How would you judge someone’s Christian maturity? Perhaps by their Bible knowledge or eloquence in public prayer? By their wisdom in dealing with thorny issues or ability to float through the struggles and sufferings of 21st century life?
There may be true maturity in all the above characteristics and many more. But in James’s short letter to the early church, he highlights another trait massively relevant for anyone in Christian leadership—our words.
“For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is mature, able also to control the whole body” (James 3:2, CSB).
How we speak is a litmus test of our Christian maturity. And it’s not just our public words that matter, but private words with our spouse over dinner. God sees and cares not just about the sermon but the sly comment.
James highlights two important aspects of our words that we should remember.
Words Have Daily Power
The tongue is tiny, at perhaps 1/1000th of our total body weight, yet has enormous power and potential. James likens it to a horse’s bridle or a boat’s rudder—though small, it can steer large things and safely avoid rocks (vv. 3–4). Remember that sentence your teacher said that stuck with you for decades, the conversation with a friend when their timely words transformed your perspective on life, or that colleague’s proclamation of the gospel?
But the tongue’s potential for bad is also clear. We often weaponize our words. James’s metaphor now is of a forest fire—started by just a single spark, it brings utter devastation (vv. 5–6). We say, “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,” but words can hurt. Words spoken decades ago can still echo in our minds today, making us feel worthless. Like a shadow we can’t shift, they challenge our sense of identity and value. We speak somewhere around 30,000 words per day, which means we have thousands of opportunities daily to steward our words well—to do good to others, to bring comfort and encouragement rather than damage and destruction. Click To Tweet
The tongue is incredibly powerful. Our words matter. On average, we speak somewhere around 30,000 words per day, which means we have thousands of opportunities daily to steward our words well—to do good to others, to bring comfort and encouragement rather than damage and destruction. Even Spiderman agrees that “with great power comes great responsibility.” How do you use your words?
Words Have Diagnostic Potential
Words also have diagnostic potential; that is, words that find their way outside tell everyone what’s going on inside—they show what’s happening in our hearts. Have you ever spoken and then wished you could press rewind and suck the words back in? You almost feel like it wasn’t you? James would say, it was you. Our words reveal our maturity as believers.
James piles up metaphors as the passage continues, helping us feel just how inappropriate our use of words can be: sweet and salt water coming from the same spring, a fig tree producing olives, a grapevine producing figs. So a mouth that praises God one minute and pulls apart his image-bearers the next? “These things should not be this way” (3:10). Singing and worshiping the Lord in the Sunday service followed by the Sunday lunch of grumbling about those we find difficult? These things should not be this way.
This discussion about Christian maturity brings us back to the beginning and is why James urges, “not many of us should become teachers,” and “those who are teachers will receive a stricter judgment” (3:1). Hypocrisy is dangerous; those who speak Christ’s words, though safe in him, will be judged by how we’ve lived those words.
Hope for Sinful Speakers
So where do we go from here? I’ve often felt condemned after reading this passage, but that’s not right. It’s actually a passage of great hope. James knows that fighting our words will be a life-long battle. He writes, “for we all stumble in many ways,” and “no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (3:2, 8). Wouldn’t you love to speak like Jesus—words that are never unkind and careless but always controlled? Words that echo and point to life? Click To Tweet
So where’s the hope? The clue is in verse 8: no human being can tame the tongue, because no human being can change the heart. This doesn’t sound like good news, but it is for believers because we’re under the new covenant—with God’s law written on regenerated hearts of flesh rather than hearts of stone. In Christ, our hearts are now able to mature and grow in conformity to him. Even better, his righteous words count for us!
God is at work in us. His Spirit is transforming us every day to speak more like our Savior. Wouldn’t you love to speak like Jesus—words that are never unkind and careless but always controlled? Words that echo and point to life? Words like, “Then neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more” (John 8:11), or “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
Pastor, your words are powerful. But they’re not as powerful as Jesus’s words. Look to him, delight in him, and rest in his perfect words as you declare his gospel in the world.