Something I’ve heard many times over the years as a sort of supreme compliment regarding another person has been…
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard them say a negative thing about anyone.”
I’ve heard this in the church and outside of it.
Sure, I’ve heard…”She is smart, he is a good athlete…a great leader, talented, etc.”
But those are sort of second tier compliments…
Over and over what has been held up as a supreme compliment has this idea of the words used in regards to others.
I don’t think people are merely impressed with someone “not saying judgmental things about another person”
-I think people intuitively know that words represent hearts.
They are impressed with the heart or character of person…as revealed by what they say and don’t say.
Specifically, they are admitting, indirectly…how hard and rare to not speak ill against others.
It’s also, impressive because people understand that it is a choice…not just some talent or gifting or personality trait…we would like to believe it is, takes us off the hook.
You can’t choose to exceed your God-given capacity…you can’t decide to have certain abilities, or traits that you lack.
I could hack away at the piano or become a bit better at math…but I could not simply decide to become an expert at either of those…those skills are outside my design parameters.
I could, however, decide to become skilled in how I talk about others…that’s my choice.
We can become people who stand out…for the glory of God and the good of others in the use of our words.
In just two verses, James circles back around to the topic of the “tongue” or words…which is a sort of shorthand for the person whose faith and life are cohesive.
A very clear and tangible evidence of faith aligning with deeds…or not aligning.
Brothers, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?
James is taking us back to 3:1-12 and his warning about the use of the tongue…remember?
The tongue is like a spark that starts a forest fire…it is untamable.
Yet we are responsible to leash our tongue to Christ…and make it obey him.
Then, after leaving the tongue and warning about how what is in our hearts comes out into the world of relationships…James has now circled back to the tongue again.
Clearly this was a big issue in the church, and it was seen to be a root cause of many of the problems they were experiencing.
A small spark is barely noticeable…but you can trace the burning of entire forests back to that small barely noticeable beginning.
Likewise, a word is a small thing…but over and over they are sparks that burn down the lives of people and relationships.
In the book, “An Army at Dawn” Rick Atkinson quotes Hitler’s order in 1942, “North Africa, must be held at all costs.”
“That sentence” Atkinson writes, “Condemned a million men from both sides to seven months of torment.”
I know that is an extreme example…but it is a good one…gives weight to James’ warning.
Words originate in hearts and have real consequences in the real world.
I’ve seen how words, thrown out into the air from uncareful or perhaps uncaring hearts…have done lasting damage to lives and relationships.
“Slander” is the same word translated “To speak against others” and for James this is a manifestation of the pride of the human heart.
Remember last week, we read that… “God opposes the proud, but lifts up the humble.”
That verse should give us pause.
Do you want to be on the wrong side of God himself?
Do you want God to act in opposition to your life?
Do you really want an almighty opponent or almighty ally?
Pride is just not going to turn out well.
This speaking against others is a manifestation of being “double-minded”.
Remember in chapter 3, James asked, rhetorically, “Can fresh and saltwater come from the same well?” (no)
Then how can we use the same mouth to praise God and curse people?
The heart from which these kinds of words originate is divided…double-souled.
Some might think that James is overplaying his hand here.
“Oh, come on James, it’s just words…get over it!”
“There are more pressing problems in the world to deal with than words.”
James would reply…”Yeah and those problems have a direct tie back to hearts and words.”
The words we use are symptomatic of a larger problem in the human heart…and words do great harm (or great good)
James writes that when we speak against and judge our brothers and sisters we are speaking against and judging the word of God…and then by direct implication…God himself.
It is, after all, his Word that we are disobeying.
So, look at how James’ argument goes.
1. Guys don’t speak against each other.
2. When you do, you speak against God’s word.
3. When you do this, you are not keeping his word but judging it.
4. When you judge God’s word…you are sitting in judgement on God himself.
5. God alone is the Lawgiver and Judge…he alone can save and destroy.
6. Be careful then…who are you to judge your neighbor?
He had just written that God gives grace to the humble but opposes the proud.
Now he gives a striking example of human pride…to presume to sit in judgment on God himself.
We say…”I would never do that!”
Well, James’ would say…”when you wrongly speak against your brother or sister…you are doing just that.”
James’ view is that faith in Christ is a reality that can be measured objectively by acts of obedience.
We aren’t saved by acts of obedience…we are saved to or for them.
But just like there are objective, scientific tests to determine if some substance is “real” or not…is that real gold, is it pure sodium.
James is like a “faith scientist”
He believes that life is the lab, and that faith is tested there to determine if it is real.
Words, for him, are a sort of go to test for authentic faith.
Now, don’t despair…he admitted that no one can fully tame the tongue…so his point is not perfection in our speech…but Christlike direction.
We ought to be getting better at this over time.
Though we cannot fully tame the tongue…if we love and follow God…then we are going to want to submit to his word.
Getting better with our words is going to matter to us…we should want to and mourn when we fail (remember last week).
This means we are going to give attention to our words…we are going to work to obey God with them…and repent of our sinful words when we fail to obey him with them.
And we are going to address the heart problem that is behind the wrong use of words.
What I suspect was happening in the church James was writing to…was that their tongues were completely off the leash…they were not tethered to Christ.
In their harsh criticisms of one another…James connects the dots for them.
That remark you just made…that judgment of someone…it was a judgment on God’s word and then on God himself…you just put yourself on the opposite side of the ball from God…you don’t want to be there.
Before we go on, let me give a caveat.
James is not prohibiting the necessary judgment that must be made regarding the words and actions and attitudes of those around us.
You only have to go back one passage to read, “You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God?”
That’s pretty direct “judgment”
He’s not saying that we should not make judgments regarding what is good and real and true and what is not.
Jesus and Paul both said that the church must exclude from membership those who live in flagrant, public, and ongoing disobedience to God’s standards of faith and life.
How could you do this without making appropriate judgments?
The difference is that when we use God’s word to judge things that people do and say and believe as being out of bounds, we are not sitting in judgment on God’s words…but on human choices.
The goal is to restore people…to turn them back to life with God.
Restoration, Paul wrote is the goal of church discipline.
When we go after people with the aim to judge and condemn them, we are sitting in judgment on God’s words…we have been told not to do this.
One kind of judgment flows from love and faith…the other comes from jealousy and envy and pride.
A few common examples of the wrong kind of judgment:
1 Straw man
2. Ad Hominem
1. Straw man is where a person’s life or beliefs are inaccurately described then that false position (the straw man) is attacked and easily defeated.
It’s not hard to beat a scarecrow in a fist fight…or an argument.
It’s wrong to intentionally mis-represent someone in order to defeat them or make your own position look stronger.
An example of the proper use of judgment would be to present a person’s beliefs and/or actions in accurate ways, ways that they would be able to say, “Yes, that’s correct”
Then to respond with, “Here’s how what you are doing does not align with the Word of God, please turn from your sin.”
This is the process Jesus outlines in Matt 18 in regards to dealing with the ongoing and public sins of others.
2. Ad Hominem is where a person, not their actions or beliefs comes under attack.
This is difficult because when you question a person’s beliefs or behaviors…they often feel like they are under personal attack…but it is not the same thing.
If I say, “What you believe is not true”…it is not the same as saying, “You are bad” “You are a liar”
Or, “That choice is sinful” is not the same as saying “You are terrible, I discard you.”
God, like any good Father, will say to us, “What you are thinking, believing, doing, becoming is wrong…And… you are my child…I love you, you must stop what you are doing.”
3. Gossip is telling the truth with evil intent or lacking good intent.
-Just because what you are saying about someone is true…doesn’t mean you should be saying it…here or now.
-Is your goal to help or is there some other motive at play here?
4. Slander is telling what is not true about someone…clearly it’s wrong.
James’ strong warning is that we must be very careful to not presume to act as if we are God…by sitting in judgment on his word by wrongly sitting in judgment on others.
So, we need to watch our mouths…but we especially need to watch our hearts.
Above all else, Proverbs says, guard your hearts, they are the wellspring of your life.
Everything flows from there.
Our words are like a check engine light…they can signal all is well, or something is very wrong.
Let’s go on to the next section.
13 Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” 14 Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 15 Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil. 17 Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.
For James…certain words, and certain attitudes about the future…both reveal the same heart problem.
A denial of God’s ultimate authority in our lives.
To quote Paul in his letter to Timothy…
“Watch your life and doctrine closely.” 1 Tim. 4:16
How is this speaking and planning related to doctrine?
Doctrine is beliefs about God…what we think is true and real.
James is describing how when we speak against others…we are not taking God seriously.
When we arrogantly plan the future as if we have control over it…we are not taking God seriously.
What we actually believe about God (doctrine) is showing up in our lives…our words towards others and how we view the control we have over the future…both reveal what we actually think is true.
Orthodoxy (what we believe is real regarding God) …must lead to orthopraxy (lives that align with the reality of God).
James gives a hypothetical example to describe the heart problem.
Someone says…”Today or tomorrow, I will go this or that city…”
His point is not the example…but the underlying attitude.
They decide where they will go, when they will go, how long they will stay, and they determine the outcome…or so they believe.
This is not a critique of planning, or of making money…it is a critique of the kind of human arrogance that factors God out of our lives.
The problem is their attitude…not their actions.
“You say” indicates that…in your hearts you plan as if you were God…you have control over the future.
Yet…you don’t even know what will happen tomorrow.
If you don’t even have solid intel about tomorrow…how do you presume to have operational control over it?
“Here’s the kind of creatures you are…you resemble a morning mist that disappears at full sunrise…or a puff of smoke.”
James once again ties his teaching to that of his Lord and brother, Jesus.
The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” ’ “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ “This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.” Luke 12:16-21
In the Lord’s parable as in James’ words…the problem was not the actions but the attitude.
God is factored out of their life strategy…this is foolish to the extreme.
Wisdom, in Scripture, plans and prepares for the future (read Proverbs)…but it is foolish to presume on it.
We need to be careful about turning James’ words into a speech formula and miss his point.
His point is not that we have to tack on to every comment about the future…”Lord willing.”
Jesus and Paul did not always make this comment when they spoke of future plans…but it was assumed in their hearts…and in their lives.
James’ is not giving a speech formula “Be sure and tack ‘God willing’ onto everything you say about the future.”
He is giving a heart attitude.
Instead of “believing in your heart…I am in control…it is about me.”
“Believe in your heart…the Lord is in control…life is about Him.”
Look at verse 16…we see clearly that the real problem is not actional but attitudinal.
16 As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil.
You make life about self, not God.
The problem was not in the planning, but in the boasting…the pride that puts us in opposition to God.
Then verse 17 further reveals that the heart is what he is after.
Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.
I tend to focus on my sins of “commission”
“God forgive me for doing or saying this.”
James emphasizes the sin of omission.
“God forgive me for not doing this.”
The problem for the hypothetical merchant was not in his planning, or enthusiasm, or profiting…it was in his failure to make Jesus Lord in his heart.
It was what he did NOT do…he did not guard his heart.
We are often focused on the “what” and maybe “when”…but it is important to always ask “Why”…what is the condition of my heart?…what is the engine driving my actions.
Is my heart surrendered to him or not? (double or single)
We don’t want to overthink this…but we don’t want underthink it either.
Let’s think about how to think about our hearts…since that is the real issue at hand here.
No better place to go for help with this than Jesus himself.
Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.” He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”
Jesus, who was tempted in every way as we are…yet he did not sin…wrestled with the will of his Father.
Clearly, he was in deep distress…he would have taken another way than the cross if it were possible to do that…and accomplish his Father’s will.
But he said, twice, on this terrible night…”Your will be done.”
We must not allow the investigation of our hearts to immobilize us…if you are prone to over evaluate…be careful.
What would be the point of a heart check…if it keeps us from a life of obedient, proactive love and engagement with others?
The goal of a heart check is to gain and maintain a free heart…to mobilize for right actions and attitudes…to get us “out there” loving God and people.
*Journaling, reflecting is good…but they should unstuck us, not immobilize us.
Jesus, quickly, readily had a free heart…it was not easy…but he moved through life surrendered to the will of his Father.
For me, having a free heart has not come easy…or quickly…I wish it did, but it usually hasn’t.
I need to continually check myself…to get back on track…to return that that place of “not my will but yours.”
I need to do this so I will be mobilized to honor God and love others.
It is in this continual heart check and ongoing correction that mobilizes us to action
A free heart for me is when I can look in the mirror and without trying to impress anyone…I can say “God, I want what you want.”
“I don’t necessarily like it, but I do want it.”
Depending on the situation…it has taken me hours, days, weeks and even months to get there and ongoing heart surveillance to stay there.
You may get to a free heart more quickly than I have…I hope I am getting their more quickly as I grow.
But I know that my capacity for trusting God will be tested throughout my life in increasing fashion…I need to continue to grow in this.
I need to pay attention to my heart everyday…when things are pressing on me and when things are just sort of normal life.
I need to watch my mouth…what I’m saying implicates my heart.
I need to watch my attitude as well…am I putting myself in the place of God…not just planning and preparing…but presuming on the future.
Why…the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness there of…For him we were created.
I want to live in line with what is real…this is my father’s world…and I want to live as his son in it.
The Bible tells us that the cosmos is an “open system”
This means that the physical universe is not all that exists…God exists outside of space and time…but he interacts with and directs it.
A technical way of saying this is that the universe is a “uniformity of cause and effect in an open system.”
That means…normally things happen normally…but God is involved in all of it.
Normally things happen in accordance with the natural or physical laws by which God has designed the universe.
Modern science came from a Christian worldview with the belief that God has built a world of consistent cause and effect.
We can find laws…it’s not a continual roll of the dice…rocks might float up today…you never know…
You do know…because God has designed the cosmos.
But by saying, it’s an open system…it means that God can and does intervene as he chooses to.
Atheism or materialism is called a “closed system”…there is no one out there.
To live with pride, to live for self…why not? You would be foolish not to.
But, that is not how things actually are…God is involved, he does opposed the proud, he gives grace to the humble.
Normally happen normally…God has made the world this way.
God can and does intervene according to his will.
It could be the splitting a sea to get his people across or a virgin birth and incarnation.
But, even in the normal, the usual…God is involved, engaged…he has his purposes.
Our very words, our actions, our planning, and our thinking about the future…we are to honor Christ…to crown him, Lord.
Good doctrine, truth about God…shows up in the normal day to day activities and attitudes of our lives…in the way we talk about others, in the way we think about our lives and our future.
And ultimately, importantly…in the outcomes of our relationships.
As we truly believe what is real about God in our hearts…we will have relationships that are sweet and reveal what is true and real about God.
Not in perfection, but in their overall direction.
This is James’ ultimate concern…he was a pastor…he wanted the church to grow in love and relationship and to resemble the beauty of the gospel in the beauty of their lives together.
I have seen this happen, I see it all the time…and it is a wonder to behold.
I’ve also seen, how it often doesn’t happen…relationships are sour and broken…and how sad, tragic that is.
How people can claim to know the truth about God…and perhaps they do.
But then that truth doesn’t translate to beauty in their relationships…this, James would say…should not be.
It doesn’t have to be…we have control over it.
God is all for beauty between us that starts with his beauty within us…it only remains for us to be all for it as well.
First, we must surrender double minds (hearts) for single ones.
Then as we experience God in our hearts…we are positioned to experience him in our relationships.
This not some far-fetched, unrealistic vision…it is yours in Christ.
He offers it to you…you must take it to heart.
*None of this can be microwaved…is a life time of movement towards God and others.