This sermon was preached at Peace Hill Christian Fellowship on October 28th, 2012. To listen to the audio, just click on this link – James 3A.
Understand the Weight of Your Words and the Way You Speak.
Context: James is writing to the dispersed Jewish believers who are forming their own new communities. He is addressing divisions and arguments that have arisen over the question of who is to lead, to teach, to have influence in the church. The disagreements of these believers are harming the church.
We can either be wise or very destructive in our reactions to those with whom we disagree. This morning we want to look at how we are called to respond and how to avoid harm both in the church and in our relationships outside the church.
Our Conversations Can Steer the Course Of Our Lives: “3 When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. 4 Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go.”
The images of the bit in the horse’s mouth, and the rudder of a great ship are meant to express the fact that a small thing – the tongue (metaphor for our reactions, opinions or teaching) – appears small and unimpressive, but is actually powerfully influential.
~ In the Church: The fact is that a church’s response to and conversation about a situation or a question about practice can steer the whole direction of that church. Consider the question of Creation. If a church – whether it takes a literal 6 day creation view, or a non-literal view of creation, decides to react against those of differing opinions with fear, suspicion, arrogance and hostility, and to demand that all who call themselves Christians must subscribe to its view, then that focus will become central to the message of that church. Those within the church who cannot accept its view, will either fight or leave. And the whole personality or the church – the teaching, the wisdom, the description of Christian life – will be affected by the desire to prove this view of Creation. The view of Creation becomes their gospel.
~ In Our Relationships: When we are in conflict with family or friends, co-workers or others in the community, our reactions and opinions can steer the direction of our relationships. We like to think that we can give our opinions or react to people and that this is our own freedom of speech – our own private opinion that doesn’t have any great effect. But the words that come out of our mouths when we react to people are like a rudder on a ship. Our words and reactions when we disagree can either make peace or destroy a relationship with a family member. We can steer our lives towards conflict and hatred or towards gracious and loving relationships.
Our Conversations Can Catch Fire: “5 Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. 6 The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. 7 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”
Consider the kinds of political opinions that appear on Facebook in reaction to a candidate or a policy. I can say, “Senator … is trying to destroy this country” and then claim that I am just sharing my opinion – but I have used strong emotionally reactive language that suggests a threat – fear and anger. I have set a tone and others will react to me in that same tone. I have steered the course of a conversation between myself and others – and the way we will understand one another.
The same thing happens all the time in families. All it takes is one angry, accusing reaction to set a whole family ablaze with conflict. Our reactions are emotionally manipulative, intending to accuse and sting those we react to – like lighted matches set to gasoline. There is a world of difference between saying, “You never think of anyone by yourself!” – vs. “What you did there was selfish”. One phrase is an attack on character – the other an observation about an action. These words often feel good to us (like revenge), but they are harmful. James describes them as an, “unrestrained evil swollen with deadly venom”.
The same is often true when it comes to conflicts within or between churches. Conversations take on an emotionally reactive or arrogant tone and the discussion becomes like a fire or poison. James says that such speech is set on fire by hell – full of accusation and half-truths that cause us to burn with anger and hatred and fear – to destroy relationships and blind us to the truth.
Our Conversation Cannot Be Both Blessing and Cursing: “9 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.”
Consider again, the words we use in reaction to others in our homes, with our family. If, I tend to react with resentment to my spouse or child – “You never think about anyone but yourself!” – I am setting the tone of my conversation. The more I use that kind of language, the more I train others to hear anger in my words – until, even when I am not speaking out of anger – my family hears anger.
The same is true with the church. James says this about the church – the praise of God and the message of the Gospel do not fit with the cursing of men made in God’s image and quarreling about leadership. In the same way, when the church shifts its message to a reaction to some teaching or situation, then the central message of the Gospel tends to be diminished or even lost.
Be Wise In Your Conversation Towards Those You Disagree With.
React in the Wisdom of Humility: “13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.”
Notice that James confronts these arguing believers with a question – who is really wise and understanding? And then he gives a kind of definition: Those whose wisdom leads to humble/gentle, noble behavior. This is the place to start evaluating our reactions – to determine what effect they are having on others. A gentle reaction sets a different tone to conversations where there is conflict and disagreement.
Be Honest About What Makes You React: “14 But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 15 Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.”
James says that the issue for these believers is that they are harboring bitter envy and selfish ambition in their hearts. That description fits exactly with the way we react. Reactions are quick – we feel them first – then we put the words together to say what we want. Our tendency to react has to do with what is going on in our hearts. Consequently, when I am full of resentment towards my co-worker, my reactions and the words that come out will be full of resentment.
James tell us that we are not to be proud or arrogant about our reactions – but to recognize the truth about what is going on in our hearts. Our reactions are earthly, unspiritual, and even serve the purposes of doing evil against others.
Learn to Imitate God’s Way of Speaking in Conflict: “17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy. 18 And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”
The wisdom that is from above is God’s wisdom. James describes how God has spoken to us – though we continually sin against him and believe foolish things. Rather than reacting in anger, God has spoken to us graciously, gently – he has spoken peace to us at great cost to himself. God’s speech to us has been full of mercy – he has reasoned with sinners.
What would it mean to speak to others with whom we disagree, as God has spoken to us? We will spend some time looking at the list in verses 17-18 next time.