The tongue tells the tale

One of the reasons many, particularly in the Protestant tradition, have become ambivalent about the Epistle of James is a misunderstanding of the type of literature it is. Whereas Paul, being himself a Pharisee trained under the respected teacher Gamaliel, wrote from the perspective of Christ being the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. James wrote from a different, but equally important, perspective.

The great tradition of Hebrew wisdom was embodied by Solomon, the wisest of Israel’s kings and perhaps the wisest man who ever lived. Proverbs is his most memorable work, as well as most of the book of Ecclesiastes and the dialogue with his beloved, the Song of Solomon. Several non-canonical books of the Apocrypha are also attributed to him.

 

James was steeped in this tradition. Consequently, his epistle is a collection of wise sayings and godly counsel. Perhaps the most practical of all his wisdom is his advice concerning the tongue. “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire,” he writes, echoing Solomon. “And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness” (James 3:5-6). James sees the tongue as the epicenter of human evil, untamable by any human being. It exposes the double-mindedness of man, his utter inability to live consistently in obedience to God. For while we may, at one moment, use the tongue to “bless our Lord and Father,” we may, at the next moment, use it to “curse people who are made in the likeness of God” (James 3:9).

This kind of forked-tongue double-mindedness, says James, “ought not be so” (James 3:10). Human beings are created to obey God at all times, not only to honor him with our lips, but also to glorify him with our lives. The tongue tells the tale, whether we  are truly honoring God or vainly invoking his name. We cannot control the tongue unless we are submitted unreservedly in absolute obedience to God. For only then can our tongue praise his name and our lives reflect his glory.
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