The book of James is a hard read for anyone who is in possession of a tongue.
And the tongue is a fire. The tongue, a world of unrighteousness, is placed among the parts of our bodies. It pollutes the whole body, sets the course of life on fire, and is set on fire by hell… no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
[James 3:6,8, hcsb]
The passage is bleak. He doesn’t present tongues as a neutral thing, useful for blessing and cursing, he presents it as an evil thing, an untamable, impossible thing. Like our flesh, like Paul complains about in Romans 7:15. If only we could rip out our tongues! If anyone doesn’t stumble in what they say, James says, they’re a perfect man (James 3:2). The tongue is the final frontier of sanctification, the last chip to fall.
Honestly, I found this one of the most depressing chapters of Scripture I’ve studied lately, and it wasn’t until rereading it this morning that a little ray of hopefulness—of purpose—started to seep in.
The hopefulness, I think, is in verses 13 and 17-18:
Who is wise and has understanding among you? He should show his works by good conduct with wisdom’s gentleness. … the wisdom from above is first pure, then peace-loving, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without favoritism and hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who cultivate peace.
My Bible helpfully cross-referenced 1 Peter 3:15, which tells us to make our defense (for the Gospel) “yet do it with gentleness and respect,” as well as 2 Timothy 2:25 which tells elders to correct their opponents—in the context of teaching sound doctrine!—to correct their opponents “with gentleness.” And that when we are correcting a sinning brother, we should restore them “in a spirit of gentleness” (Galatians 6:1).
And, of course, verses like Proverbs 15:1 (“a soft answer turns away wrath”) and Titus 3:2 (“avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people”), 1 Corinthians 13 (love is patient, kind, not provoked, not selfish, doesn’t keep a record of wrongs, bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, never ends!), Ephesians 4:2 (“walk… with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”), James 1:19-20 (“be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God”).
Gentleness is all over Scripture. Soft words. Patience. Long-suffering. Gentleness is the way we respond to even our opponents and enemies. Gentleness is the heart of the yoke Jesus tells us to take upon ourselves (Matthew 11:29). “Your gentleness made me great,” David praises in Psalm 18.
And here, in James 3, gentleness is the proof of wisdom, of maturity. Gentleness that loves and leads to peace. Wise people “cultivate peace.” Beautiful phrase. Gentleness that is compliant (interesting word, that!) and merciful.
The tongue works great evil. And James is really honest about that, and it’s really… disturbing, the power that one little part can wield over the whole. But then he spells out the alternative—the wise man is the gentle man, the one who seeks peace and pursues it (Psalm 34:14). The wise man isn’t the one who is full of great insights and always quick to correctly exegete a passage, or even the one everyone regards as giving reliable advice… the wise man is the one who is speaking gently and kindly and selflessly and actively working to cultivate peace. And while the anger of man doesn’t produce the righteousness of God, the gentleness—a gift and hallmark of God, a fruit of the Spirit—that is indeed how “the fruit of righteousness is sown, in peace, by those who cultivate peace” (James 3:18). The wisdom from above—which leads to the fruit of the righteousness—is gentle.