Do you think twice before speaking? Do you know why that’s important?
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for James 3
In the first place, teachers really need to watch their mouths—their influence in the church and on other people means that God will hold them to a higher standard. But all believers need to realize that their words can have just as big an impact on others as a physical sin. Our words can bring life and death.
Every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and fish is tamed and has been tamed by humankind, but no one can tame the tongue. James 3:7
[Throughout the years, I have produced a newsletter for teachers to help with that week's Bible study. I'm going through the very slow process of online-ifying old lessons in order to easily reference past ideas and topics.]
Getting Started: Things to Think About
The Price of Leadership
How many of you would love to be your own boss? The vast majority of millennials have said they want to be the boss (and yes, according to the stereotype, it’s because they think they’re entitled to whatever they want), and at least some of them understand the hard work and responsibility that goes with it, but they see it as a chance to make a difference. Ask "What are the pros and cons of being the boss?"
There are lots of great inspirational sayings related to leadership that put it in perspective:
“Leadership is about taking responsibility, not making excuses.”
“Leadership is a choice, not a position.”
“First rule of leadership: everything is your fault.”
James has something to say in our passage this week to those Christians who want to led their own churches.
Things We Wish We Could Un-Say
Have you ever said, “That came out wrong”, or “I shouldn’t have said that”? And when you did, did you immediately hear your mom say in your head “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all?” Share some “foot in mouth” experiences—but give this rule: it has to something they can look back and laugh about. (The truth is that we have all said inexcusably mean things; there will be a place for sharing those later in the lesson; this is just the introduction—keep it friendly!)
Well, the internet is filled with terrible examples, but also some funny ones.
A guy when he met his girlfriend’s mom: “I’ll bet when you were xxx’s age, you used to be good looking too.”
A customer walking into a salon: “Every place is so busy. We came here as a last resort.”
Family at the diner, waitress says, “You’re cute. How old are you, four?” Kid replies, “I’m five, you idiot.”
Guy on a crowded subway car tried to give up his seat to a pregnant lady. Turns out it was a man.
Kid during a Father’s Day prayer, “Dear God, thank you for dad on the day we’re supposed to say that.”
Kid leaving a funeral, to his great uncle, “See you next time.”
A person in the mall says to a random person next to her, “Don’t go in there; it’s so overpriced.” It was the store owner.
Lots of stories of a person talking badly about someone only to discover that they were right behind them, listening. (Has that ever happened to you?)
Lots more stories of calling someone by the wrong name (like a previous girlfriend, or a previous boss).
This week, James reminds us why it’s so important to watch our tongue.
This Week's Big Idea: What the Proverbs Say about Speech
I’m sure that somewhere in this list you’ll find the perfect illustrations to support what James had to say:
The wise store up knowledge, but the mouth of the fool hastens destruction. (10:14)
The one who conceals hatred has lying lips, and whoever spreads slander is a fool. (10:18)
When there are many words, sin is unavoidable, but the one who controls his lips is prudent. (10:19)
With his mouth the ungodly destroys his neighbor, but through knowledge the righteous are rescued. (11:9)
A city is built up by the blessing of the upright, but it is torn down by the mouth of the wicked. (11:11)
A person will be satisfied with good by the fruit of his mouth, and the work of a person’s hands will reward him. (12:14)
There is one who speaks rashly, like a piercing sword; but the tongue of the wise brings healing. (12:18)
The one who guards his mouth protects his life; the one who opens his lips invites his own ruin. (13:3)
The proud speech of a fool brings a rod of discipline, but the lips of the wise protect them. (14:3)
A gentle answer turns away anger, but a harsh word stirs up wrath. (15:1)
The tongue that heals is a tree of life, but a devious tongue breaks the spirit. (15:4)
A person takes joy in giving an answer; and a timely word—how good that is! (15:23)
The mind of the righteous person thinks before answering, but the mouth of the wicked blurts out evil things. (15:28)
Pleasant words are a honeycomb: sweet to the taste and health to the body. (16:24)
A contrary person spreads conflict, and a gossip separates close friends. (16:28)
The one who has knowledge restrains his words,
and one who keeps a cool head is a person of understanding. (17:27)
The one who guards his mouth and tongue keeps himself out of trouble. (21:23)
A word spoken at the right time is like gold apples in silver settings. (25:11)
A lying tongue hates those it crushes, and a flattering mouth causes ruin. (26:28)
There are plenty of common folk sayings about speech that aren't from the Bible (something like “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”) but still agree with the Bible. What are some saying you know and use? Examples:
“Speak when you’re angry, and you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret.”
“A superior man is modest in his speech.”
“Speak softly and carry a big stick.”
“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”
“Words can change the world.”
Our Context in James
James has taken his readers on a grand tour of the real Christian life. For those who thought it would be easy, he said that life is full of temptations and trials—but God will help us through them if we ask. For those who didn’t think they would have to change their lifestyles to be a Christian, he said that obeying the gospel is non-negotiable—but God has given us a model to follow. For those who were using the church for their own gain (by showing favoritism to the rich), he said they were being judgmental and hypocrites—and God will judge such people harshly. For those who talked about their faith but didn’t do anything about it, he questioned their salvation (what more can I say?).
Now, James comes back around to one of his main points: the Christian life is revealed in action, and action is obscured by words. This is really interesting. To this point, James has basically championed the idea that “Actions speak louder than words”, right? But now he almost seems to say the opposite—your words reveal your heart even more than your actions. (Jesus said, “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” Luke 6:45.) But he’s not contradicting himself! Think about it—even the most angry person can refrain from killing someone. But that angry person will have a much harder time controlling his tongue. By your words you will be found out.
James introduced this idea in 1:19—”be quick to listen and slow to speak”, and followed that with 1:26—”If anyone thinks he is religious without controlling his tongue, his religion is useless and he deceived himself”. To get your class into the right frame of mind, ask them to talk about times words have really hurt them, and times words have really helped them. While I have been hurt by insults, I’ve probably been hurt worse by people who said they would do something for/with me but never do it. But a well-timed word has also meant the world to me. Just make sure to give equal examples of positive words as negative ones.
Part 1: When Teaching (James 3:1-2)
Not many should become teachers, my brothers, because you know that we will receive a stricter judgment. For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is mature, able also to control the whole body.
James starts with teachers. This logically flows from the previous section about favoritism and works. Apparently, being a teacher in a church was considered prestigious. (By all means—ask if people still feel that way today. The answer is sometimes. There are certainly people in churches all around us who derive ego from their church position. They insist on being called by their title, and they lord their authority over people around them. Jesus said of such people, “Beware of the scribes, who want to go around in long robes and who love greetings in the marketplaces, the best seats in the synagogues, and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and say long prayers just for show. These will receive harsher judgment.” (Luke 20:46-47) In other words, be careful what you wish for.
However, the Bible says that it is good and noble for Christians to desire to teach and lead. What is the difference? Those Christians have been called and gifted by God for that task. (Eph 4:11—God has given to the church apostles, then evangelists, then pastors and teachers.) James seems to be talking about individuals who have sought out a position of teaching for selfish or egotistical reasons. How did Jesus tell us to watch out for a false teacher? By their actions (Matt 7:15). Note how in the focus below I said that hurtful words are just as powerful as actions? We can know the heart of a teacher by his/her words (do they teach truth but also speak insults) and tones (are they disrespectful or callous). All of these things tie together.
If you read my focus below, you’ll see that I think James is applying this to a very wide range of people. Remember that the early church did not have the highly developed “organizational chart” that we have today, so just about anyone could speak up and claim authority on any subject in church. (Yes, people still do that today.) Apparently, a number of people in James’s day did so with questionable motives, and James wanted to protect the church from the inevitable damage that would result. The main thing James points out is that teaching in the church is not a game. Teachers will be held to “stricter judgment”. What does that mean? We know that this has nothing to do with salvation, so it either has to do with (a) consequences that we experience in this life or (b) there are degrees of rewards in heaven. I don’t want your class to get sidetracked on the idea of different rewards in heaven—that’s not James’s point—but whatever James is talking about must have “teeth”. I think it is related to Jesus saying we will account for every careless word we say (Matt 12:36), and that leaders/teachers will be more heavily scrutinized than others. It doesn’t mean that we will lose our salvation, and it doesn’t necessarily mean we will have “rewards” withheld from us. It just means that God will hold leaders to strict account. I’m okay with not knowing what that means; as a leader/teacher, I just know I don’t want to be on the other end of that.
I think that verse 2 is a transition from just speaking of teachers to speaking of all Christians. Teachers teach through words, and they must be extremely careful with their words. But the truth is that all Christians need to be careful with their words, and all Christians tend to “stumble” in that respect. That word refers to an offense. If we were truly mature, we would be able to control our words and our actions (and our thoughts), and we wouldn’t hurt people by our sin. Unfortunately, we are not mature (including teachers).
If you haven’t done this, ask for examples of the ways that leader/teacher behavior has hurt others. Without dwelling on specifics or badmouthing individuals, make it clear that we all understand what James is saying.
Aside: Who Are the Teachers James Is Talking About?
This is actually a really good question. Being a teacher is considered an officer of the church (see Eph 4:11), and the spiritual gift of teaching (1 Cor 12:28, Rom 12:7) is carefully given by the Holy Spirit for the very important purpose of upholding and explaining God’s Word so that the church can be built up to be more like Jesus. Well, if those people have been chosen by God, they don’t have much of a choice in the matter, right? There are two ways we can look at what James says. (1) Just because a person has been gifted to teach doesn’t mean that they automatically use that gift for the right reasons. Remember that Paul blasted people in Corinth who used their gift of tongues for personal spectacle. But I don’t think that’s really what James is focusing on here. Remember, this whole letter is about removing hypocrisy from the Christian life. But I think James is referring to (2) People in the church who may not have the gift of teaching but still desire to share their thoughts and opinions on everything. Perhaps they were “showing off” their knowledge, or perhaps they were “auditioning” to become the equivalent of a Sunday School teacher (oh, that we had a wait line of people who wanted to be a Sunday School teacher!). In other words, James is not just talking about preachers, and he is not just talking about official “teachers”, but he is talking about everyone who speaks out in church.
Part 2: When Influencing (James 3:3-6)
Now if we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we direct their whole bodies. And consider ships: Though very large and driven by fierce winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So too, though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts great things. Consider how a small fire sets ablaze a large forest. And the tongue is a fire. The tongue, a world of unrighteousness, is placed among our members. It stains the whole body, sets the course of life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
Hopefully, you’ll have someone in your group with experience with horses who can describe this effect. Bridles really haven’t changed much in 2000 years, so their experience today will be what James had in mind. Same thing with a rudder—the relief comes from Rome in the first century. Even the large galleons and triremes just had the equivalent of a large paddle attached to the side of the ship that was manhandled by a strong steersman. Some Chinese ships (junks) still use this technology today.
What is James’s point? Our tongue can metaphorically steer the course of our life. (Note that your leader guide seems to emphasize the influence our words have on others, which is also valid.) (To group members who proudly mention that the tongue is the strongest muscle in the body, well, that’s actually not true.) Go through the scenarios:
My words get me in trouble. Have your group share times their tongue got them in big trouble. Not just through talking back, but making claims they couldn’t back up.
My words commit me to a course of action. Have your group share times they’ve been put on the spot, or made an announcement (or misspoke!), and hearing themselves say something out loud made them feel committed to whatever decision they had made.
My words shape my identity. Ask your group if they’ve ever had the experience of saying something so many times that they began to believe it (even if it weren’t true). Words are powerful.
[Side note: social media. Now that we can “speak digitally”, people are having a hard time learning the power of their on-line words. If the saying is “think twice before you speak”, it must also be “think twice before you click send”.]
Now—what about this whole “fire” and “hell” stuff? Well, fire is a great tool, even lifegiving (heat, cooking), when it is properly contained in a stove or a fireplace. But once it reaches the living room floor, it can destroy your house quickly. This word for hell (Gehenna) is a reference to the valley of Hinnom outside of Jerusalem. In James’s day, it was a dump. Animal carcasses, dead prisoners, all manner of refuse was taken there and burned. The entire valley literally smoldered all the time with burning bodies. It was their picture of what “hell” must be like. Hell is associated with Satan and evil, so James is saying that the negative impact of our words is driven by the presence of evil in our world. Is he not 100% right? Where do we learn how to curse and insult and boast?
Aside: What Are the Most Common Hurtful Sins?
This is actually a trick title, but work with me. Let’s divide sins into thoughts and actions. What are our most common sins? Probably things that have to do with our thoughts and attitudes—getting angry with others, looking lustfully at someone, prioritizing something other than God, being distracted from God, things like that. But what sins have the biggest impact on others? Our actions. Does that make them worse? No. But I think it does make them more destructive. Now, let’s think about our actions. When people think about those kinds of sins, they think about murder, and stealing, and adultery. But I propose that our words have just as big an impact as our physical actions. Compare the person who is filled with anger but keeps to himself, and the person who is filled with anger and spews that anger at other people. You don’t have to plant a bomb to hurt a lot of people, do you? I don’t think I’ve ever struck someone with my hand, but I’ve certainly hurled insults. Lying. Gossiping. Backbiting. Grumbling. Plotting. Flattering. Those are all sins of words. While we may not steal, kill, or commit adultery, we commit those sins of words regularly.
I’m not suggesting that any of these sins are better or worse, but I am proposing that of all sinful actions, the words we say are the most common sins we commit. That is why James is right to focus so heavily on them.
Bonus Aside: The Size of a Rudder
Seriously, look at the size of that rudder. It’s tiny compared to the ship! Frankly, there are lots of things in our lives whose influence is way out of proportion with their size. A small whip can keep a lion at bay. A little joystick can direct a massive drone. A tiny charge can set off a huge avalanche. One click of the “send” button can ruin relationships. Ask your group about the power of “tiny” things.
Part 3: When Offering (James 3:7-12)
Every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and fish is tamed and has been tamed by humankind, but no one can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in God’s likeness. Blessing and cursing come out of the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, these things should not be this way. Does a spring pour out sweet and bitter water from the same opening? Can a fig tree produce olives, my brothers and sisters, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a saltwater spring yield fresh water.
James offers the only reasonable conclusion: it is not right for a Christian to speak sinfully. The non-Christian equivalent would be “You kiss your mother with that mouth?” Who do we think we’re fooling when we sit and teach God’s Word, and then spew off about the election results? And by mentioning “poison”, James is saying that it doesn’t take much to be deadly (a speck of ricin is enough to kill you). Just a few evil words will ruin a long conversation. He follows what Jesus said in Matthew 7:15-23—you know a false teacher by his fruit. But here, James wants us to apply this warning to ourselves. The words that come out of our mouth, are they bitter? How do we tend to talk about other people? About our circumstances?
Put James’s words into your own words. How would you summarize what James said? Then challenge your group to evaluate themselves. Do their words bring life or death? Build up or tear down? What do they need to change this week to speak only words of truth, life, and love? Pray for each other!
Closing Thoughts: A History Lesson about the Abuse of Power
You have heard it said that power corrupts. The church is no stranger to this saying. Let me just give a few examples from history of how people have used the church for personal gain.
The Middle Ages. Once the church came to a position of authority in Europe following the fall of Rome, it became a target for corruption. One particular trend (the “investiture controversy”) saw wealthy or royal families appoint their lesser sons to “bishop” so that the oldest son would not have to share the inheritance and also to ensure a subservient ally in local church leadership.
The Reformation. The Spanish Inquisition is just one of many examples of this abuse of power, but it’s a doozy. The most powerful local church (be it Catholic or Reformed) would use its power to lock up or even execute people who disagreed with its doctrines or practices. Sometimes church leaders would use this power against individuals they disliked.
Early America. The most powerful social institution on the American frontier was the church (particularly in places where the settlers had outpaced the government). No ordination councils and lots of entrepreneurial individuals meant that people would establish churches for personal gain or authority (or because they couldn’t get a job doing anything else).
The Prosperity Gospel. It might not surprise you that 8 of the 10 wealthiest pastors in America adhere to the prosperity gospel (the idea that God wants you to be wealthy—all you have to do is give so much money to the church/ministry). There are plenty of churches in our area who brag about how much money they give their pastors, and the pastors encourage it. In other words, pastors in this scheme are in it for the financial gain.