Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise: Living Ethically in the Light of the Bible
John 1:43-51; James 3:1-12; Ecclesiastes 3:1-15; Jeremiah 9-10
James turns to an area of great moral significance in the Bible: how we use our tongues. He begins with the responsibility teachers take on. The influence of their words brings them additional accountability. They may gain greater recognition and status, but nonetheless should consider carefully the stricter judgment this will entail. Teachers have a great responsibility to teach the truth.
James acknowledges that we all stumble at times with our words (James 3:2). Perfection here means greater maturity (James 1:4), which is needed to control the tongue. He uses powerful images to convey the tongue’s influence on our moral lives. It is the bit that guides a powerful horse, or the rudder that directs huge ships. Small in size, the tongue has massive ethical influence. Horses have riders, and ships have pilots with ultimate control. Likewise, our hearts and minds can direct our tongues. We are morally responsible for what we say. But then James introduces the fire imagery. Forest fires can spread for miles and rage for days, all because of a tiny spark dropped accidentally or deliberately. Our words can set fires of anger raging, and destroy people and relationships. When we allow our tongue to rant uncontrollably, the rot can spread until it controls our whole lives.
Jeremiah used bow and arrow imagery for the tongue. It can be a bow that shoots lies rather than the truth (Jeremiah 9:3). God knows that the people have taught themselves to lie and to rely on deceiving rather than truth and trusting him (v. 5). The tongue is like a fire that spreads until even friends deceive friends. The tongue goes from being the bow that shoots lies to being the deadly arrow itself (v. 8). Such people have lost control of their tongues which spout lies and hurtful words without thought. Yet God declares that the root of the problem is in people’s hearts and their rejection of his words (vv. 13-14).
God’s word, the Bible, has much to say about how we use words. The Proverbs in particular address the importance of a suitable word spoken at the right time (15:23). Words can have a nourishing impact on others (10:20-21). They can bring healing (16:24). With the tongue, as with many other things, wisdom is needed to know when to say the right thing, and when to say nothing. There is a time to speak and a time to be silent (Ecclesiastes 3:7).
To address the power of our tongues, James, like Jeremiah, brings us back to our inner lives. Those with faith in Jesus should live that out in loving deeds (James 2:14). Likewise, those with springs of living water in their hearts should pour out blessings from their mouths (James 3:11). If we reflect on the words of love, mercy and forgiveness spoken to us by God, our hearts should be transformed, and words of truth and grace should flow from our mouths. If they don’t, we should begin by reflecting on what it is that we don’t believe about God and his love for us.