Saturday, December 05, 2020

The Transformation of the Mouth

 


                                                                 (Monroe County)

James 3:3-12 is about an out-of-control mouth that ruins Jesus-communities with untruths. In James, one of the problems is antinomianism; viz., the misguided idea that one can have "faith" without obedience to Christ. This is why James stresses that faith without deeds is dead. Our hearts and mouths are to be obedient to the ways of Jesus. 

James understands the power of words. He knows that such a small (micro) thing as the mouth can have mega-effects (megala) vastly disproportionate to its size. 

The tongue, writes James, is a fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. Divisive untruths, gossip, slander, flattery, and a critical spirit are rooted in evil.  (Slander is saying something behind a person's back that you would never say to their face; flattery is saying something to a person's face that you would never say behind their back.)

New Testament scholar Scot McKnight writes, "Hell inspires the abusive tongue." (McKnight, James, 286) Words that tear down rather than build up, words of hatred rather than love, words showing favoritism of one person over another, all rise out of a heart in touch with hell.

Why such strong language? After all, doesn't the old proverb apply here? "Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me." To the contrary, "Far easier to heal are the wounds caused by sticks and stones than the damage caused by words." (Moo, in McKnight, James, 286)

James ramps up the intensity when he writes: "With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness." 

For James this is crazy, because it means blessing a person with your words, and then cursing the same person with your words. "Cursing” is a failure to see in one another God’s image. (David Nystrom, James) This is why James adds "who have been made in God's likeness." 

If you curse a person you are cursing God’s image in that person. Thus, we have the contradiction:

1. I praise God.
2. I curse God (via cursing people who are made in the image of God).

This is the incongruous "double-mindedness" James warns about. He is addressing Christians who praise God with their mouths on Sunday mornings, and on Sunday afternoons brutalize people on social media. 

Cursing is tearing down the image of God in other people. N. T. Wright writes that if "someone turns out to be pouring out curses – cursing other humans who are made in God’s likeness – then one must at least question whether their heart has been properly cleansed, rinsed by God’s powerful spirit. And if that isn’t the case, that person is getting their real inspiration from hell itself." 

How can our mouth be healed of its abusive ways? The answer for James, and his biological brother Jesus, is by focusing on the mouth's source, which is the heart. To rescue your mouth, focus on your heart. Let your heart align with the heart of Jesus. If your heart is pure, your words will be pure. Nystrom writes:

“Jesus understood actions to be revelatory of character, as the saying “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit” attests. He also believed our speech to be revelatory of character, which is the essential point being made here. Our speech comes from the heart.”

So what can we do? I like how Oswald Chambers directs us. He writes:

"Jesus says that there is only one way to develop spiritually, and that is by concentration on God. “Do not bother about being of use to others; believe on Me” — pay attention to the Source, “and out of you will flow rivers of living water. We cannot get at the springs of our natural life by common sense, and Jesus is teaching that growth in spiritual life does not depend on our watching it, but on concentration on our Father in heaven. Our heavenly Father knows the circumstances we are in, and if we keep concentrated on Him we will grow spiritually as the lilies."

The message of James 3:3-12 is that, while humanity has failed to tame the human tongue, God can tame our mouth, as we abide in him.

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My first book is Praying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations with God.