Reading Time: 6 minutes
“Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things. See how great a forest a little fire kindles!And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell.For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and creature of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind.But no one can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse people, who have been made in the similitude of God.for out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so.Does a spring send forth fresh water and bitter from the same opening? (James 3:2-11)
There can be no perfection in art or science without attention to little things. One of the truest marks of genius is the power, in presence of the highest ideal, to attend to even the least details. No chain is stronger than its feeblest link. The weakest point in the character of a Christian is the measure of their nearness to perfection. It is in the little things of daily life that perfection is attained and proved.
The tongue is a little member. A word of the tongue is, oh! such a little thing in the eyes of many. And yet we are told by none less than our blessed Lord:
“By your words you will be justified.” When the Son of man comes in the glory of His Father to repay to every man according to his deeds, every word will be taken into account. In the light of the great day of God, if any person stumble not in word, the same is a perfect man. This is the full-grown man, who has attained maturity, who has reached unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.
But is it possible for any man to be thus perfect, and not to stumble in a single word? Has not James just said, “In many things we all stumble?”
Just think of all the foolish words one hears among Christians, the sharp words, the hasty, thoughtless, unloving words, the words that are only half honest and not spoken from the heart. Think of all the sins of the tongue against the law of perfect love and perfect truth, and we must admit the terrible force of James’ statement:
“In many things we all stumble.” When he adds, “If any stumble not in word, the same is a perfect man,” can he really mean that God expects that we should live so, and that we must seek and expect it too?
Let us think. With what objective does he use these words? In the beginning of his Epistle he had spoken of patience having its perfect work, that we may be perfect and entire, lacking in nothing.
There, entire perfection, with nothing lacking, is set before us as a definite promise to those who let patience have its perfect work.
His Epistle is written, as all the Epistles are, under the painful impression of how far ordinary Christian experience is from such perfection, but in the faith that it is not a hopeless task to teach God’s people that they ought to be, that they can be, perfect and entire, lacking in nothing. Where he begins to speak of the tongue, the two sides of the truth again rise up before him. The ordinary experience he expresses in the general statement:
“In many things we all stumble.” The will of God and the power of grace he sets forth in the blessed and not
impossible ideal of all who seek to be perfect and entire: “If any man stumble not in word, the same is a perfect man.” James speaks of it in all simplicity as a condition as actual as the other condition of everyone stumbling.
The question is again asked: But is it really a possible ideal? Does God expect it of us? Is grace promised for it? Let us call in Peter as a witness, and listen to what God’s Spirit says through him, as to that terrible necessity of always stumbling which some hold fast, as to the blessed possibility of being kept from stumbling.
“Give the more diligence,” he writes, “to make your calling and election sure; for if you do these things, you will never stumble.” “Never” — that includes, not even in word. Let us hear what Jude says, “Now unto Him, who is able to guard you from stumbling through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and power, before all time, and now, and forevermore. Amen.”
The soul that knows and without ceasing trusts God as a God who guards from stumbling, as a God who watches and keeps us every moment through Jesus Christ, that will without ceasing sing this song of praise.
The three texts on “stumbling” are the only ones in the New Testament in which the word occurs in reference to the Christian life. The text in James is heard quoted a hundred times for every time the texts in Peter and Jude are cited. And Christ has said,
“According to your faith be it unto you.”
If our faith feeds only and always on, “In many things we all stumble,” no wonder that we do stumble.
If with that “stumble” we take the “stumble not” that follows, “If any man stumble not in word, the same is a perfect man,” and the “not stumble” of Peter and Jude, the faith that embraces the promise will obtain it: God’s power will translate it into our experience, and our life will be a living Epistle into which God’s words have been transcribed.
Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks: out of a heart that is perfect towards God, in which the love of God is shed abroad, in which Christ dwells, the tongue will bring forth words of truth and uprightness, of love and gentleness, full of beauty and of blessing. God wills it: God works it: let us claim it!
Christian teachers (v. James 3:1) and preachers will be held more accountable (Luke 20:47) because their speaking has great influence over others.
It is so easy to sin in our speech (James 3:2), and a sinful word has such far-reaching consequences (James 3:3-6). By ourselves we cannot control our speaking (James 3:7-8); it will continue to be a hypocritical mixture of good and evil (James 3:9-12). Only God’s grace, the wisdom from above described in James 1:17, can give us mastery over evil speaking.
James 3:5 “great things.” The importance of controlling one’s tongue is emphasized in the New Testament. Christians are commanded to keep their speech truthful (Eph 4:25), gracious (Eph 4:29), serious (Eph 5:4), relevant (Col 4:6), courageous (1 Pet_3:15), corrective (Tit 1:9), always purposeful (Mat 12:36), and always in the context of a possible testimony for the Lord (2 Tim 4:2).
On the other hand, it should never be deceptive, abrasive, trivial, inane, fearful, compromising, idle, or hurtful to our Christian witness in any way.
FROM the “idle faith” St. James goes on to speak of the “idle word.” The change from the subject of faith and works to that of the temptations and sins of speech is not so abrupt and arbitrary as at first sight appears.
The need of warning his readers against sins of the tongue has been in his mind from the first. Twice in the first chapter it comes to the surface. “Let every person be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath” (James 1:19), as if being slow to hear and swift to speak were much the same as being swift to wrath. And again,
“If any one thinketh himself to be religious, while he bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth their heart, this person’s religion is vain” (James 1:26).
And now the subject of barren faith causes him to return to the warning once more. For it is precisely those who neglect good works that are given to talk much about the excellence of their faith, and are always ready to instruct and lecture others.
That controversies about faith and works suggested to him this section about offences of the tongue, is a gratuitous hypothesis. St. James shows no knowledge of any such controversies.
As already pointed out, the purpose of the preceding section (James 2:14-26) is not controversial or doctrinal, but purely practical, like the rest of the Epistle. The paragraph before us is of the same character; it is against those who substitute words for works.