Impeccable to the end

James 5:12

Don Miguel Ruiz wrote a book several years ago called The Four Agreements. In it, he shares Toltec philosophy for living a happy life. While not remotely Christian, the actual agreements themselves have biblical undertones. For me, it is evidence that God makes Himself known through His creation and in multiple ways (Romans 1 &2). The first agreement finds a corollary in James 5: be impeccable with your word. James says, “Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no.'” It seems so simple. Say what you mean; mean what you say. Do what you say you will do. Don’t make promises you can’t keep.

James 5:12

It seems simple, but we struggle with the simplicity of it. We hedge our bets with ‘maybe’ or we try to add emphasis by swearing on whatever we think will impress people (the Bible, God, heaven, someone’s life or grave- you’ve heard them all.) Being impeccable with our words means being trustworthy without needing any extraneous explanation or convincing. Making ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and ‘no’ be ‘no’ speaks to a character of integrity, which comes from drawing near to God and establishing our hearts in Him. We don’t need to complain or argue or want what we don’t have when we are reliant on the Father. And relying on the Father gives us the confidence to speak clearly and with integrity.

Be impeccable with your word; let yes and no mean what they mean. If we speak with the wisdom of God, we will see that we can be steadfast no matter what, knowing that what we say is God-glorifying truth.

Wisdom in action

James 3:13-18

Controlling our words requires wisdom, and true wisdom comes from God. Wisdom from above is pure, peaceful, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial, and sincere (v.17). The US has been increasingly divided among philosophical, political, and social lines for too long. Like many empires of the ancient world, the US is collapsing in on itself. This time of quarantine may be an opportunity to revisit wisdom over opinion and materialism. We have been given time to reflect and think. If only believers act on James’s words to control our tongues, there could be a substantial shift in discordant discourses. Reason and impartiality, mercy and sincerity go a long way toward reconciliation.

While speaking with wisdom is important for everyone, it is especially crucial for teachers, whom James is still addressing. Teachers are in a place of authority, and many people are not willing to question that authority. Teachers who want the best for their students must hold fast to what is true, rather than what is popular or expedient. Those teachers who rely on and speak from God’s wisdom will be recognized as set apart. They will be found trustworthy, and their sincere compassion for their students will be evident to all.

A verse for teachers in the time of COVID-19: My mouth shall speak wisdom; the meditation of my heart shall be understanding. Psalm 49:3

Teaching in action

James 3:1-12

Teaching is a calling. I don’t think there are many other vocations that have the power to permanently change people’s lives. Whether the class is made up of pre-schoolers, teenagers, or adults, the truly effective teachers do one thing consistently: watch their words. Words have the power to heal or destroy, to build up or tear down. Teachers are entrusted with the minds of their learners, and it is a tremendous responsibility.

James is primarily speaking to church teachers in this passage, but no one should think about teaching lightly. There is too much at stake when learners are involved. Wrong teaching, in school or church, can be damaging. Thoughtless or careless words spoken by a teacher, in school or church pierce the heart and soul in ways that may never fully heal.

James 3

The word for teachers to be strict about their words is not limited to the classroom or the pulpit. Everyone has opinions, especially during a crisis like the one in which we now live. And although the First Amendment protects the right to speak freely, the way we speak must be gracious, well-thought out, and aware of the impact our words have on others. Ad hominem attacks, incomplete information, passing along stories without checking for veracity, and sharing third and fourth hand “news” does more harm than good. In a time of physical distancing, the words we write can be just as problematic as the words we speak. Those who teach must be even more vigilant to test stories, research information, and share only what is accurate and true. We who educate are held to a higher standard in promoting what is true and just and right, not just by society, but by the Father, himself.

Our reputations as believers and as teachers (formally or informally) will be judged by the society around us based on how we conducted ourselves in this difficult time. More than ever we need to be quick to hear and slow to speak. We all say things we regret. We all use the wrong words sometimes (okay, maybe often). We must be diligent to make the corrections required so that we do not tarnish the name of the Lord.

Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.

James 1:19 (ESV)

James says the tongue is a fire. Anyone who has lived through wildfires can attest that, once something has burned, it is never the same again. It may regrow; it may be rebuilt; it will never return to what it was.

Words are the same. And teachers bear a greater responsibility to speak with the love of Christ behind every interaction with students, parents, and colleagues. We who are teachers must be vigilant in how we use our words.