Some of the men at our church are working through the book of James. James writes a lot about how we talk. He is often referred to as New Testament wisdom literature. The emphasis on what we say backs up this assertion. James would heartily sing the verse from that old VBS song, “Be careful little mouth what you say for the Father up above is looking down with love so be careful little mouth what you say.” There are several themes in James, but certainly one is the tongue. This emphasis is not just found in the famous passage on the tongue (James 3:1-12). Here are all the places in James where he writes about our speech. Remember prayer is speech.
If we lack wisdom we should ask God for it (James 1:5).
We should not say that God tempts us (James 1:13).
We should be swift to hear and slow to speak (James 1:19).
Part of true religion is bridling the tongue (James 1:26).
We should not give preference to the rich by saying..(James 2:3).
Do not the rich blaspheme, a sin of speech, God’s name (James 2:7).
Speak as those who will be judged by the law of liberty (James 2:12).
If we say we have faith, but then say, “Depart in peace..” what does it profit (James 2:14-16).
But someone will say… (James 2:18).
Not many should become teachers because it is hard to tame the tongue (James 3:1-12).
This one is more vague, but it would appear that the end of James 3:14 also speaks of speech sins; boasting and lying against the truth.
Do not speak evil of one another (James 4:11-12).
Make sure we do not boast of what we will do, but instead say if the Lord wills (James 4:13-17).
Do not grumble against one another (James 5:9).
Do not swear by heaven or by earth, but let our yes be yes and our no, no (James 5:12).
If we are suffering pray. If we are cheerful, sing. If we are sick ask the elders to pray over you (James 5:13-15).
Confess our sins to one another and pray for one another (James 5:16).
Elijah is used as an illustration of effective prayer (James 5:17-18).
And finally, while speech is not mentioned in James 5:19-20, it is implied. We bring a wandering brother back by rebuke and exhortation, which means we must talk to them.
The focus of James upon our speech is striking. He begins and ends his book with prayer, which is speaking to God (James 1:5-6, 5:13-18). He gives several specific things we should not say. He warns us against grumbling or speaking evil of one another. He encourages us to sing. He has the longest section on the New Testament on the nature of the tongue and why it is so destructive and must be tamed if a man is to teach (James 3:1-12). In this section he describes the tongue as a rudder, fire, a defiler, set on fire by hell, an unruly evil, and full of deadly poison. If James is about wisdom, the primary indicator of wisdom is what we say. If James is about persevering faith, then the primary indicator of this faith is what we say.
Here are a couple of take away points from these verses.
First, when we suffer we are most likely to sin with our tongue. James’ readers are undergoing some kind of persecution (James 1:2-3). They are being dragged into court by the rich (James 2:6). Some are sick and suffering (James 5:13-14). When our lives are being squeezed by various tests, temptations, and trials we often let our tongue go. We become angry, bitter, frustrated, and short tempered. We stop listening to those around us. Every parent knows this. When the water is smooth our speech is like honey. But when the waters get choppy and the kids begin to nag and the phone rings and the cookies are burning all of the sudden our words become like swords (Proverbs 12:18). When difficulties come we must give close attention to what we say.
Second, boasting is a serious sin. When we think of sins of speech, we usually think of anger, slander, and crude talk. But James addresses boasting in several places. He usually couches it in language of , “If you say…” (James 2:18, 4:13-16, 5:12-13). All of these are examples of bragging about something, faith or what we will do, without being truthful. He also mentions boasting 3:14. James is telling us to make sure our words correspond to the truth. You cannot claim to have faith if you have no works. You cannot determine tomorrow so do not talk like you control the future. Do not pile up your promises with oaths to make them sound more sure. Just do what you promise to do. Pride in our hearts comes out as boastful speech.
Third, your speech is an indicator, maybe the best indicator, of your level of spiritual maturity. A failure to control your tongue, to speak carefully and kindly, to pray to the Lord with faith, to speak well of your brothers, to be modest in your promises, to confess your sins to one another, etc. all show that you are spiritually immature. Jesus says the same thing in Matthew 15:16-20. If you want to know where you are in your walk with Christ record yourself for a day or two.
Fourth, don’t forget that prayer is an important part of your speech. We usually think of speaking to one another. But we speak to the Lord as well. What do your prayers sound like? How do you pray? What is the emphasis of your prayers? Are they faith filled prayers? Are you persistent in your prayer life? Don’t just think about how you talk to others, but also think about you talk to God.
Finally, a man who cannot control his tongue should not be a teacher in the church. James begins 3:1-12 with a warning; “Let not many of you become teachers.” This passage applies to all Christians, but its most direct application is to teachers in the church. Any evaluation of a man who wants to be a pastor, elder, or deacon must involve a close examination of his speech. This passage is rarely brought up in discussions of church offices, but it cannot be ignored. Godly speech is a requirement for ordination.