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Speaker: Helen Jenkinson


Have you ever heard the saying Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never harm me? I’m sure my parents would have quoted it to me at some point when I experienced bullying as a child. You might have said it to your own kids in an attempt to encourage resilience in them to ignore hurtful, spiteful comments. But its complete rubbish isn’t it?

Conflict deeply affects us. Sticks and stones might well break our bones but words can break something a lot less obvious. They cut deep into us. The effect of words spoken to us as children or teenagers can last a lifetime. Cruel, harsh words can affect us deep down in our spirit. Have you ever had someone say something against you that is hurtful or untrue? It cuts deep doesn’t it?

As a teacher I’ve lost count of the times I’ve had to counsel a child because they’ve been upset about something someone has said about them on social media. But the converse is also true.

Have you ever said something about someone else that is not kind? Or untrue? Or said something about somebody to someone else? We all do it, don’t we? And we become so desensitised to it often we’re not aware that we’re doing it. So today we’re going to look at a warning, a ‘Don’t’: 'Don’t speak evil against each other.' And to do that we’re going to look at a passage in the book of James.


In order to fully understand what we are reading we need a window into who this book was written to and for what purpose.

The James who wrote it was Jesus’ brother who was the leader of the church in Jerusalem when he wrote his epistle. I find it fascinating to imagine what was it like growing up with Jesus as your brother. Would you be frustrated when you were trying to learn parts of the Torah in school and Jesus just seemed to get it or talked about the law as though he had written it….?! Or if you did something wrong and your mum Mary comes out with “Why can’t you be more like your brother Jesus”?!

From the gospel accounts we can tell that Jesus’ brothers weren’t among his followers while he was alive. In fact, they tried to dissuade him from his ministry at times. You can imagine the conversation over the family dinner table can’t you? “Jesus you’re making a fool of yourself mate. And because you’re off gallivanting around the country we’re left to hold dad’s carpentry business together.” You can imagine the chat can’t you?

So what happened to change James? It was an encounter with the risen Jesus as a one off comment 1 Corinthians 15:7 tells us: 'Jesus appeared to James before the other apostles.' I wonder what they talked about?

By the time he writes his epistle, James is the leader of the church in Jerusalem and is writing to Jewish believers who are scattered by persecution. They were feeling discouraged by the persecution they were facing but also there might have been a misunderstanding of grace and their responsibilities as Christians. James reminds them that although they are not saved because of their good works, their good works are evidence that their hearts have been changed by the gospel. Remember that famous verse in chapter 2 verse 17, 'Faith without works is dead.'

We can also tell by the tone of the letter, that all was not well with the relationships among them and the passage we’re going to look at today comes after chapter 3, where James talks at length about the need for these Christians to tame their tongues. The tongue is like a spark that sets a huge forest aflame. So, obviously this was a problem for this group of Jewish Christians and it’s a problem any church will experience at some time or other. The problem doesn’t change because people are the same throughout all the ages.

Knowing the background to the letter, and what has come before, we’re going to read James 4:1-12 and we’re going to look at the Problem, the Cause and the Solution.

The Problem

Let’s look firstly at the problem, in verses 11-12. Some translations say don’t slander one another. The Greek word used here is katalalos, which can also mean back biting and talkative against which is a lot broader than saying hurtful things to someone. It also means saying things about people when they’re not there to hear it.

I don’t know about you, but I can often control what I say to people’s faces but passing judgement when they’re not there is a different matter, isn’t it? It’s all too easy to speak against others.

In chapter 3 James talks about our tongues being like a tiny rudder or a bit in a horse’s mouth. They are tiny but have a massive effect on the ship or the horse. The point: If we are in control of our tongues, then everything works as it should do.

I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of saying something we deeply regret because our tongue has run away with us. We’ve haven’t engaged our brain (and our heart) before the words come tumbling out of our mouth.

James then changes his metaphor and describes the tongue as a tiny spark that sets a great forest on fire. Remember a few years ago when huge areas of Saddleworth Moor were ablaze because people had used a disposable barbecue on there? Think of the amount of effort it took the emergency services to get it under control, the devastation it caused and the cost. James likens the effect of the tongue to an out of control fire. Untold consequences.

But it’s not just in anger that we speak evil about people is it? As Christians we can sometimes try and get around our desire to speak against a person by saying that ‘we’re concerned’ about them when deep down our motivations are due to our second point this morning:

The Cause

James starts chapter 4 by asking his readers a rhetorical question to get them thinking: What is causing quarrels and fights between you? James answers himself ‘the evil desires at war within you’.

We quarrel and fight or speak evil against each other because each of us rates ourselves as 'Number One.' Each person selfishly wants their own way, putting themselves in the number one spot which doesn’t give any room for anyone else. It is our desires, our opinion, our way of doing things that we feel should take precedence over everyone and everything else.

Right back at the beginning Eve disobeyed God because she wanted to eat of the tree, disregarding God’s instruction to her. What she was really saying was “I’m number 1”, “I’m the most important person in my universe”.

Think about the major conflicts that are happening in the world today. Vladimir Putin’s desire is that he controls Ukraine. He is number one in his universe and so he will literally kill to get it.

Just watching a debate in Parliament shows the same thing. Each side resorts to saying all sorts of things about each other in order to get the upper hand in a debate. Why? Because their opinion, their view is number one.

But before we go pointing the finger at politicians, let’s look at our own lives. What causes the disagreements and arguments we have? Isn’t it a battle of wills? Each person assuming they have the right to the number one spot?

Sometimes we can get crafty and disguise our desire to be number one as "spirituality".

Remember Miriam and Aaron in Numbers 12? They complained against Moses saying that they were "concerned" about the fact that he was married to a Cushite woman. But what was their real motivation? Numbers 12: 2 words their complaint as, “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Hasn’t he spoken through us too?” What they are really saying is “Why should our younger brother Moses get all the glory? We’re just as important!”

How easy it is to speak evil about someone because we are "concerned" about them but in reality we are jealous or proud. How often do the things we fall out or back bite about all boil down to the fact that we think we are better than someone else. We are number one. We know best. Our opinion is right. Why? Because it’s our opinion!

Look at verses 11-12. Don’t they remind you of something that James’ brother says in Matthew and Luke?

Luke 6: 37, 'Do not judge others and you will not be judged. Do not condemn others or it will all come back against you. Forgive others, and you will be forgiven.'

Maybe James really did listen to his older brother’s preaching after all!

We might agree that judging affects another person but how can you be criticising and judging God’s law? What does the law say? Love your neighbour as yourself and not to judge or trample all over them to fulfil our own desires.

When we do so we exempt ourselves from God’s law. We say, in effect, that loving your neighbour as yourself is good for everyone else but it does not apply to me in this situation. We are excused from its obligations and in this instance we know better than God does. We sit in judgement over it, deciding if and when it comes into effect for us. To ‘judge’ the law means to disobey it. We are in effect saying that some commandments are good and some are bad. Some are worthy of our obedience if we approve of them but the bits we don’t like we make ourselves ‘judges’ of the law by putting ourselves in God’s place. We make ourselves Lord and judge.

How we treat others reflects our view of who God is. If we find that this is a problem for us, then it means that we’re not truly submitted to God. True submission humbles us- it reminds us of who God is and who we are not. But look at the outworking of these selfish desires within us.

Verse 2: 'You want what you don’t have, so you scheme and kill to get it. You are jealous of what others have, but you can’t get it so you fight and wage war to take it away from them.'

We can so easily pass over verses like this and think well that’s not me. I don’t want to kill or wage war against people. But as I’ve wrestled with this passage, I’ve been reminded of things that James’ brother Jesus also spoke about in the sermon on the mount.

Matthew 5:21: “You have heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not murder. If you commit murder, you are subject to judgment.’ But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment! If you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the court. And if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell."

Strong words from Jesus. Why? Because his Jewish listeners knew that the law forbade murder but not hatred. And Jesus is saying that God doesn’t just want outward obedience but hearts that are changed. He wants people whose motivations are governed by his grace and mercy.

So, the passage in James is showing us that the key to living authentically as Christians is to think rightly about God. When we speak against each other it’s a sign that God’s grace and goodness are not at the forefront of peoples’ thinking. It’s the grace and goodness of God that spurs us on to speak to and about each other with the aim of honouring God, not our selfish desires as our motivation.

Let’s read on: Verse 4-5.

James doesn’t pull any punches does he? Why does he call his readers adulterers?

Because our selfish hearts are an indication that we have adulterous hearts. WE are the object of our own affections and not God.

In the Old Testament, God is seen as the faithful husband to Israel when they go chasing after other gods. Here, in verses 4-5, James uses the same imagery. Look at verse 5: Why does it talk about the spirit God has placed within us is filled with envy? Isn’t envy a bad thing? Not in this instance. A husband or wife should want to protect their relationship at all costs and reject anyone or anything that would come between them. They should jealously guard their relationship. And that’s the same thing that James is saying.

God wants that closeness of relationship with us that we would not want to do anything to strain that relationship or put it at risk. Oh that I would have a heart that feels about my relationship with God even a tiny bit like He feels about his relationship with me. Oh that we as a body of believers would jealously guard our relationship with God to the exclusion of all others.

If you are married- remember part of your wedding vow? This is part of what Bruce asked me to vow to Simon on that fateful day in December 2008! ‘Forsaking all others will you be faithful only to him, for as long as you both shall live?’ That is the kind of commitment God longs for from us.

All of this seems very solemn stuff doesn’t it? And we might be left thinking that the whole issue of not speaking evil against each other or taming our tongue is just too big a problem to deal with. ‘That’s just the way I am’, we might say. Or maybe we think that everyone else does it, so what’s the big deal? Or, that God is going to be forever annoyed with us because of our inability to control our tongues.

So let’s look at the solution, in verses 6-10.

The Solution

Humble yourself (v7).

Have you noticed it is not God that humbles us, but us that humbles ourselves.

The NIV translates humble yourselves as 'submit yourselves'. Like Dave spoke on a few weeks ago, submitting to God is yielding to him, recognising his rightful rule over our lives. It’s acknowledging before God that He is number one and not us. That’s a big step isn’t it? And one that we’ll have to continually be doing because the heart with the selfish desires always wants to raise its ugly head! Humbling ourselves also enables us to recognise God’s grace in helping us control ourselves because we can’t do it in our own strength.

Submission to God is not an optional extra for the ultra-godly. It needs to be the bread and butter of a Christian’s life. Easy to say, but hard to do. We sense a deep resistance to letting go of our desire to be number one; it’s like putting two of the same magnetic poles together. We feel a force pushing back against us as we try to submit to God. We sense the need to change an ungodly desire but then think, 'Yes, I’ll deal with it sometime in the future.' It’s not the most important thing in the world. I’ll think about it another time. That’s not for today. And so and so is still doing it so it can’t be that bad!

That’s why James moves immediately to talking about the devil. Verse 7: 'Resist the devil and he will flee from you.' Resisting him means to be determined not to be taken in by his lies that whisper to us that we deserve to be number one. And what happens as we resist him? He will flee from you.

More than anything else, the devil wants us to betray our loyalty to God. The highest form of resistance is to submit all that we are to the true number one. Nothing will cause greater upset to the devil’s schemes than our joyful, willing submission to God.

What motivation do we have to resist? Because as we resist the devil we draw close to God (verse 8). To be clear, it is always God who makes the first move in initiating our forgiveness. But as we repent of our desire to be number one and submit to God’s rule in our lives, we will find that just as in the parable of the prodigal son, God is running towards us with arms stretched wide.

As we see in the rest of verse 8, true repentance results in changed action. It involves hands and heart, actions and attitude, behaviour and mind-set. Repentance must always involve hands and heart.

So what does that look like in terms of Not speaking evil against each other?

Here are some questions you might like to ask yourself in self- examination:

1. Am I quick-tempered? Do I lash out in anger at people?

2. How do I respond when someone has hurt me? Do I respond with grace or do I go into revenge mode?

3. Do I forgive others as I want to be forgiven? Or am I unforgiving and bitter towards people who hurt me?

4. Do I seek God’s wisdom before speaking or do I speak without thinking about the consequences of my words?

5. Am I a talebearer or a keeper of confidences?

6. Do I know that God is quick to forgive me when I confess my sin and ask for His forgiveness?

In James 1: 19 he says this: 'You must be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to get angry.'

How often I am slow to listen and very quick to speak! In the battle of the tongue maybe we should commit ourselves to either speak less (is Simon cheering when I say that?) or wait to respond. In that way we can more easily weigh our words and the effect they might have.

The missionary, Amy Carmichael, had the rule among her fellow missionaries that nothing could be said about a person unless they were present in order to preserve the unity of her team. She obviously appreciated the fact that we are a lot more liable to not speak about a person when they are in front of us.

Maybe we can commit to trying to do that in our everyday conversation. Seek God’s wisdom before responding to a person. Proverbs 2:3 counsels us to cry out for insight and ask for understanding.

But, remember that this will be a lifelong battle. Resist (keep on resisting) the devil and he will flee from you.

In this battle we have to control our tongue. The problem: our tongues can be like a forest fire. A few rash or hurtful words can have enormous consequences. The cause: Our desire to be number one, with our agenda, our viewpoint. The solution: Get a grip! Get a grip of how jealous God is of your relationship with him. Guard your vows, let nothing get between us and our relationship with God. Acknowledge that He is number one. Repent of our constant desire to be in control. Seek to resist the devil in order that we can experience the joy of a life submitted to God.

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