 and 2:13. Nor is this to be the end of the matter. The reader can glance over chapters 3–5 and find, in the diverse applications, the unifying intent to warn against arrogance and instruct in humility. James evidently saw those in authority to teach as being particularly in danger of spiritual arrogance, which would be expressed in impure speech. He therefore introduces his address to teachers and then proceeds to develop his message with care and detail.
All of this is immediate confirmation that in his emphasis on deeds in the preceding passage James is still realistic about the persistence of sin and is not expecting perfection in holiness. It is also confirmation that the theme of humility, especially as expressed in speech, is fundamental to James’s teaching about Christian living. Humility is a trait we must examine, search out and cultivate if we claim to take this book of God’s word seriously.
As the foundation for this particular character development, James confronts us with two inescapable facts of life: judgment and failure. These are the two facts, therefore, that an expositor of this passage should establish in order to disciple young Christians in humility. James has already warned that we are not to judge (2:4) and that we will be judged (2:12). Now he adds these two points.
First, there is a greater strictness of judgment for ones who teach. This could be based upon Jesus’ statement in Matthew 7:2. It means that a teacher is obligated to teach what is true and then to live up to what is taught. God expects more from church leaders and holds them accountable for what they teach his people. This biblical principle is exemplified in Ezekiel 34:1–10, where the unfaithful leaders of the nation are condemned for being neglectful and abusive shepherds of God’s people, and God declares that he will “hold them accountable.” See it again in Matthew 5:19 and 18:6, where Jesus gives warning to anyone who teaches others to sin. See it repeated in Luke 12:42–48, where Jesus’ parable is about a manager “whom the master puts in charge of his servants to give them their food allowance at the proper time.” The Lord’s instruction culminates in this principle: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”
Second, there is failure by all of us. This failure James describes with the verb stumble (ptaiō, used before in 2:10). This verb has the literal meaning of “stumble” or “trip,” but it is used as a figure for making a mistake or sinning. (James will repeat the verb in the last half of 3:2; Romans 11:11 and 2 Peter 1:10 are the only other New Testament uses of this verb.) James is saying, “Remember, you are subject to judgment even more if you try to teach others; and you are highly vulnerable in that judgment because we all sin in many ways.”
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 tēs geneseōs. 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 (eirēnē) 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.
When James invites people who are (supposedly) wise and understanding to step forward and identify themselves, he is returning more explicitly to the topic of “teachers” addressed in 3:1. Especially for those who think they are wise enough to teach others, James wants his readers to know what true wisdom means. What he gives is more a description than a definition of wisdom. In fact, he has been describing it all along, with his talk of believing God, relying on God’s goodness, doing what God’s word says and living the righteous life that God desires. Now he will label this as wisdom and describe it further as a humble submissiveness to God which results in a life of goodness, purity and peace toward other people. To explain this, James analyzes three aspects of wisdom.
The Nature of Wisdom* In regard to the nature of wisdom, first the impact of the question in 3:13 must be faced: Who is wise and understanding among you? For those who do not care about true wisdom but only want the status of being thought wise, the question is a challenge; James’s answer will expose them for what they are. For those who honestly aspire to being wise, the question is an invitation; James’s answer will divulge the way to attain their aspirations. James is saying, “I am about to tell you the nature of true wisdom; treasure this.” Let all readers, then, first examine their own hearts before reading beyond the question posed in 3:13. Do you really want to be wise?
Then we must submit to James’s answer about the requirement of true wisdom. Consistent with his previous instructions, James again requires actions that authenticate words. Who claims to be wise? Let him show it by his good life. Today the phrase good life has taken a connotation of a prosperous, pleasurable life. James, of course, is talking about quite another matter: moral goodness. His phrase is kalēs anastrophēs, “good conduct” or “good behavior.” He elaborates: Let him show it … by deeds. James is thinking with the same verb deiknymi and noun ergon as in 2:18; his point must be very close to that earlier verse. Genuine wisdom, like faith, is a practical matter; it shows up in how one lives. Literally James says, “Let him show by good behavior his deeds in the humility of wisdom.” Wisdom, then, is not something I will merely possess in my head; if I am wise at all, it is something I will demonstrate in my conduct.
Finally, the personality of wisdom should be taken to heart: the wise deeds will be done in humility. Humility is the character trait underlying the Christian behavior described in the entire letter; this is the trait to cultivate if one would take James’s teaching deeply into one’s life. James would have approved of what Calvin wrote quoting Augustine, “When a certain rhetorician was asked what was the chief rule in eloquence, he replied, ‘Delivery’; what was the second rule, ‘Delivery’; what was the third rule, ‘Delivery’; so if you ask me concerning the precepts of the Christian religion, first, second, third, and always I would answer, ‘Humility”’ (Institutes 2. 2. 11).
Therefore James’s notion of humility is worth exploring. His term praÿtēs is variously translated as “meekness” (KJV) and “gentleness” (NASB), but the NIV’s “humility” is much to be preferred. “Meekness” today connotes a touch of weakness and passivity, which are not at all true in James’s requirement of active obedience. “Gentleness” is appropriate in reference to our relationships with each other (and should be brought out in an exposition of 3:17–18); but James has a larger concept in mind as humility.
The terms praÿs and praÿtēs (“humble” and “humility”) do not occur in the Gospel of Mark, in Luke’s Gospel or Acts, in Hebrews, or in the Johannine writings of the New Testament. This reflects the Christology of those writers, who place their emphasis on Christ as powerful Son and Lord. In Matthew the adjective praÿs is used three times, as a significant, characteristic trait of Jesus himself and of his followers. In Matthew 5:5, when Jesus pronounces the “meek” to be blessed, he is calling people to enter his kingdom with this stance of humility. In Matthew 11:29, Jesus invites people to come and learn from him specifically because he is himself “gentle.” In Matthew 21:5, Matthew identifies Jesus as the “gentle” messianic king promised in Zechariah 9:9. Paul uses the noun praÿtēs several times, notably as a fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:23) and a trait of Christ (2 Cor 10:1) to be exhibited by all Christians toward other people (Eph 4:2; Col 3:12; Tit 3:2). This Christian virtue of humility is modeled after the ministry of Christ, who served others, sacrificed himself and placed himself wholly at the Father’s disposal in perfect trust and obedience.
This seems to be very much James’s own concept of humility, as observed in three applications within his letter. Humility is, first, the teachability by which we are to accept “humbly” the word of God in 1:21. But James emphasizes there that humbly accepting God’s word entails doing the word. Therefore humility is, second, a submissive readiness to do what the word says with deeds done in … humility. Third, James shows in our current passage that in humility toward God we will become humble (and gentle) to live at peace with each other. The opposite of humility is an unwillingness to learn and a refusal to yield: the bitter envy and selfish ambition that will result in disorder. For James, humility is a yielding of oneself in ready teachability and responsiveness to God’s word, resulting in a good and unselfish life of peace with other people.
Compare the two terms James employs when talking about humility. In 1:9–10 he used tapeinos to refer to the poor person’s “humble circumstances” and tapeinōsis to mention the rich person’s reduction to a “low position.” James used that term when thinking of circumstantial station in life. When speaking of the spiritual stance of teachability before God (as in 1:21 and here in 3:13), however, James uses praÿtēs. Davids explains the awkwardness of the phrase “in the humility that comes from wisdom” as due to “a preference for the Semitic-influenced genitive construction” (1982:150). But the phrase is prompted by more than a grammatical preference. James is talking about a foundational element in a person of faith.
The problem James is addressing, then, is not that there are teachers spreading false doctrine (as would often be the concern in Paul’s letters). James is addressing the problem of arrogance, which can be present even when correct doctrine is being taught. His warning should bring all teachers to an abrupt halt for self-examination. I can be correct in my doctrine down to the most esoteric details; I can attain a consistency in my orthodoxy which surpasses others’; I can gain a reputation for my thorough grasp of theology and be regarded as a protector of the faith; and my teaching may still be earthly, unspiritual, of the devil, resulting in disorder and every evil practice by stirring up suspicion, slander, distrust and contention within the Christian community.
James puts the critical issue to me: Am I teaching from humility or from selfish ambition? If it is the latter, then I am even failing in the matter about which I am most proud: my grasp of truth. For then my claim to be wise is itself a falsehood. That is the sense of James’s conclusion, Do not boast about it or deny the truth.
The Source of Wisdom* The wisdom James wants his readers to seek is said to come from heaven (adverb anōthen). The term can have a local sense (“from above”) or a temporal sense (“from the beginning” or “for a long time”), and it is the term used in John 3 to describe being born “again” or born “anew.” In the present passage, the local sense is indicated by the verb come down and by the contrast to the adjective earthly. This sense is also consistent with James’s use of the same term in 1:17, where every good and perfect gift was stated to be from above and then explicitly from the Father. Wisdom is now declared to be one of those precious gifts that come from above.
But that divine origin makes the issue more important than mere location. James explains this by the series of three adjectives at the end of 3:15. The adjectives build upon each other in “an ascending scale of wickedness” (Mitton 1966:139). Earthly origin, in frequent New Testament usage, implies inferiority to heavenly origin. James then makes this more specific: bitter envy and selfish ambition are also unspiritual, denoting a natural source devoid of the supernatural Spirit of God. Finally, to leave no doubt about the evil source of the envy and ambition, James says they are literally demonic: of the devil. His investigation of false wisdom uncovers the same source as his investigation of the uncontrolled tongue in 3:6—they are both from hell. This is evidently the reason for the NIV’s translation of anōthen as from heaven in 3:15 and 3:17 rather than “from above” as in 1:17. James’s intention is to point us to a wisdom from heaven in contrast to the wisdom from hell, a wisdom far superior to any wisdom we find in ourselves naturally, and certainly superior to that which comes from demons.
Since true wisdom comes from outside ourselves and from God himself, we have to examine where our reliance is placed. It makes sense of what James has already prescribed for a life of faith. It requires of us an active prayer life—to ask for wisdom as 1:5 commands. It requires a conscious dependence on God—in the humility prescribed in 3:13. True wisdom can be had only by people who live in active reliance on God.
The Expression of Wisdom* Here James gives particular content to the deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. What will genuine wisdom look like in a person’s life? James describes both the false wisdom and the true, and in each case he lists identifying attitudes and actions.
Regarding the false wisdom, we can understand why bitter envy and selfish ambition are the characteristic attitudes: they are the opposite of the humility entailed in admitting one’s need and relying on God for the wisdom one lacks. The adjective pikros (“bitter”) describes a harsh stance of demanding to be recognized as wise, instead of being willing to learn. The noun zēlos (“envy”) reveals the motivation as jealousy. The second noun, eritheia (“selfish ambition”), exposes the sinful desire for personal glory—wanting the status of a teacher so that others will have to learn from me. At this point it is valuable to remember that James has been addressing people who gather in Christian assemblies and who function as teachers in the church. His words shine a spotlight on the craving for self-glorification which moves even much of our work in “Christian ministry.”
The resulting actions of false wisdom are also identified: disorder and every evil practice. James ever sees the connection between inward stance and outward practice. Genuine faith will manifest itself in deeds, and the same principle holds true in the contrasting demonic realm. The false wisdom that is of the devil will manifest itself in practices of disorder and evil. This is simply the application of the principle James learned from Jesus: by their fruit you will recognize them. When self-glorification is at the heart of Christian ministry by church members, those Christians will eventually become sowers of disorder, contention and other evil practices in the church.
Finally, the expression of true wisdom in the church is presented with the characteristic attitudes and resulting actions listed in 3:17–18. Three emphases stand out in the way James states this contrast with false wisdom.
First, in 3:17, James is deliberate to state a foremost characteristic of the wisdom from above: it is first of all pure and only then the other qualities. His term pure speaks of holiness and provides the immediate contrast to every evil practice. It reflects the high moral sensibility that we have found in James all along; he does not descend from it now. It is never a sentimental humanitarianism or an amoral pragmatism that motivates James; it isn’t just that bitter envy hurts people or that selfish ambition does not work. The first and foremost reason for valuing wisdom is that it will lead people to do what is morally right. Today’s popular relativism makes it all the more urgent that Christians learn James’s passion for purity. Will we do what is wise first of all because it is right?
Second, in 3:17, James lists other attitudes and behavior of the wisdom from above. Peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere fill out a picture of humility put into practice. The first three of these traits are terms that James uses only here in his letter; they describe people who can yield status, who care for others and who are willing to submit and learn from others—all in contrast to the bitterness, envy and selfish ambition of false spirituality. The remaining traits weave some of James’s earlier instruction into this picture. Full of … good fruit is reminiscent of the recent imagery in 3:12. Full of mercy reminds James’s readers of his urging to be merciful in 2:13. The terms for impartial and sincere are both built upon the root for judge (verb krinō, noun kritēs)—an important concept already in the epistle.
Third, James summarizes in 3:18 (literally): “The fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” This connects peacemaking and righteousness (cf. Jesus in Mt 5:9–10) and suddenly reveals why the disorder in 3:16 is so abhorrent to James. The opposite of the disorder is not a morally neutral order but a morally significant peace. James wants peace for the church because peace is the context in which righteousness can flourish. This is the positive side of what James said in 1:20, that human anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. Again, James writes out of a passion for righteousness.
What Causes Fights Among You? (4:1–3) The false wisdom that comes from envy and selfish ambition produces disorder (3:16). To put it bluntly, it leads to fighting. James therefore carries his argument forthrightly to this next issue: What causes fights and quarrels among you? The term for fights is polemos; in other contexts (as in Heb 11:34), it refers to actual armed conflict and so carries a violent image. The term for quarrels is machē; it is used in other literature only for battles without material weapons and so refers more to angry disputes. James uses the terms as a pair to make his question inclusive and pointed. It is not to be avoided.
The fighting among Christians which James is addressing is an outrageous evil. Yet I have seen it accepted complacently; one church member who saw a church breaking into factions even commented cheerfully, “Oh, I love a church fight!” In reality it is a tragedy which can cripple a church’s internal ministries and external witness for years before a measure of healing and purification becomes evident.
James is not talking about disagreements—the healthy conflicts that should be expected in a church whose ministries are expanding. He is writing about fighting, which is “earthly, unspiritual, of the devil” in origin, and he will call its perpetrators “you adulterous people” (4:4). So serious a crime calls for a serious response. When we Christians find ourselves embroiled in fights with each other, we should examine what we are doing in the light of this paragraph. James gives us great help