As I’m reflecting on James’s harsh, uncompromising words about, well… words in James 3:1-12 for this Sunday’s sermon, I keep coming back to Dallas Willard’s book on the Sermon on the Mount, The Divine Conspiracy. Willard says that one obstacle we face in actually doing what Jesus commands us to do is believing that Jesus knows what he’s talking about. Do you doubt it?
Here is a profoundly significant fact: In our culture, among Christians and non-Christiains alike, Jesus Christ is automatically disassociated from brilliance or intellectual capacity. Not one in a thousand will spontaneously think of him in conjunction with words such as well-informed, brilliant, or smart.
Far too often he is regarded as hardly conscious. He is looked on as a mere icon, a wraithlike semblance of a man, fit for the role of sacrificial lamb or alienated social critic, perhaps, but little more.
I’m thinking of Willard’s words because it’s clear to me that I—and probably we—don’t really believe Jesus (whose own words about words are echoed by his brother in this passage) when it comes to the things we say. We may still be conscientious enough to resist “big” sins, but who on earth can be bothered to mind the words we say (or, often in my case, write)? I’ve noticed, for instance, that we’re mostly desensitized to the use of God as an expletive, as in “Oh my God!” or OMG.
Is this a problem for anyone?
Doesn’t the idea that anyone would be scrupulous today about such a small thing as cursing—by which I mean old-fashioned “cussing”—seem hopelessly quaint? Heck, some of the cool preachers are even doing it in church! Never mind the literal cursing we do by saying things to wound, insult, demean, or ridicule others. Never mind the gossip. Never mind the self-justification. Never mind the boasting.
If it’s true that the tongue is a “fire, a world of unrighteousness… set on fire by hell… a restless evil, full of deadly poison,” you’d hardly know it by me!
Does it matter to us that we sin in this way? Does it matter that Jesus (and James) commands us not to do things like this?
Again, here’s Willard:
We would now say, and say correctly, “Trust Jesus Christ.” But we have already seen in previous chapters how the idea of having faith in Jesus has come to be totally isolated from being his apprentice and learning how to do what he said…
If people in our Christian fellowships today were to announce that they had decided to keep God’s law, we would probably be skeptical and alarmed. We probably would take them aside for counseling and possibly alert other responsible people in the group to keep an eye on them. We would be sure nothing good would come of it. We know that one is not saved by keeping the law and can think of no other reason why one should try to do it.
This leaves us caught in a strange inversion of the work of the Judaizing teachers who dogged the footsteps of Paul in New Testament days. As they wanted to add obedience to ritual law to faith in Christ, we want to subtract moral law from faith in Christ. How to combine faith with obedience is surely the essential task of the church as it enters the twenty-first century.
Do we believe that Jesus knows what he’s talking about? If so, will we do what he says to do?
Will it be unthinkable to us that we, his apprentices, would ever willingly do otherwise?
Until it is, I suspect we’ll keep on doing otherwise.
1. Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (New York: HarperOne, 1997), 134.
2. Ibid., 140.