The Power of Language and Representation

May 27, 2021

One of the most commonly quoted biblical chapters about language is James 3, where the apostle exhorts fellow believers to watch out for the power of the tongue, which is “…a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts…no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (verses 5, 8). These are strong words (and I believe that James did not miss the irony when he wrote them) which are part of the “wisdom that comes from heaven…pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere” (verse 17).

Such a sharp missive and clear statement leads us to wonder: how, then, can those of us who are called to be preachers and teachers (verse 1) not do harm with such a volatile thing as the tongue, which is a “small part of the body, but…makes great boasts” (verse 5)? If we dwell on this one biblical section too much, we can end up frozen in fear, lapsing into an existential powerlessness: are we doomed to bring death with our words?

So often this chapter in James is used to bring recrimination and judgment against others. We look at others’ speech and find it wanting because we see that “out of the same mouth come praise and cursing this should not be” (verse 10). But James provides an encouragement and something to strive towards throughout his letter.

If we are to show ourselves as “wise and understanding,” James tells us, let us “show it by good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom” (verse 13). This seemingly-random shift from words to deeds is actually a reminder of what he had just spoken of in James 2:14: “What good is it, my siblings, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?” (verse 14). Here, he makes it clear that our greatest call is to “show faith by deeds” (verse 18).

Interestingly, though—and this is where this epistle can be an especial encouragement to those of us who craft words for a living—James teaches by example. He is very intentional to include two different people as his examples for those who have lived a life of faith and deeds—both of whom have ministered to the people of God through what they believed and taught about Yahweh.

It makes sense that James would mention Abraham here, as an example of faith and the human father of God’s chosen people. But James doesn’t stop there. He also includes Rahab, echoing Hebrews 11. James could have stopped with Abraham or included another faithful man with power and favor. But instead, he chooses a Caananite woman with a reputation of sexual infidelity, not as an example to be avoided, but as a clear example to be faithfully followed in both word and deed.

The lessons here are many, but to focus on just three, we who are preachers and teachers of the word must be careful to 1) practice humility, 2) truth-tell, and 3) include the marginalized. James draws upon all three of these when he says what seems to be a contradiction-in-terms: “We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check” (3:2). If we are all guilty of stumbling, then it becomes obvious that the one who was able to keep his entire body in check is none other than Jesus—he who was (and is) perfectly humble, honest, and a defender of the marginalized.

When we are sharing the gospel, we must recognize our tendency to fail, and we must be humble about that reality. We will, for example, make mistakes in our sermons and lessons. We will misquote someone, use something out of context, or ignore the clear evidence of someone else’s experiences and research. It is only by admitting this, and then, in repentance, seeking to do better, that we can push forward and be made more like Jesus. James puts it well when he reminds us that “those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless (1:26). This means that what we say and do not say matters; that if we preach and teach that which puffs us up, we are but clanging cymbals and clanging drums. We must ask the Holy Spirit of Jesus to give us humility and wisdom (1:5).

We must also be truthful, though, and not be those who just supply others with what their itching ears want to hear. This means being truthful about our own failings, as well as all that God has accomplished through us. And it also means following James’ actions by providing a variety of examples in our teaching of the ways that words can bring death, but also life. We must warn our listeners that when it comes to the tongue, we are like ships who are “steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go” (3:4). Will we allow the Lord to speak truth through us, or row to our own agenda? Will we back up our good deeds with words that testify to the Holy Spirit’s sustaining of us?

Which brings us to the last point—that we must echo Jesus’ preaching and teaching as God incarnate, himself helpless and marginalized, and fight to not “curse human beings …who have been made in God’s likeness” (3:9). This looks like speaking up for matters of justice—advocating for God’s people to be committed to the work of the Kingdom. It looks like backing up our calls for a just society with specific actions that address the needs of the marginalized whom God has put in our midst; making sacrifices in finance, time, and other things of great importance, to ensure that we can show ourselves as “wise and understanding…by good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom” (3:13).

We must be eager—somewhat anxious, even—to see, equip, and empower the marginalized. To learn from them. And one final, seemingly simple way to do that is to follow James’s example mentioned above. When we are speaking, include the marginalized. Quote women. Find authors of color to cite. Use examples and illustrations not just featuring married men with children. Mention those in poverty (2:5-7), refugees, “orphans and widows in their distress” (1:27), all those who are on the very margins of society. Like James, we must quote and celebrate those among us who are like Rahab—incredibly faithful under difficult circumstances.

Most scholars think Rahab was shown to be in poverty by her residence in the city walls. She was also involved in some form or fashion with prostitution—driven there by some combination of social and personal factors. She also lied to authorities and abandoned loyalty to her city. And yet. And yet she is featured by Biblical authors as a stalwart of faith, as part of the lineage of the Messiah, even! And much of the challenge of James’s words is made bearable by the inclusion of Rahab. There is hope even for us! Much of the battle-heavy, strength-celebrating reality of Old Testament society is made accessible by stories of David’s love for Jonathan’s disabled son, Mephibosheth. And the daunting lineage of Jesus is made into a graceful testament of the gathering of the nations by the inclusion of flawed men and non-Jewish women.

So even as we advocate for justice in “larger” ways by attending protests, donating time and money to ministries designed to serve those in need, one simple thing we can also do is be aware and inclusive. Pastors, during sermon prep, you can note the standard texts and commentaries and find other trustworthy sources. Bible study leaders, during small group discussions, you can lead conversation to appreciate unsung bastions of the faith. And all of us, when we speak of Jesus, can do good and not evil by stewarding our privilege well. It is what James was so anxious to speak about, and no less than what Jesus has done for us.

About the Author
  • Chandra Crane (B.S. Education, M.A. Ministry) is a Multiethnic Initiatives Resource Specialist with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and a member of the multiethnic Redeemer Church in Jackson, Mississippi. Growing up in a multiethnic/multicultural family in the Southwest and now happily transplanted to the Deep South, Chandra is passionate about diversity and family. Chandra is the author of Mixed Blessing: Embracing the Fullness of Your Multiethnic Identity (InterVarsity Press). She is married to Kennan, a civil engineer, and they have two spunky daughters.  Chandra is a fan of hot tea, crossword puzzles, Converse shoes, and science fiction. She thoroughly enjoys reading, napping, and defying stereotypes. You can follow her random thoughts on Twitter: @ChandraLCrane and on Instagram: @MixedBlessingBook.

What are your thoughts about this topic?
We welcome your ideas and questions about the topics considered here. If you would like to receive others' comments and respond by email, please check the box below the comment form when you submit your own comments.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

There are currently no comments. Why don't you kick things off?