Freedom does not mean the absence of constraints.
A skydiver does not jump out of the plane and say, “I’m not using my parachute today, I want to experience the true freedom.” The skydiver will always have to contend with a greater constraint than their parachute: the law of gravity.
So when the jumper chooses to abide by the constraint of their parachute they are genuinely free, now, to enjoy the exhilaration of flying.
Obeying God’s will is similar.
Obedience is constraining, but absolutely necessary to enjoy the exhilaration of true freedom. It is not that you and I do not know God’s will, most of the time. Most of the time our trouble is with obeying it.
The Constraint of Self-Control
James began this section of his letter with a principle: Who we are inside will eventually come out, with our expressions, our tone of voice, our body language and with our words.
Do not become many teachers, my brothers [and sisters], knowing that we will receive a greater judgment.James 3:1 (DLNT)
James was surely not intent on discouraging teachers, but rather wanted to remind them that they are under closer scrutiny. Because, teachers are responsible for the far-reaching influence of their words. Being a teacher himself, James identified with teachers—we all make mistakes, especially with our words.
For we all stumble many ways. If one does not stumble in speech, this one is a perfect man able to bridle also the whole body.James 3:2 (DLNT)
To be made perfect, in scripture, means made complete, made mature. Since the tongue is so difficult to control, anyone who gains complete maturity in speech will have effectively gained perfect, completed, matured control of themselves in every other area of life as well.
There is only one way such a thing could happen!
James gives three illustrations of the power of the tongue:
- A small bit controls a large and powerful animal;
- a little rudder controls the direction of a big ship;
- a little spark sets a whole forest ablaze
James’ point: a few words from such a little member of the body, a tongue, can achieve great or terrible things
But none of humankind is able to tame the tongue!
—a restless evil, full of death-bringing poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse the people having been made in accordance with the likeness of God; a blessing and a curse come out of the same mouth.James 3:8-9 (DLNT)
Since James categorically removes any hope that a person can control their tongue, what is it inside a person that does control it?
The Heart is the Source
People communicate—communication is how we create and maintain community, how we engage in relationships, how we commune with God.
Words affect all the other things we do as human beings. Words define, explain and interpret. Since you and I still have our sinful natures, we face a daily struggle with the inconsistencies James describes in these verses.
- Unwholesome talk forgets the other person and concentrates on what I feel and what I want.
- Cursing people who are made in God’s likeness is like cursing the actual one true and living God.
- Selfish words end up hurting people when you and I have our own agenda in mind, a set of expectations we insist on being met, being more demanding than serving, taking offense when our agenda and expectations are either not met or rejected.
The lips of the wise spread knowledge,Proverbs 15:7 (NIV)
but the hearts of fools are not upright.
It is ancient wisdom, spoken thousands of years ago. Jesus reiterated that wisdom when he said,
The good person brings forth the good thing out of the good treasure of his heart. And the evil person brings forth the evil thing out of his evil treasure.
For his mouth speaks out of the abundance of the heart.Jesus, Luke 6:45 (DLNT)
Out of the heart the mouth speaks. Scripture explains that human willpower is not enough to keep whatever is in our hearts from coming out . . . eventually. You and I might be able to do it for a little while, and I am betting every person has tried that, tried to hide some inner feeling or thought, or personality trait or character weakness or something.
And we have plenty of biblical exhortation to urge us on!
And I say to you that every useless word which people will speak— they will render an account for it on the day of judgment.Jesus, Matthew 12:36 (DLNT)
Let every bad word not proceed out of your mouth, but if there is something good for edification of the need, speak in order that it may give grace to the ones hearing.Apostle Paul, Ephesians 4:29 (DLNT)
For “the one desiring to love life and see good days— let him stop his tongue from evil and his lips that they not speak deceit.Apostle Peter, 1 Peter 3:10 (DLNT)
But you and I cannot keep it up forever. If it is in there, it will come out.
James pointed out how incongruous this situation was—and is still to this day.
My brothers [and sisters], these things ought not to be so.
The spring does not gush out of the same opening the sweet and the bitter, does it?
A fig tree is not able, my brothers, to make olives, or a grapevine figs, is it?
Neither is salty water able to make sweet water.James 3:10-12 (DLNT)
To each question we have to answer, “Well, no.”
So what is the solution?
An eternal tug of war between our tongue and our willpower?
Holy Spirit-Filled Heart
The only solution is to be controlled by the Holy Spirit, to be surrendered to the mind of Christ. And this is exactly what Jesus taught, as well as Paul, Peter, James, and the rest.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water[a] and the Spirit, he is not able to enter into the kingdom of God. The thing having been born of the flesh is flesh, and the thing having been born of the Spirit is spirit.
. . . And I have given them the glory which You have given to Me in order that they may be one just as We are one, I in them and You in Me; in order that they may be perfected into one.Jesus, John 3:5-6, 17:22-23 (DLNT)
And do not get-drunk with wine, in which is wild-living, but be filled with the Spirit.Apostle Paul, Ephesians 5:18 (DLNT)
. . . having been born-again not from perishable seed but imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.Apostle Peter, 1 Peter 1:23 (DLNT)
God created our capacity for speech and gave language its significance and value. All of creation came into being through God’s Word, and salvation comes only by God’s Word. Jesus said nothing else is going to last, but God’s Word will last forever.
Talk was created by God for God’s purposes
Words belong to God, but the Lord has given them to us so that you and I could come to know God, to be in relationship with God, and with each other. This means that words do not belong to you and me. Every word we speak has to be up to God’s standard and according to God’s design, and that can only happen when you and I are filled with God’s Spirit, love with God’s heart, have been conformed to God’s character and think with a transformed mind.
[Horse with bit and bridel | Thowra_uk, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons]