When James wrote to the twelve tribes scattered abroad he spoke a great deal about the need for an energetic and vibrant faith. It is one thing to believe the Word of God; it is another to be a doer of that Word. Paul used expressions like, “obeying the truth” (Gal 3:1; Rom 2:8), “obedience to the faith” (Rom 1:5), “obedience of faith” (Rom 16:26), “obeying from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered” (Rom 6:17), “obeying the gospel” (Rom 10:16), and “bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor 10:5).

All of these ideas convey a single, unvarnished truth; that Jesus Christ is “the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him” (Heb 5:9). Faith is the foundation layer, but faith without obedience is a hollow and empty faith. In fact, it is a lifeless faith ( James 2:17).

One of the great themes that James traces through his epistle is how we use our tongue in everyday life and how our speech mirrors the strength or weakness of our faith. For example, he wrote in 1:26: “If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain”. Here is the connection he is making; we all profess to be religious but if our language betrays our profession, then our devotion is empty and profitless. In other words, one way we can demonstrate the reality of our faith is to control our tongue.

But more than just words are needed. We need to speak and do (2:12). It is no good saying “be ye warmed and filled” if we don’t follow through with the kindness we are expressing (2:14-18).

So here is the apostolic expectation. We need to have faith. In addition to that we need to control our tongue, otherwise our faith is vain. But even more so, if we can bridle our tongue and express our faith in kindness, we need to put those expressions of love into action, otherwise our faith is also vain! Either way the standard God expects of us is very high indeed: “If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth” (1 John 1:6).

One of the criticisms James had was against those who, under trial, were accusing God of making them fall through temptation (1:13). He warned them that God tempts no man and made this point in 1:19: “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath”.

We are sometimes very poor listeners. We lter the words we hear. We add our preconceived ideas into the mix. We only pay attention to half the explanation, or our minds wander very easily, or we are more ready to believe what we hear without verifying the other side of the story. Worse though, we want to do all the talking. We want to be swift to speak and make our opinions known to everybody else and it is this readiness to speak (and often to condemn) that lands us into trouble.

This exhortation about the use of the tongue reaches a climax in 3:1-12. Our lives are like a fierce war-horse, champing at the bit and pawing the earth impatiently, as we seek to do battle. Our lives are like the immense ships of the day, driven and tossed by out of control ferociousness. And in both these examples this wildness can be controlled by the smallest member – the tongue. This is how powerful our speech can be. It can either rein in and control the fierceness of our behaviour, or it can let the natural forces of unbridled evil take its course. This is the power we all have! Life and death are indeed in the power of the tongue (Prov 18:21).

Later in his epistle, James raises one of the most frightening evils about our use of the tongue and it relates to what we say about each other and to each other. He writes this: “Speak not evil one of another, brethren. He that speaketh evil of his brother, and judgeth his brother, speaketh evil of the law, and judgeth the law: but if thou judge the law, thou art not a doer of the law, but a judge” (4:11). The word ‘judgeth’embraces the idea of both judging and condemning. This is the type of evil that this kind of censorious judgment brings. It, in effect, passes a judgment on the other person’s motives and condemns them. It is a behaviour roundly condemned by Christ himself (Matt 7:1-4).

So how does this kind of speech speak evil of the law? The law was given by God and in those commands God condemned all kinds of evil speaking (Exod 20:16, 23:1; Lev 19:16). If you speak evil of your brother, James argues, you are disagreeing with God and His law. God wrote in His law, “love thy neighbour as thyself ”. If we come along and speak evil of others we effectively dispute the validity of that law and we judge God and His law to be defective! These are enormous ramifications. Our judgment of our brother or sister finishes up judging God’s ways as unrighteous.

In the last chapter of his epistle, James continues this exhortation on the use of the tongue. In the context of exercising patience, he makes this unexpected statement: “Be ye also patient; stablish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh. Grudge not one against another, brethren, lest ye be condemned: behold, the judge standeth before the door” (5:8-9).

Of all the exhortations he could have made in the context of the Lord’s return, he chose to say, “Grudge not”! He could have encouraged them with many positive thoughts but instead he warned them with this simple, but powerful caution – grudge not! The Greek word carries the idea of groaning and sighing (from impatience and frustration) and James once more saw the deeper evil – an attitude of condemnation. This is why the law condemned Israel for holding on to grudges (Lev 19:18).

Bearing a grudge often starts with trivial things – a perceived slight, a hurtful remark, an unintended barb, impatient frustration, and so on. But if it is left to fester, it poisons the heart and grows into resentment and in the end we develop an evil eye towards our brother or sister. We then become incapable of speaking peaceably to that person and the fruit of all of this is to despise and condemn.

“Lest ye be condemned” was James’ warning. God will reward us according to our words and our works and this should be warning enough for us all.

He then asks two questions: “Is any among you afflicted?”; “Is any merry?” Are you weighted down through sickness, bereavement, disappointment, trial, uncertainty, isolation, unhappiness? Well, here is how you can use your tongue – pray! We can pray for strength to overcome, strength to patiently endure hardship. We can pray for others, for their wellbeing, for their forgiveness. This is so different to holding a grudge and murmuring. We can unburden ourselves through prayer and in this way our voice is directed towards heaven, not against man.

And if you are cheerful and contented, use your tongue to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. If you need to express your feelings, do so through prayer or song. How much better it is to use the fruit of our lips in this way. But we don’t always do that do we?

So here is a test for all of us to consider: can we go for 48 hours without saying any unkind words about anybody, or to anybody? If you cannot go for 48 hours without drinking liquor, you are addicted to alcohol. If you cannot go for 48 hours without smoking, you are addicted to nicotine. Similarly, if you cannot go for 48 hours without saying unkind words about others, then you have lost control over your tongue.

The perfect example is that of our Lord, of whom it was said,“Thou art fairer than the children of men: grace is poured into thy lips: therefore God hath blessed thee for ever” (Psa 45:2). His beauty lay in his gracious words and for that he was rewarded with eternal blessings. May we follow in his footsteps.