How many times have you slipped an unintended word? Swore under your breath just that little bit too loud? Blatantly lied to someone’s face? Impulsively screamed, “I hate you!”? We all have one of the above. I’m sure each one of us can remember a time when you just wish you’d kept your mouth shut and nobody could see you. Yet, it is things like this that the words of James, I think, points at with disdain:
If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.
A bit harsh, don’t you think? Yet, all of James’ words are sharp and pointed, with good reason. Deeper than the issue of the tongue is the issue of self-control. However, James adequately chooses the example of the tongue as it is the hardest element of the body to control. Further in this letter, James develops the issue of the tongue. Let’s backtrack a little here.
If anyone considers himself religious… James was not talking about those who merely themselves Christians, rather, James was talking about those who publicly performed and displayed their “virtue” by worshipping, praying, giving to the poor, etc. in sight of the crowds. I dare say there are still “Christians” who give a show about their “religion”. I don’t know about you, but it brings to mind Jesus’ attitudes to people such as this.
So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do…
And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners…
(Matthew 6:2, 5)
The “virtue” of the Christian life, though James sought action, was not one of public display. Rather, the “virtue” of the Christian life is seen greater through what is not done. Let me share a story with you:
A friend of mine has recently re-committed himself to the Christian journey. It’s been a huge change for him, even now, he still swears, trying to quit smoking, etc. You’ve probably got a picture of what sort of person he is. However, one of the most startling things that he has done has sent shock-waves through those who know him. He’s had the courage to delete his collection of pornography off his hard drive. That’s huge! If you don’t believe me, go ask a non-Christian guy how big of a deal that is.
Ok, sure, my friend still has a ways to go, but to make such a step is a testimony to what true “religion” and true faith is really about. For each person, there are different areas that need to be dealt with, one at a time. I can guarantee that if it is a significant part of your life, people will notice when you act upon it. You might not have a problem with keeping your mouth shut (most of the time), but each one of us has issues which need to be overcome.
Let me finish by saying a few more things, this journey of self-control, essentially of perfection, is a life-long journey. While James’ words are harsh, they are harsh to invoke in us a harsh response. Hypocrisy, as I have said many times in these devotions on James, is one of the biggest barriers to non-Christians to consider the Christian faith. However, just like my friend, when we start exercising self-control, we make a statement louder and clearer than any gospel presentation we might seek to declare.