Lashing Out Verbally at Others (James 3:1-12)

Lacking tongue control: "If anyone makes no mistakes in what they say, such a person is a fully complete human being, capable of keeping firm control over the whole body as well" (Jas 3:2b, N.T. Wright). "Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check" (Jas 3:2b, NIV). "For if we could control our tongues, we would be perfect and could also control ourselves in every other way" (Jas 3:2b, NLT).

ThemeIf you cannot control your mouth, don't teach the Bible to others. Definitely, don't teach others the Bible if you are blaming others for problems and difficulties. Don't be in Christian leadership if you have a habit of lashing out at others. For the easiest way to sin, the most common, and the hardest sin to prevent, is with the tongue.
  1. Horrible Days (Jas 1:1-4), or The Way to Maturity and Wholeness.
  2. How to Know What's Going On (Jas 1:5-12), or A Prayer that God is Always Happy to Answer.
  3. When Trials Become Temptations (Jas 1:13-21), or God Never Tempts Anyone.
  4. Self-Deceived Christians (Jas 1:22-27), or When Reading and Studying the Bible Makes You Worse.
  5. Showing Favoritism (Jas 2:1-13), Trust God rather than show favoritism toward influential people.
  6. True Faith = Loving Deeds (Jas 2:14-26), or True faith is always expressed through deeds of love for others, regardless of what trial we may be personally going through. [Loving others--amid our own difficulties and trials--always accompanies true faith.]
If you are an actor and you are able blow up convincingly and chew others out with zeal, zest and gusto, you will likely be nominated for an Academy Award, or a Golden Globe award or an Emmy. Letting it all hang out and lashing out at others from the depth of our being with intensity and passion resonates with us, because we wish that we could do the same with people whom we believe deserve a tongue lashing.

But what does James say about a Christian and how he or she uses his or her tongue? "With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God's likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be" (Jas 3:9-10).

In 3:1-10, James is speaking very strongly about Christians having control over their tongue. He is well aware that we Christians "stumble in many ways" (Jas 1:2a), especially when we open our mouth. He says matter of factly that "no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison" (Jas 3:8).

So why is it that all people, including Christians have such poor (or no) control over their tongue and with the things they say, which often becomes like deadly poison?

All sincere Christians know that we should be "quick to listen" (to God and others) and "slow to speak" (words of doubt, cursing and slander) (Jas 1:19, 6, 13; 3:9; 4:11). So we know that we should be "self-controlled"--a fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:23). But as we should well know will power alone is greatly limited in the Christian life, for the flesh is weak. The power a Christian needs is not mere will power but the power of God (Rom 1:16; 1 Cor 1:18). Yes, we need to use our will power, choices and decisions we make to work our our salvation (Phil 2:12b), but more than that we need to learn to be subject and submitted to what God is doing in us (Phil 2:13). Then we should be able to "keep (our) whole body in check" (Jas 3:2b), including our wild restless tongue that can be full of evil and poison (Jas 3:8).

Jas 3:1 have often been explained incorrectly as a warning against becoming a Bible teacher in the local church. But this is contrary to all the biblical passages which speak highly of Bible teachers. They are among God's gifts to the church (Rom 12:7; 1 Cor 12:28; Eph 4:11). Paul tells Timothy to entrust his teachings to "entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others" (2 Tim 2:2).

Jas 3:1, therefore, have nothing to do with teaching the Bible, Scripture or doctrine. Instead, his warning is against presuming to teach others how they should act so that they do not add to the stresses and hardships that the rest of the church is facing. It is a warning against presuming to instruct/teach others as to how they can stop causing trials for the rest of us. James is continuing the theme of how to act in trials (Jas 1:2ff), how to act when we face difficult and stressful situations.

In context James is writing to Jewish Christians who are facing different kinds of trials. They were driven from their homes and cities and have been scattered in different localities and countries (Jas 1:1b). The local Gentiles despise them because they are Jews, and the local Jews despise them because they are Christians. They're resented and discriminated against. It's one trial after another. The purpose of James' whole letter is to tell them how to deal with trials which are beneficial. Dealing with trials is the focus of the whole book of James.

James begins by saying that horrible trials should be counted as pure joy because through them we become patient, mature and complete, not lacking anything (Jas 1:2-4), as long as we don't become angry with God and blame him for our trial (Jas 1:13). James also encourages us to love others during the trials (Jas 1:17)--impartially and tangibly (Jas 2:1, 16)--for this will reveal a genuine trusting faith that will always be expressed through loving and caring deeds for others (Jas 2:8, 18b).

James' next point is that when we are going through trials we must avoid being infected or polluted by how the world would do things (Jas 1:27b). We must not adopt the world's attitudes and coping mechanisms. James emphasizes this from chapter 3 to 5: do not talk or act as the world would talk and act during a trial.

In the last three chapters James mentions the world frequently. He speaks about how the world gets into us, how the world's wisdom is the opposite from God's wisdom. He warns against friendship with the world. His continual emphasis is: Don't let the world's way of doing things influence what you say or how you act in the midst of a painful and difficult trial.

James 3 suggests that a typical way someone in the world reacts to a trial is to ream out others who they think are contributing to the group's difficulties by their actions and choices, lashing out against others with disapproval and angry reactions and advice about how bad and wrong they are, which they are convinced adds to the stress and hardships they are encountering. James says this because sometimes our trials may indeed be due to the behavior of other Christians. Sometimes the actions of other believers, though well meaning, can cause difficulties for others in the church.

In churches with a strongly authoritarian hierarchical culture, people in the church are more or less expected to "tow the party line." Recently, a Baptist leader was suggesting to Baptists in his keynote speech that if they consider themselves Reformed and embrace Calvinism, they should consider leaving the Baptist church and joining Presbyterian churches instead. I seriously wonder how well his public teaching was received (cf. Jas 3:1). Some churches insist on conforming strictly to the word according to certain propositional statements and enforcing it on others, while others churches insist on charismatic expression at the expense of sound biblical teaching. Does such teaching unite the church? During times of trials and difficulties should we not learn how to embrace our differences rather than aggravate and accentuate them?

The recent elections certainly seemed to have brought out the worst in Americans, both the non-churched and even the churched. Those who voted Republican laughed at Democrats for being cry babies and sore losers, white those who voted Democrat accused Republicans of being racist, sexist, xenophobic, islamophobic and homophobic. What should we do during such a seemingly national crisis. Someone noted that in 2001 there was 9/11, and in 2016 there is election day 11/9! Should both sides blame the other side and try to teach the other side how wrong they are??

Christians sadly add to the trials and stresses of life, since our tendency is to tell others to "shape up, get smart." But James says, "Don't be quick to instruct, teach and tell others what they ought to do or should have done. Don't presume that you can be a teacher to them" (Jas 3:1). Why?

James says that we should not presume to be teachers because it is too likely that we will sin with out words and stumble with our tongues. Then in the process of telling others what to do, we sin against them and incur God's judgment (Jas 3:1b). The only people who should become teachers in such situations are those who are in control of all other areas of their own lives (Jas 3:2). Only the person who can avoid stumbling or sinning with their tongue is perfect--perfect in the sense of spiritually mature, complete (Jas 1:4)--someone who is already close to what God wants us to be--someone who is able to keep their whole body in check (Jas 3:2), someone who is in control of all areas of their life, and therefore able to control their tongue. That is a level of maturity that not many have.

In 3:3-12 James explains and expands on what he means in more detail. Because it is so likely that we will sin with our tongues, we should avoid teaching others until we see a consistent maturity in our own lives and an ability to control all areas of our life. He develops four thoughts, four statements:
  1. When we are in control of our tongues, we can accomplish great things (3-5a). Something very small, if controlled, can accomplish great things whether one is a leader, mother, teacher, spouse.
  2. But when we are not in control of our tongues, we can cause great damage (5b-6). The world's evil sinful way of handling stress and trials is to abuse others with the tongue our of personal frustration and exasperation. One little wrong word can corrupt the whole body and set the whole course of one's life on a destructive path (Jas 3:6).
  3. Unfortunately, the sad truth is that very few of us have the necessary control (7-8). Though to some degree we might be able control our diet, TV watching, wasting time, bad habits, etc, few are able to truly control their tongue. Sadly, we can train our animals and our pets more than our own tongue (Jas 3:7-8). As long as there is inconsistency in us and in our speech (and emails and social media) we are in no position to teach others and tell them what to do (Jas 3:1).
  4. Therefore, because of the danger that we will sin with our tongues, we should not teach others until our own lives demonstrate a godly consistency and spiritual maturity (9-12). We should first search our own hearts and make sure our lives demonstrate a godly consistency and spiritual maturity--especially when no one is watching. As there is consistency in nature (Jas 3:11-12), there must be godly consistency in Christians, when we allow the trials we are encountering to produce the fruit that God intends (Jas 1:2-4).
James' caution is this: When the behavior of some in the church is causing difficulties for others, you should not try to teach and correct others (Jas 3:1). The chances are too great that you will sin and damage others. The only people who should teach others in such difficult trials are those who are consistently in control of all areas of their lives.