James gives eight characteristics of heavenly wisdom, the wisdom which is joined with meekness. (1) It is pure and chaste, i.e., it holds fast truth and holiness, lest it be in any way polluted. (2) It is peaceable, avoiding contentions. (3) It endeavours after equity. (4) It easily gives place to right reason. (5) It is full of mercy towards those who err and sin. (6) It is full of good fruits, omitting nothing of those things which are fitting in those who are good and pious. (7) It does not enquire suspiciously into the blemishes of others. (8) It is without hypocrisy, with which chiefly carnal wisdom is delighted. All these are reasons why we ought to endeavour after wisdom joined with meekness. Those who endeavour after this wisdom joined with meekness, simultaneously endeavour to make peace, or to be peaceable themselves (verse 18).
In Prince Harry’s recent memoir we can see the effect of the insatiable voyeuristic appetite for celebrity gossip. We no doubt feel sympathy for those whose lives are picked over endlessly by commentators who seem to say what they like with little fear of contradiction. Perhaps we have all felt the impulse sometimes to tell our own side of the story, take control of the narrative, speak our own truth. There are more wise and less wise ways of doing this. Laying bare your heart does not necessarily lead to acceptance and respect, it can sometimes give more fodder for ridicule. Worse, telling your story may involve you in making accusations against other people. Now you have also shredded other people’s reputations. So the drama rolls on and the prospects of reconciliation fade further away. And it’s all words! The consequences of our words can sometimes be enormous, as the apostle James pointed out long ago. In the following updated extract, David Dickson explains James’s insistence on the need to bridle our tongues. It is impossible without God’s grace, yet the counterintuitive act of responding with meekness when we are provoked is the way of heavenly wisdom and it leads to peace and righteousness. Christians should strive by God’s grace to be people of integrity – like a fountain which sends out one consistent stream of water, not alternating between the pure and the defiled – and so show who really is in control in their hearts.
James chapter 3 contains two pieces of advice. The first is for governing the tongue (verses 1–13), and the second is to do with the meek wisdom which assuages the evils of the tongue, and avoids strifes and contentions (verses 14–18).
Control Your Tongue and You Control Your Whole Self
James tells us to bridle the tongue, that is, to hold back from invective, and rigid rehearsals of other people’s vices or infirmities. “Be not many masters,” he says (verse 1), i.e., do not arrogate to yourselves the authority of a master over others, and too much liberty to carp at things (as many do), but instead bridle your tongues.
One reason for this is because those who unjustly censure others will suffer heavier judgement from the God who avenges injuries (verse 1). Also, seeing we all have many failings (“in many things we offend all,” verse 2), it is better for us to deal more diligently with the infirmities of others, not to arrogate the authority of judging without a calling, or to be unjust in judging.
Anyone who knows how to govern their tongue shows the sign of being “perfect,” someone who can moderate all their actions (verse 2). Anyone who cannot moderately rule their tongue, but in all things carps at other people’s behaviour, has the sign of being a hypocrite.
If you are guiding the horse’s bridle, you have control of the horse; and if you have your hand on the rudder, you are steering the ship. Even so, if you have your tongue under control, you rein in your whole body, and keep your outward actions in check (verse 3–5).
Great care is needed in governing the tongue, because of how gloriously it can boast. It can on both sides perform much good – in speaking the truth, in constancy, in letting things slide, in courtesy, and so on.