Uniform 02.23.2014: Talking with Toddlers

James 3:1-12

As the mother of a two-year-old, I spend a lot of time thinking about language. I delight in my son’s ever-expanding vocabulary, and I giggle at his sweet mispronunciations and the fascinating way he strings words together into sentences. But as much fun as it can be to help my son understand our complicated language, teaching him the power of words is a serious business. My husband and I are constantly explaining that some words are not nice and shouldn’t be spoken, and I’ve lost track of how many times a day I prompt him to “ask nicely” or to use his “happy voice.”

Being able to communicate with my little boy is a wonderful gift, but it is also a big responsibility. Not only do I have to make sure he’s saying the right things in the right way, but I also have to be very careful not to speak words that might confuse him or that I don’t want him to repeat. Every interaction with my son is a reminder of James’s warning that teachers must be especially cautious in their speech (3:1).

While it might be tempting to think that my son’s language lessons will end at some point, James explains that understanding the power of our words is a lifelong endeavor. Adults wound each other, and themselves, more often with words than with any other weapon at our disposal. With a few careless words, politicians’ careers crumble. A well-meaning friend asks a question that unintentionally rubs salt in an open wound. An off-hand remark starts a rumor that tarnishes an innocent person’s reputation.

As adults, we understand the power of words because we have been hurt or offended by them. My son is not quite old enough to understand the pain that can be caused by unbridled or rudderless tongues (vv. 2-4), and I wish that I could protect him from thoughtless and mean-spirited words forever. But I know that I can’t. Instead, I’ll help him learn how to control his own speech so that he doesn’t spark any fires that can’t be put out (vv. 5b-6).


1. What language lessons are you most concerned about the young people in your life learning? Why?
2. For whom do you function as a “teacher”? Who looks to your example or imitates your behavior?
3. When did you first experience pain caused by words? How has that experience shaped your speech?
4. How do you work to control your speech? When are you most successful? When is it most difficult?

Reference Shelf

James chapter 3 consists of two interrelated pericopes, the first calling for a new perspective on the tongue (3:1-12); the second, for a new take on wisdom (3:13-18). Both themes have been introduced earlier in the letter and are more fully developed here. Both recur in some form within chapters 4 and 5. Already, James’s readers know that disciples should be “quick to listen, slow to speak” (1:19) and that those who think “they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues” are proud owners of worthless religion (1:26). Already, James has called his audience to speak and act as those who anticipate being judged according to Jesus interpretation of the Torah, epitomized by the law of neighbor love (2:12). Already, James has warned against empty professions of faith mouthed by those devoid of merciful deeds (2:14) and has complained of pious platitudes voiced by those unmoved by great physical needs within the family of faith (2:15-16). James regularly calls attention to sins of speech: angry speech, unbridled speech, and speech inconsistent with deeds.


The pericope on the powers of the tongue begins with a warning against desiring the role of teacher (3:1). Apparently, those communities James addressed held their teachers in high esteem. In a culture that valued personal honor, such public acknowledgement could prove a powerful incentive to seek this teaching role. Here, James offers a rare glimpse of self-disclosure; he counts himself among those who teach. Yet James cautions that teachers “will be judged with greater strictness” (3:1): those who talk the talk must walk the walk (cf. Matt 23:2-3); those who claim God-given wisdom must display it through humble service (Jas 3:13,17; cf. Matt 23:11). James later will urge mutual confession of sin (5:16); already, James applies his own counsel: he counts himself among those who “make many mistakes” (3:2a). The person who “makes no mistakes in speaking” is a person of integrity (3:2b, “perfect” NRSV). For James, speech and action are of one piece (2:12); here in 3:2b, mastery of speech is equated with control of the whole body, in other words with a life lived with complete integrity. James follows with two brief parables on the power of the tongue. Horses, though powerful and spirited, can be broken so that they respond to bits in their mouths; as their mouths go, so goes their whole bodies (3:3). Likewise a ship, though driven by strong winds, is guided by a very small rudder wherever its pilot wills (3:5). Following these illustrations, we might expect James to round out the pericope with a call to master the little tongue and so live a self-controlled life. James, however, moves in a different direction, warning that the untamed tongue is a destructive force, the tiny spark that sets a forest ablaze (3:5b-6a).

Earlier James has characterized worthless religion as that marked by an unbridled tongue (1:26), whereas “pure and undefiled religion” in God’s sight is “unstained from the world” (1:27). Here, James pictures the untamed tongue as an enemy agent, placed among the parts of our bodies with the potential to stain them all; the tongue is a microcosm of the sinful world (3:6). Its spark is kindled by Gehenna; it seems nothing 
in creation is fireproofed; all is scorched by its
 flames (3:6). The human experience in taming 
“every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea 
creature” (3:7) reflects confidence in the creation 
mandate to exercise dominion (Gen 1:26, 28; Ps 8:6). Yet the tongue is untamable, restless, and venomous (Jas 3:8). The tongue 
lacks integrity, blessing God all the while 
cursing those fashioned in God’s image (3:9; cf. 
Gen 1:26-27). James views such a lack
of integrity as unnatural as several examples
 show. Springs do not pour forth fresh (literally
 “sweet”) and brackish (literally “bitter”) waters 
from the same mouth (Jas 3:11); yet the same 
mouth can speak sweet doxologies and bitter 
anathemas. Trees are known by their fruits—fig 
trees do not yield olives; grapevines do not yield
 figs (3:12)—each produces according to its own 
kind (cf. Gen 1: 11-12); yet double-speak does 
not clarify whose fruit we are (cf. Jas 1:18).
Again, salt pools do not produce fresh water;
similarly, it is unnatural for some to bless God 
and curse God’s likeness encountered in one’s 
neighbor (3:9-10). Earlier, James has accused 
the rich of a perverse ‘integrity’: they both 
oppress community members through the courts and blaspheme the name of Christ (2:6-7); their bitter deeds are consistent with their hateful speech. Some in James’s community want to have it both ways: they want to confess faith in Christ as Lord yet practice discrimination against the community’s poor (2:1), the Lord’s chosen ones; they want to confess monotheism yet neglect God’s call to do mercy (2:19,13). Here, they want to bless God whom they, like Jesus, acknowledge as Father (3:9) yet curse God’s other children, who bear God’s family likeness. Though James does not identify those here accursed as the poor, such a connection is attractive. The stain from world (1:27) is in part conformity with the world’s negative estimation of the needy and inaction in the face of their affliction. Here, the tongue spouting curses (3:9) is the “world of iniquity” (3:6) encamped among the members of the body.


Edgar V. McKnight & Christopher Church, Hebrews–James, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2008) 371-374.

Bonnie Chappell is the editor of the Uniform Series Bible Study. She is a graduate of Mercer University and Vanderbilt Divinity School. She is an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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