‘Do not say that!’
Gordon L. Bissett, Penarth, Cardiff, Wales
The writer of the Epistle of James is an intensely practical teacher. He is writing to people who do things together, worshipping, working, travelling; and whenever people meet they talk. They talk about themselves, 1. 13; about each other, 4. 11 and about what they do, 4. 13. Sometimes they speak together to God, 5. 14. Their talking is one of their greatest problems, for they often say the wrong things, or they say things in the wrong way. James knows this, and he writes some pungent lines about the tongue, 3. 12, but he also gives some specific commands about what we must not say about God, ourselves, or others. Here are a few examples:
TEMPTED BY GOD
Do not say, ‘I am tempted by God’, 1. 13. Man has always blamed God for his own falls, ever since Adam said, ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me from the tree’, Gen. 3. 12 NRSV. We once heard a woman say about a friend who had suffered a terrible accident, ‘It was her destiny from God’, yet in fact the accident had been entirely the unfortunate woman’s own fault. It is one thing humbly to acknowledge God’s chastening hand when we suffer for our sins, and to believe even then that ‘all things work together for good to them who love God’. It is altogether different to blame Him for the original temptation! That would be a grotesque perversion of the Bible concept of predestination.
A SEAT HERE
Do not say, ‘Have a seat here, please . . . you stand here’, 2. 3 RSV. None of us would deliberately foster class distinction in the local church, but in fact it is all too easy to condone such attitudes on purely practical grounds. The man with the successful business and a good car, is likely to have a good head on his shoulders; may he not therefore be able to offer sound advice on church matters, or give a good message in well chosen words? Does it not follow that a university man with a degree in theology or ancient languages is likely to prove a better teacher than the hometaught brother or that visitor over there, or a factory worker? A moment’s reflection on 1 Corinthians chapter 1. 20-29 should warn us against the carnality of such an assumption. Consider also the words of James himself in 2. 5; 3. 13. This does not mean, of course, that we should fly from one extreme to the other and give free reign to an undisciplined antiintellectualism, or to a politically orientated anti middle-class complex. It does mean that we should be genuinely humble and gracious to all who come, looking for spiritual wisdom and nobility and not for merely human distinctions.
I HAVE FAITH
Do not say, ‘I have faith’, 2. 14, if you are not able to demonstrate it by your life. It is amazing how often people confidently cite verse 24 of chapter 2 as if they were thereby disposing of the teaching of Paul on faith alone for salvation. Even some believers seem to feel that James is an embarrassment. Yet there is no conflict between the two inspired writers. Each speaks of faith, works, and justification in ways that are complementary without being contradictory. We may summarise their theses as follows. - Faith: Paul contrasts faith with grace and with trust in good works, Eph. 2. 8; James contrasts professed faith, 2. 14 with demonstrated faith, 2.18. Works: Paul speaks of what the sinner does to show himself worthy of salvation; James speaks of what the saint does because he believes, 2. 18, 22. Justification: Paul means freedom from divine accusation; James means vindication of the claim to have faith, 2. 23. The proof that we have been saved from this present evil world will be that we no longer commit the spiritual adultery of loving the world, 4. 4. The proof that Jesus Christ is Lord of our life as well as Saviour of our soul (but can we really separate these two ideas?) will be that we are subject to His will for our plans and purposes, 4. 13-15.
Do not say, ‘I swear by’, 5. 2. It is interesting that James should feel the need to repeat that injunction so early in the church’s history, for the apostles had received just such a command from the Lord Himself, Matt. 5. 33-37, and it must surely have formed a part of their oral teaching of His ‘all things’, Matt. 28. 20. It is clear that the Jewish believers found it difficult to realize their liberty from the bondage of law and tradition, e.g, Acts 15. 1, 5, and the Old Testament abounds in examples of oaths legitimately made by godly men in that dispensation, so that it must have seemed natural to any Jew to confirm a statement in that way. It is important to notice that the Lord Himself, and His servant James, did not simply condemn the abuse or violation of oaths. We are commanded not to swear at all. What does that mean? Is James referring to bad language, like the horribly contagious blasphemy that resounds in workshop, barracks or office, and on the television? Or does he mean the more formal ‘oath’, such as is taken in the law court? We certainly need to discipline ourselves continually against the former, in a world where the loss of the fear of God has opened the gates to a sewage flood of ‘four-letter’ words. Regarding the formal oath, views vary, but James’ general meaning is clear. The Christian’s word alone should be sufficient bond. To the Christian the things of the Lord are too holy to be attached as sales tags to our own word in order to lend an air of proud certainty. But if we bear His name we must see to it that, as far as possible, our word is as trustworthy as His.
Be careful what you say! That is sound advice for everyone and not only for the ‘little lips’ of the old Sunday School chorus. Because of what the tongue is, 3. 5-12, the carnal man is likely to do more harm than good every time he opens his mouth. If we think that we are spiritual, we need to show it by a constant submission to the divine Doorkeeper, - ‘Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips’, Ps. 141. 3 NRSV.