From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.
This passage (James 3:1-12) is one of the most challenging passages in all of the New Testament. It is not challenging because it is hard to understand. There really are not any textual issues either. It is hard because it is so direct on a vital problem. The speech we use often shows where our heart is. That is why James appeals to a spiritual and civil set of values to drive the way we talk.
His description of the human tongue highlights the dangers of not learning to practice these controls. The tongue is small, yet speaks great things (James 3:5). It can burn with a fire from hell itself (James 3:5-6). It can set in course events that can ruin an entire life (James 3:6). It is untamable by human effort, stronger than even wild animals (James 3:7-8). It is a restless evil (James 3:8). It is poisonous (James 3:8). It is unreliable, inconsistent, and unstable (James 3:9-12).
This has me concerned about my own speech, because the initial warning about the tongue comes to those in the church who are teachers (James 3:1). Those of us who teach and work with people personally for their spiritual benefit run the risk of letting loose a lot of destruction with our words. Speaking is a risk, because the opportunity to sin in what I say is very real. I deal with people every day and we talk about some of the most serious matters in their lives. I often gain their trust, and I don't want my words to be twisted by my own selfish or pride-filled concerns. It is like walking a tightrope over hell. And I often get just that one chance to say it right.
It issue for me is inconsistency. That is where James ends in his discussion on the believer's speech. We cannot both curse and bless. We could talk about the hot button topic of "contextualization". Recently some younger evangelicals have used that idea to promote cursing in the pulpit. The resulting "R"-rated sermons may stir up drama and controversy. I am not really sure they fit the biblical criteria for sound speech that James asks us to hold to, warning us about the vivid consequences for failure.
It would seem to me that the issue of cursing has to do with the attitude behind the use of our tongue. Resorting to common vulgarities in the pulpit or in our common speech may be a twisted form of pride... we want to look cool, hip, and acceptable. But what is so cool about a humiliated man suffering abuse and dying on a Roman cross? What is hip about admitting you are a sinner and trusting in Christ alone for salvation? Will the world really accept that God calls us to humbly walk before Him and let Christ rule in our lives? Is it hip to be a slave of Christ? Maybe we ought to re-think motivations here and simply let our "yes be yes" and our "no be no". Any word I use that is not motivated by the love of Christ and my walk before a holy, sovereign God is suspect. The motives behind the words are as crucial as the words themselves.
- Prepare your minds for action.
1 Peter 1:13