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Taming the Tongue: Speaking and Teaching

Reading: James 3:2-6

It can be rather instructive to read how the Bible describes certain items in a sort of systematic overview. The tongue, for instance, is given all manner of descriptors throughout scripture. It is poisonous (James 3:8). It is a sharp razor and a plotter of destruction (Psalm 52:2). It can be perverse (Proverbs 10:31). It can be backbiting (Proverbs 25:23). While there are also positive connotations, many of the mentions of the mouth and tongue use descriptors such as profane, unclean, boastful, slanderous, and many more along these same lines. It becomes apparent very quickly the Bible is telling us that our speech can be a prime sign of sin.

There’s no doubt if we do not guard our speech as commanded throughout God’s Word, we can run into some serious trouble. James makes it clear in verse 2 that “we all stumble”, and that not being perfect, we all obviously are going to have issues with curbing our tongue.  In verses 3 and 4, James uses some of his outdoor imagery to compare the tongue to a horse’s bridle and ship’s rudder—two relatively small things that control a much larger object. So it is with our tongue and our body. The tongue might be tiny compared to the rest of the body, but the words it forms can control and ruin an entire life.

We see this again in verse 5, when James says, “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!” (ESV). Anyone who has ever seen a malicious rumor or “harmless” bit of gossip run rampant understands this to be a perfect analogy to what even a few words can do. The great Puritan writer Richard Baxter wrote “Words and actions are transient things, and being once past, are nothing; but the effect of them on an immortal soul may be endless”. Writing earlier, John Calvin suggested “since the tongue cannot be restrained, there must be some secret fire of hell hidden in it”. Just as a single smoldering matchstick may destroy an entire forest, one unkind word, one vicious volley, one bit of jealous gossip, can devastate relationships and endeavors that took years to build up.

There is another central aspect to these verses, one that cannot be overlooked. If we look at the verse immediately preceding this passage, James 3:1 states “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (ESV). Whether we’re teaching our children, our friends, our small group, we are going to be held to account for what we teach. It’s not by coincidence that this verse is followed by the stern requirements of watching what one says. We live in a world where many of the most popular preachers do not hold to the Bible on many teachings. The words that come out of their mouths are not scriptural, or perhaps worse, twist scripture to focus on health, wealth, and prosperity or treating God like some sort of cosmic genie for acquiring things or rationalizing away sin. The church today in general often substitutes speaking in catchphrases, “easy-believism”, and worldly self-help ideas in the place of firm, scripturally-based teaching and exegesis.

As James says later in this section, “My brothers, these things ought not be” (v. 10). Before we ever open our mouths in any sort of teaching capacity, we need to follow the New Testament example of the Bereans, who “received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). If we were explaining to someone on how to defuse a bomb or perform open-heart surgery, we’d make sure every word was correct. God’s Word deserves an even higher level of respect when we share it. It’s easy to slide into “church-isms”—little phrases we like to use in fellowship that are nowhere in the Bible. With no basis in scripture, these can range from the culturally common (no, we don’t turn into angels when we die) to the self-indulgent (“God just wants you to be happy”). We can take nothing for granted, but have to truly read our Bibles and align our speech and teaching with the instructions we find therein.

In verse 6, James states the tongue is “a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life and set on fire by hell” (ESV). In the Greek, “hell” in this passage refers to Gehenna, or the Valley of Hinom, where a large, filthy trash fire continually burned just outside the city of Jerusalem. It was used by Christ (Matthew 5:22, Mark 9:43) as a representation of the sort of eternal torment that awaits the unregenerate sinful. In fact, in one of those passages, Matthew 5:22, Christ stated that those who utter verbal abuse to others are “in danger of the fire of hell” (ESV). These are not softball images, but hard, challenging concepts. Words are carelessly thrown about in our culture. Verbal abuse is thought high comedy or an art form. The name of the Lord is uttered in vain by individuals of all walks of life, without a thought to what is being said. Nasty, angry, careless, sinful thoughts are shared on social media, 140 letters at a time, status update by status update, a modern-day Gehenna that never stops burning.

Friends, curbing our tongue, watching what we say, thinking before we speak, and not instructing without firm knowledge are counter-cultural. The stakes are high, as the Bible reinforces time and time again, from Exodus 20:7 to Ephesians 5:3-5. It’s not just a sort of vapid, moralistic “speak nicely, because that’s nice” sentiment. It’s understanding that what we say is heard before a Holy God, and that those words will have an impact not just on our spiritual life, but on the spiritual lives of those around us. It’s remembering back in 1:26, James calls the religion of someone who cannot curb their tongue “worthless”. Before we ever speak, let us “take captive every thought” (2 Cor. 10:5), and remember this is not optional. Christians are called to a standard that is not that of the world (Ephesians 5:1-2, Romans 12:2). It’s not just saying the right thing, or going through a verbal checklist, but understanding God’s grace and pure holiness, the need for repentance and forgiveness, and continuing to abide in Him through prayer, hearing and reading His word, and acknowledging Him as sovereign over all.

-Zachary Houghton

Called To Do

There is never a passive Christianity promoted in the Bible as an option for believers. There’s no model of Christian life that rather casually ends at 12:10pm on Sunday, and doesn’t pick back up for until 10:45pm the following Sunday. We want easy. We want to be told if we check this box once a week, we’re good to go. Frankly, that’s not an image of Christianity that is found in any translation of the Bible.

James is a very practical writer. You don’t find a lot of ceremony, pomp, or circumstance in his New Testament letter. What you do find is a gloriously direct view of the intended Christian life. He doesn’t pull punches, and that means some of these are going to sting when we examine our walk in light of them. James is never more blunt than when he states in 1:22 “Do not merely listen to the Word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says”.

How easy it is to deceive ourselves. Paul in 2 Timothy 3:5 warns of those “having a form of godliness but denying its power”. It is possible to sit regularly in church every week, listen to the sermon, sing the songs, nod along at the appropriate parts, take Communion, and completely miss out on salvation. As important as listening to the Word is, we cannot be content with that. We have to do what the Word of God says. In fact, in the Greek form of verse 22, “do what it says” is presented in a manner that is more akin to “continually do what it says”. It isn’t a Wednesday, Thursday, or Sunday application; it’s a whole-life application.

The Christian life can’t be reduced to 90 minutes a week, an offering, and a few handshakes. When we read John 15, Jesus is very clear that we are to “remain” or “abide” in Him. He is the vine that gives us our spiritual life; we are branches, that need to remain in Him to have that life. Have you ever seen a branch broken off, put briefly back on a tree or vine for an hour once a week, and then taken off again that could be said to be alive in any sense?

There seems to be this idea that has crept into some corners of the modern church that Jesus was almost a spiritual anarchist, and never made demands past a certain gauzy, permissive, abstract “inclusiveness”. Yet time and time again, Christ brings the conversation back to living fully in him and following the Word. In John 14:23, Jesus says “Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching”. In John 15:14, He says “You are my friends if you do what I command”. In John 13:34, we see “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another”. These aren’t suggestions or informal guidelines; they are calls to living our lives under the Lordship of Christ.

In Luke 9:23, Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me”. That’s such a total, complete view of discipleship and of following Christ. It leaves no room for a situational, Christmas-and-Easter-only type of Christianity. Jesus Christ cannot, and will not, be compartmentalized.

Hearing the Word of God is so very important, but if we let it just roll over us, without any sort of change in our lives, without any submission to Christ, how are we treating the sacrifice Christ made for us? Is it some sort of side accessory in our lives, or is it the light that changes everything? If we believe the gospel, does it show in how we are living? To truly begin to understand the depth of grace, and to begin to realize that we were saved from what was justly an eternal punishment, should mean joy in our lives—an incredible, breathtaking joy that we want to share with others. It should mean we do not hold grace as something cheap or expected, but something radical and holy.

We have a Lord and Savior presented in the Bible who calls us to action through His relationship with us. Christ, sinless, blameless, with perfect love, took on the full wrath that by rights should have been poured onto each of us. All the accumulated guilt and sin of our world, then, now, and to come, was put on his shoulders. His physical pain, as terrible as it must have been, was magnified an infinite amount of times by the full spiritual agony of that sacrifice. When we understand that it was done so that each of us called to salvation may live, it cannot leave us unaffected or unchanged. To be able to treat the gospel impassively or merely academically is to not understand the nature and impact of the gospel.

Time and time again, the Bible tells Christians they must not—indeed, they cannot, if they understand salvation and grace—be simply passive hearers. They are to be doers for God’s Kingdom, in every part of their lives. Titus 2:14 says Christ “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works”. We are to stir one another towards good works (Hebrews 10:24). We are to have an abundance of good works in our Christian walk (1 Timothy 6:18). We are not to speak of love as an abstract, but in “deed and truth” (1 John 3:18). We are “His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). Apathy or disinterestedness is not what God his intended for his beloved people. For those who are God’s people, there is a clarion call in the great news of our salvation to go through this life with an intense passion, faith, and joy in serving our Lord!

When we become not just hearers of the Word, but doers, and live our lives abiding deeply in the love of Christ, there are challenges. The Christian life, the one we are presented with in the Bible, is not easy. Frankly, when we stop playing a sort of mix-and-match on the Bible to fit modern social conventions, it’s going to call us to obey some things our sinful natures are not going to want to do—things that secular society will tell us are backward or wrong. It means being uncomfortable, it means sacrifice, it likely means at the very least social persecution, if not a more dire type. But we know that in this short life before eternity, Christ is also waiting to give us so much through the Holy Spirit. Galatians 5:22-23 tells us of what fruit we can expect from a life in the Spirit. We can expect love, joy, and peace. Patience, kindness, and goodness. Faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Yet we can’t get there from a barren, uncaring type of religion, any more than we can get there from our dead, sinful natures. We need to truly submit to Christ as our Lord and Savior, and understand we are His, through whatever this life may bring.

-Zachary Houghton

Who Has Ears To Hear…

I don’t know where you find yourself this week, but our study in James has been landing some spiritual haymakers on me as we work through this first chapter. The half-brother of Jesus is never more direct than when he is discussing the way the Christian’s life should look. As we continue in James chapter 1, we find inspired words on a topic that is of vital importance in the church.

James 1:19-20 states, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (ESV). It’s easy at first glance to simply conclude this is simply a verse about a certain basic morality, and of course, it is good advice. After all, don’t most people want individuals to listen to them, to be patient, to not lose their temper at the first provocation?

However, let’s go on to James 1:21, and see the deeper principle at work here: “Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (ESV).

Verse 21, along with the bracketing verses of 18 and 22, are important because they link these practices, particularly listening, to receiving the “implanted word”—that is, the Gospel. Thinking about this in my life, I have to own to many times sitting in the pew at church, catching myself thinking about something else entirely or assuming because they’re reading out of a certain book of the Bible that I know what’s going to be said. Even in church, it is immensely easy to let worldly distractions leak in and take away our focus on hearing the Word of God. When we’re talking about the divine Word of God, James tell us it should be received with “meekness”. This word implies a respectful humility and focus in the hearing of God’s Word, and affording it the full weightiness and consideration it deserves. In a world where every year seems to offer more distractions, this type of focus doubtless seems harder than ever before.

I remember as a teenager (in the days where cell phones still were essentially a two-man lift) sitting in church, doodling what were in all likelihood rather unsuitable doodles for that particular time and place. My Mom would elbow me and tell me to put it away, the same as she would if I brought something not church-related to read or mess with during the service. In the same way, we need to put away outside distractions and thoughts aside when we’re hearing the Word of God. Thinking back to my early 20s, when I seemed so far from following the Lord, this was one of the ways I shut out anything outside the self as much as possible. Not content with limiting God’s Word in my life to the occasional Sunday I did go to church, I further limited it to the odd syllable that might slip in between my daydreaming, messing with electronics, or whatever way in which I was determined to show my complete indifference to what was being preached.

Of course, that’s a (hopefully) extreme example. For many of us, focusing in on the hearing of God’s Word is something we intend to do, but our lives just have so much else, don’t they? Much of it can even be church-related. After all, besides finding a babysitter for Tuesday, there’s the Discipleship Group meeting after the service, then we have to drop off the neighbor kids before picking them up for their Sunday night small group, then make lasagna for Mom’s Group, find someone to help with our youth sports team, and then, of course, someone is going to have to share that picture on Facebook that urges everyone to pass it on to 10 “Angels” in their lives. And before long, distraction has taken out that important core of knowing God through His Scripture, and changed it into a social melee that is missing something vital.

The rest of the Bible does not mince words on the importance of listening to God’s Word any more than James does. In fact, it’s a veritable broadside of verses, each citing the absolute necessity of this hearing. Romans 10:17 states “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ”. The old favorite, Psalm 119:105, proclaims “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path”. Matthew 4:4 speaks of living “by every word that comes from the mouth of God”. Hebrews 2:1 warns “Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it”. The references continue. It is clear regularly hearing and receiving God’s Word is a necessity in the church.

Perhaps the most urgent verse again on listening to the Word of God preached comes from Romans 10:14, which states, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” The Scripture simply does not leave any room for a vision of a church where the hearing of the Word is not of central importance.

We are indeed called to do life together, which includes a full dose of service and community, but not at the cost of focusing on God’s Word. What a sad thing it would be, to attend church and yet somehow miss out on the very thing we are to hide in each of our hearts! (Psalm 119:11). As busy as we are, we need that respite, that renewing of our minds and hearts by taking time to listen to God’s wonderful plans and promises. As brothers and sisters in Christ, it’s also something we need to ensure others in our church family have the opportunity to do, too. This isn’t just about ensuring we personally have the opportunity to listen and engage God’s Word, but in acting as a church family to ensure everyone among us has that opportunity. Galatians 5:13 reminds us that we are to “through love serve one another” (ESV). 1 Peter 4:10 speaks of using our gifts for the same reason. The Bible’s picture of the church is one in which the Word is heard and our brothers and sisters are served. Maybe it means staying for the later service and serving with the youth ministry, or volunteering to help with the actual service itself. The more helping hands that apply themselves to service, the more likely it is that someone will get to sit down, open themselves fully to God’s Word, and have that important, peaceful, convicting time hearing that message.

Whether it’s examining our own listening habits, or helping another have the time to hear expository preaching, James’ principle has a particular application for listening to the preaching from Scripture in our churches. In a humble, receptive, and thankful spirit, we are to receive God’s Word. The Bible is also clear we should be doing what we can do to serve and lift up others in our church, and one of the best ways to do that is to volunteer to give them that respite, that precious time to hear of God’s incredible promises. As a church family, each of us has an awesome responsibility and opportunity to hear and let be heard the word of God, and to let it “cut” (Hebrews 4:12) so very beautifully through all the distractions life throws in in our path.

-Zachary Houghton

Going Out Of My Way

A Way of Life is the second part of our discipleship process at WRCC, following The Journey. While The Journey opens your eyes to a fresher, more accurate way of looking at yourself and God, A Way of Life is a “deepening” experience. The course helps embed the character and heart of the Christian walk into our heart and mind. I am in the process of walking through the Way of Life material with a group of outstanding men, and it has challenged me in new ways.

One of these challenges is confronting the ways Jesus is not like me. For example, as I read about Jesus’ life, I am amazed at how comfortable he was in his identity. Even in situations when he was questioned, he responded with confidence rather than insecurity. In fact, John the Baptist (his cousin) – the one who proclaimed, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) questioned Jesus’ entire identity (Matthew 11:2-3). But to this and to others, Jesus is undeterred and presses forward with the message and mission he has received from his Father.

The Way of Life material has a fascinating quote from sociologist James Davison Hunter’s book To Change The World that captures Jesus’ counterculture ways well:

Everything about his life, his teaching, and his death was a demonstration of a different kind of power – not just in relation to the spiritual realm and not just in relation to the ruling political authorities, but in the ordinary social dynamics of everyday life. It operated in complete obedience to God the Father, it repudiated the symbolic trappings of elitism, it manifested compassion concretely out of a calling and vocation, and it served the good of all and not just the good of the community of faith. In short, in contrast to the kingdoms of this world, his kingdom manifest the power to bless, unburden, serve, heal, mend, restore and liberate. What follows is clear: as ones who accept his invitation into his kingdom, Christians must follow him.

  Hunter summarizes Jesus’ use of social power with four characteristics:

  • Jesus power is derivative rooted in intimacy and submission to the Father.
  • Jesus power is humble – rejecting the privileges of status and reputation.
  • Jesus power is compassionate – serving the good of all, not just the good of faith communities.
  • Jesus power is non-coercive – blessing rather than cursing the other.

At times, in life and ministry, I keep an improper perspective on how I meet the needs of those around me. I often see myself as blessing their life, as though my service is simply a gift that I can give or take away depending on my mood. At times, I will sigh and reluctantly serve someone else, not because I necessarily want to but because I don’t want to feel guilty if I don’t. It often feels like I am going out of my way to serve the needs of others. On my worst days I operate like my service is so incredible, and their need so unworthy, that they should see what an incredible gift I am to them. What a terrible way to live! I still have much to learn.

There is a way to the Kingdom that is completely different then my selfish perspective. I need to be more willing to simply come alongside someone with attentive care that acknowledges their infinite worth and demonstrates a love for them. Making space for others means that I am putting the needs of others first and looking for ways that I can specifically meet their needs. Going out of my way is actually the type of care that is foundational to the Kingdom. 

For all who exalt themselves will be humbled,
but all who humble themselves will be exalted.

Luke 18:14

Tom Rich
Discipleship Pastor

The Story & Biblical Literacy

As a church, we are embarking on a 31-week adventure of reading The Story. During these weeks, we will experience the majority of the biblical narratives and gain a better understanding of God’s great plan to redeem his creation. It is our hope that this journey will not only awaken your heart to experience the brilliance of the Bible, but will also give you a deeper confidence in your knowledge of Scripture.

It is important for us as a culture to reengage the Scriptures with a new fervency. It is my belief that the good people of Hamilton County hold a respect for the Scriptures; however, for the most part, we do not know about the Grand Story of the Bible, nor about the God who is at work in our midst. So many of our attempts to get the gospel message out have resulted in whittling down of the Scriptures to look like nice and tight formulas. But the Bible isn’t a book of equations; rather, it a love story that God is writing with and through his creation. In this book, we experience a God who interacts with his people, leading them toward justice, mercy, forgiveness and love. 

One of our goals as a church is to increase the level of biblical literacy in our community. Our working definition of biblical literacy at WRCC is to “have the skill set to study Scripture and the wisdom to apply it to life.” There is a direct correlation between how often a person engages the Scriptures and his or her development as a disciple.

So what does it mean to be biblically literate? Does knowing Scripture equal knowing every fact and detail in the Bible? Does it mean that we are going to start having “sword drills” in our worship services and watch Keith Comp go through a battle royale with fellow church members? As enjoyable as this might be, this is not what biblical literacy means.

Having a skill set to study Scripture means that you know what sorts of questions you should be asking of the text. Questions like:

  • What is the context of the passage?
  • What is the historical, cultural, and economic backdrop to the text?
  • What type of literature is this? Is it poetry, prose, history, parable, letter?
  • What was the author, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, trying to tell the readers?

These are not questions we expect you to ask or answer on your own. The Scriptures were written with the intent of being read and understood within a community. While we should all be reading on our own, we come together every week to try to unpack these things together. This is why we encourage you to attend corporate worship and participate in a life group. It is only within a community that we can properly engage the Scriptures and gain the wisdom we need to apply them to our lives.

We encourage you to journey through The Story with us, learning about and experiencing the great plan of redemption that includes you and me and everyone around us. It is my prayer that we would each find our place within this great story as we venture through God’s word together.

 

Tom Rich
Discipleship Pastor