“Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’”—James 4:13-15, ESV-CE
This command from James is often read superficially, as merely a (cumbersome) order to add a pious formula to every future tense verb. Read on its own, it might appear that way. Indeed, James does appear to want his exhortation to affect people’s speech. But this is hardly an empty platitude or attempt to add Christian flavor to business deals. We can see its depth more clearly if we read it in the context of what he has already said about the power of speech.
James’s main treatment of “the tongue” comes in ch. 3. The closing exhortation calls for us to tame our tongues so that what we say reflects what God has taught us to believe. “With it [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not be so” (3:9-10). If I believe that every human being is made in the image of God, that Jesus died to open the way of redemption for that person, how can I speak about him as though he doesn’t deserve to breathe because he bothered me in the grocery line or because of what sign he has in his front yard? If Jesus says our mouths express the evil that is in our hearts (see Matt 12:34-35; 15:18-20), James is calling us to let our sanctified hearts control and direct our tongue.
Because in James’s perspective our mouths are not only release valves for what is already in our hearts. Our speech exerts its own control as well.
“If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!”—James 3:3-5, ESV-CE
The tongue is a bit, a rudder—to update the metaphor, a steering wheel. For if what we say usually comes out of what we already believe or feel, it can also work the other way around, where what we say can begin directing our course or reinforce what was only faintly in our hearts when we spoke. Early in college, searching for who I was, my tongue was loose, joining in and repeating jokes or slogans that did not necessarily reflect what I believed when I first repeated them. But the more you say it, the less sensitive you become to the problems in what you are saying. The more you say it aloud (or on social media) to others, the more your reputation is tied to it, and the more you begin to justify it. Or, when our words do express our own finite minds or sinful hearts, the more it becomes not a feeling we might humbly check or repent of but a position we hold. One moment of unrestrained “venting” about that person or group—“She does this every time! Selfish, that’s what she is!”—quickly prejudices us against charity the next time we see them, forms the words about them we repeat to others, becomes a position we defend. And the door of repentance, reconciliation, or positive love for that person or group gradually creaks closed.
The tongue, “set on fire by hell” can sting us with “deadly poison” (Jas 3:6, 8). It is quite a negative picture, one worth hearing again in heated and polarized socio-political climates, where the slogans and jokes fed to us about the “other side” aim to harden us against others and poison our humility or charity.
But if the tongue has this negative potential, our verbal steering wheel can also steer us in better directions when sanctified. We can see this in James’s call to humble planning. He doesn’t say not to plan or become a resigned fatalist. Go ahead and plan, but plan like the creature you are. And remind yourself of it by saying “God willing.”
James is calling us to use our speech as a rudder in a positive way, to temper our expectations and rightly direct how our hearts and minds plan.
James imagines traveling merchants in antiquity, whose livelihood was at risk from everything from economic instabilities to the weather, bandits, and plague. And his words are equally important in the modern west, where we are infuriated by a five-minute delay or our Bluetooth malfunctions, not to mention the big things like whether my child (expected in January, as I write) with be born alive and healthy or a war will break out.
James counsels us to let our tongue shape our expectations and how we hold them, even about the best plans. When our heart jumps up in frustration at a paltry problem, it’s healthy to check ourselves with our tongue and remind ourselves how small the inconvenience really is (“first world problems”). When planning the big things, plan and work for love and human flourishing, but James counsels us to use our tongues to put all under the will of God, to make our plans a prayer, and remind ourselves of what our pride would rather forget. Otherwise, we will not only feel healthy sadness at loss or a desire to right injustice, but be outraged by the fact that something burst our little bubble, as though any interruption robs us of a cosmic right to have things as we expect—as though we were gods.
“Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Prov 18:21a). Our words can cause harm to others, and they can poison our own construction of who we are and our reality. But our words can also build up others, and they can be medicine to inform and condition our minds and postures toward others in love, in humility and confession before God, and hope and reliance on the one from whom flows every good and perfect gift (Jas 1:17).