In Prince Harry’s recent memoir we can see the effect of the insatiable voyeuristic appetite for celebrity gossip. We no doubt feel sympathy for those whose lives are picked over endlessly by commentators who seem to say what they like with little fear of contradiction. Perhaps we have all felt the impulse sometimes to tell our own side of the story, take control of the narrative, speak our own truth. There are more wise and less wise ways of doing this. Laying bare your heart does not necessarily lead to acceptance and respect, it can sometimes give more fodder for ridicule. Worse, telling your story may involve you in making accusations against other people. Now you have also shredded other people’s reputations. So the drama rolls on and the prospects of reconciliation fade further away. And it’s all words! The consequences of our words can sometimes be enormous, as the apostle James pointed out long ago. In the following updated extract, David Dickson explains James’s insistence on the need to bridle our tongues. It is impossible without God’s grace, yet the counterintuitive act of responding with meekness when we are provoked is the way of heavenly wisdom and it leads to peace and righteousness. Christians should strive by God’s grace to be people of integrity – like a fountain which sends out one consistent stream of water, not alternating between the pure and the defiled – and so show who really is in control in their hearts.
James chapter 3 contains two pieces of advice. The first is for governing the tongue (verses 1–13), and the second is to do with the meek wisdom which assuages the evils of the tongue, and avoids strifes and contentions (verses 14–18).
Control your tongue and you control your whole self
James tells us to bridle the tongue, that is, to hold back from invective, and rigid rehearsals of other people’s vices or infirmities. “Be not many masters,” he says (verse 1), i.e., do not arrogate to yourselves the authority of a master over others, and too much liberty to carp at things (as many do), but instead bridle your tongues.
One reason for this is because those who unjustly censure others will suffer heavier judgement from the God who avenges injuries (verse 1). Also, seeing we all have many failings (“in many things we offend all,” verse 2), it is better for us to deal more diligently with the infirmities of others, not to arrogate the authority of judging without a calling, or to be unjust in judging.
Anyone who knows how to govern their tongue shows the sign of being “perfect,” someone who can moderate all their actions (verse 2). Anyone who cannot moderately rule their tongue, but in all things carps at other people’s behaviour, has the sign of being a hypocrite.
If you are guiding the horse’s bridle, you have control of the horse; and if you have your hand on the rudder, you are steering the ship. Even so, if you have your tongue under control, you rein in your whole body, and keep your outward actions in check (verse 3–5).
Great care is needed in governing the tongue, because of how gloriously it can boast. It can on both sides perform much good – in speaking the truth, in constancy, in letting things slide, in courtesy, and so on – and it can do much evil, in lies, reproaches, calumnies and so on (verse 5).
Let fly with words and you stir up a world of evil
As a small fire can kindle and devour may things, so the tongue, unless it is appeased and bridled, can stir up a world of evils, and create infinite sins (verse 5–6). Although it is a small part, it is nevertheless a part of the body, which means it can involve all the other members of the body in what it does. It can defile the whole body with wickednesses, and with its wickedness set on fire the wheel of all our natural faculties.
When the tongue is ready to serve the devil in this way, there is some affinity between the evil tongue and hell (verse 6). From the devil the tongue can send out enough flames of lies, slanders and quarrellings to burn the whole world.
There is no kind of animals, but may be tamed by human reason or skill, and experience teaches that some of all kinds have been tamed (verse 7). But the tongue can be tamed by no human reason or art. It is an unquiet and an unruly evil, full of deadly poison, by which it is ready to bring, and does bring, deadly mischiefs to others (verse 8). Therefore you must by God’s supernatural grace diligently endeavour to bridle the tongue.
Be honest in your words and you show you have supernatural grace
The tongue is mutable, deceitful, crafty. One minute it makes itself out to be very good, blessing God, the next minute it openly shows its real nature, by cursing other people (and indirectly God, according to whose likeness people are made). This it does from the same mouth, sometimes sending forth blessing, sometimes cursing (verse 9). But this is absurd and monstrous, and must in no wise be tolerated by those who belong to Christ (verse 10).
James then uses four similes – a fountain, a fig-tree, a vine, and the sea (verse 11–12) – arguing from these natural impossibilities to expose this irrational incoherence in our practice. It is simply not natural that sweet and bitter water should flow from the same channel of the fountain, or that a fig-tree should bring forth grapes, and a vine figs, or that the same sea should yield both salt water and sweet. So reason will not allow us to think that it is the tongue of someone who is regenerated, which, although sometimes it blesses, yet being unbridled, it otherwise curses – for a bad tree does not bear good fruits.
This is why it is so important for the regenerate to follow the simplicity of holiness in speech, and to endeavour to bridle their tongues.
Wisdom consists in avoiding contention
In the second part of the chapter, James gives another piece of advice. He exhorts us to wisdom joined with meekness, which is the remedy for the evils and jealousies of the tongue. If anyone is going to show themselves a prudent Christian, they ought to show it in innocence and meekness.
Laying aside meekness, and instead cherishing contradictory vices in the heart, such as jealousy and contention, is no matter of glorying, but rather of shame (verse 14). Indeed, it is effectively lying against the truth – falsely boasting yourself to be spiritually wise (or, Christians) but in fact showing yourself to be wicked. This is why we must make an effort to strive after the wisdom of meekness.
Wisdom does not lead to vengefulness
The wisdom of contention, envying, revenging of personal attacks, is not the wisdom which descends from heaven, from God. Instead it is earthly, sensual and devilish (verse 15). Its origins are in fallen nature and the devil. Where there is not wisdom with meekness, but envy and contention, there tumults, seditions, and every wickedness reigns (verse 16). These are more reasons to pursue the wisdom of meekness.
Wisdom makes peace and is peaceable
In verse 17, James gives eight characteristics of heavenly wisdom, the wisdom which is joined with meekness. (1) It is pure and chaste, i.e., it holds fast truth and holiness, lest it be in any way polluted. (2) It is peaceable, avoiding contentions. (3) It endeavours after equity. (4) It easily gives place to right reason. (5) It is full of mercy towards those who err and sin. (6) It is full of good fruits, omitting nothing of those things which are fitting in those who are good and pious. (7) It does not enquire suspiciously into the blemishes of others. (8) It is without hypocrisy, with which chiefly carnal wisdom is delighted. All these are reasons why we ought to endeavour after wisdom joined with meekness.
Those who endeavour after this wisdom joined with meekness, simultaneously endeavour to make peace, or to be peaceable themselves (verse 18). They are in peace. They work righteousness, or increase their holiness. They sow to themselves for time to come, and for life eternal, so that they may reap the fruit of righteousness in due time.
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