Back to James: Slow to Speak
James is often thought of as decisively refuting the idea of a passive faith that saves. But as we’ve seen there are some obstacles to understanding James this way. One of the obstacles is simply that 1:19 provides a surprisingly strong organizing concept for James’ main section on how to respond to trials. As we’ve seen previously, by being “quick to hear” James means that we should not be passive hearers but active doers of God’s word. This is the unit that carries us to the end of chapter two.
The next unit, being slow to speak is neatly expressed in chapter three. The point is for Christians to be slow to become teachers and instead recognize virtuous behavior as a safer medium to convey wisdom than words. In deference to this exotic idea, I’ll stop my own yammering and risk Matthew’s ire by quoting from the JB Phillips translation/commentary the entire 3rd chapter of James:
Don't aim at adding to the number of teachers, my brothers, I beg you! Remember that we who are teachers will be judged by a much higher standard.
We all make mistakes in all kinds of ways, but the man who can claim that he never says the wrong thing can consider himself perfect, for if he can control his tongue he can control every other part of his personality! Men control the movements of a large animal like the horse with a tiny bit placed in its mouth. Ships too, for all their size and the momentum they have with a strong wind behind them, are controlled by a very small rudder according to the course chosen by the helmsman. The human tongue is physically small, but what tremendous effects it can boast of! A whole forest can be set ablaze by a tiny spark of fire, and the tongue is as dangerous as any fire, with vast potentialities for evil. It can poison the whole body, it can make the whole of life a blazing hell.
Beasts, birds, reptiles and all kinds of sea-creatures can be, and in fact are, tamed by man, but no one can tame the human tongue. It is an evil always liable to break out, and the poison it spreads is deadly. We use the tongue to bless our Father, God, and we use the same tongue to curse our fellow-men, who are all created in God's likeness. Blessing and curses come out of the same mouth - surely, my brothers, this is the sort of thing that never ought to happen! Have you ever known a spring to give sweet and bitter water simultaneously? Have you ever seen a fig-tree with a crop of olives, or seen figs growing on a vine? It is just as impossible for a spring to give fresh and salt water at the same time.
Are there some wise and understanding men among you? Then your lives will be an example of the humility that is born of true wisdom. But if your heart is full of rivalry and bitter jealousy, then do not boast of your wisdom - don't deny the truth that you must recognize in your inmost heart. You may acquire a certain superficial wisdom, but it does not come from God - it comes from this world, from your own lower nature, even from the devil. For wherever you find jealousy and rivalry you also find disharmony and all other kinds of evil.
The wisdom that comes from God is first utterly pure, then peace-loving, gentle, approachable, full of tolerant thoughts and kindly actions, with no breath of favoritism or hint of hypocrisy. And the wise are peace-makers who go on quietly sowing for a harvest of righteousness - in other people and in themselves.