The Presumption & Idolatry of Harmful Speech
Passage: James 4:11–4:12
Sermon from James 4:11-12 by Bret Rogers, Pastor
Series: James: Living the Implanted Word
Delivered on July 31, 2016
Looming in the background of the current election is the FBI’s investigation of Hilary Clinton for using a private email server to handle classified information. The FBI accumulated evidence suggesting that Mrs. Clinton jeopardized our nation’s security. But what was so surprising for many was the FBI’s recommendation not to place on Mrs. Clinton any security or administrative sanctions.
A number of news articles immediately hit the press stating that, if the allegations were true, then this was clear evidence that Mrs. Clinton functions “above the law.”[i]
I mention the situation not as a matter of political persuasion. Rather, I bring it up to say that whenever a person functions “above the law,” it provokes a level of disgust. We find it audacious and arrogant and alarming. But what if I said that the Bible has a similar assessment of us when we use harmful speech? That when we speak evil of others, we too function as if we’re above the law—and not above the law of a mere nation-state, but above the law of God. James has this assessment of each of us whenever we use harmful speech. Let’s read God’s word together starting in verse 11…
11Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. 12There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?
Over the last month or so, James has been getting to the heart of our conflict problems. He already mentioned how dangerous our tongues can be (Jas 3:1-12). He then pointed us to the wisdom from above that makes us humble peacemakers instead of war-starters (Jas 3:13-18). He also taught us what needs to change in us; and ultimately it’s the heart which is so often led astray by our sinful passions (Jas 3:11; 4:1-4). These sinful passions cause quarrels and fights and disorder.
But the hope is that God has more grace for the humble (Jas 4:6). His grace can change us. The hope is that God mends our relationship with himself. And when he satisfies us with his glory, then we can begin making peace with those naturally our enemies. James now builds on that vertical relationship with God and shows how it affects our horizontal relationship to others. Today he addresses harmful speech.
The Command: “Do not speak evil against one another”
There is only one command in this section. You see it in verse 11: “Do not speak evil against one another.” The rest is explaining why we can’t speak evil against one another. But first, let’s concentrate on the command, so we know what he means throughout the passage.
There could be some confusion, especially by the time you get to the end of verse 12 and he says, “Who are you to judge your neighbor?” And many of us can probably think of passages that tell us we should judge our brothers and sisters in the church. For example, 1 Corinthians 5:12, “For what have I to do with judging outsiders [i.e., non-Christians]? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?” So in some sense we’re supposed to judge. Of course, in 1 Corinthians 5 that judgment is to occur for those who continue in unrepentant sin, and therefore threaten the gospel’s testimony and the church’s purity.
So when James starts equating speaking evil of another to judging your neighbor, we shouldn’t think that he’s dismissing judgments altogether. There are noble, patient judgments that must take place to preserve the gospel and protect the church. James has a particular kind of judgment in mind that’s manifested when we speak evil of one another. That kind of judgment becomes clearer as we look at what James means by “speaking evil” or “speaking against” a brother?
The speech he has in mind is degrading speech. Speech that puts others down to raise ourselves above them. It’s talking down at the other person. It’s slandering and defaming the other person (cf. Rom 1:29-30; 2 Cor 12:20). It’s a kind of speech that the pagan world takes for granted. First Peter 2:12 and 3:16 both assume that this is what the pagan world does on a regular basis against Christians—the world slanders them and reviles their good, moral behavior.
The kind of evil speech James has in mind is the kind whereby we put ourselves above others and smash them down with our insulting remarks. “To judge” here means to sit in judgment over somebody, because they don’t do things the way you like and the way you want.
Now, we could probably think of the obvious remarks that people might mutter against each other: “He’s worthless.” “I can’t stand her.” “He’s pathetic.” And it may very well be the case that we don’t find many of those kinds of things on our lips. But are there more subtle ways that we can speak evil against one another?
Are there times when we speak down at others when our personal preferences are elevated to the wrong place? Perhaps you’ve made judgments against other Christians based on the preference for home schooling or public schooling. The home schooling family murmurs things about the public school folks; maybe the public school family rolls their eyes and gets fed up with the other.
Perhaps you’ve made judgments based on traditional medicine or alternative medicine—the Advil people roll their eyes at the Peppermint people; and the Peppermint people cut off the Advil people. It sounds petty, but it happens. Maybe you champion a particular theological system, and yet demean another brother’s character rather than walking together toward truth. Maybe you’ve listened to a sermon before and said on the way home, “I hope so and so heard what he preached today”—as if you’re beyond the need for rebuke.
Perhaps current discussions on how to vote have left you frustrated and slandering those who think differently than you. Or maybe you’ve made defamatory remarks toward those holding a different perspective on racial tensions and the criminal justice system, or on Muslims and the refugee crisis. Perhaps the conversation even started fine, but you’ve slowly moved away from charity to crass remarks and false assumptions and quick jabs. Maybe you want someone else to do a better job than they’re doing, but instead of patiently walking with them, you resort to talking about them with others, putting them down and criticizing their work behind their back.
James finds similar attitudes in the churches he is writing to. In 2:1-6, the rich are looking down on the poor and dishonoring them—their partiality makes them judges with evil thoughts. They’re putting themselves above others with their talk. He also mentions bitter jealousy and selfish ambition that are leading to disorder and quarrels and fights (Jas 3:9; 4:1). Chapter 5:9 suggests they’re grumbling against each other. This evil speech cannot characterize the church.
A Three-step Explanation
Why? What’s beneath our speaking evil of one another? What’s the big deal about grumbling remarks? James takes three steps to expose our harmful speech for what it truly is.
To speak evil against a brother is to sit in judgment over God’s law
Step one, to speak evil against a brother is to sit in judgment over God’s law. Verse 11, “The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law.”
James knows that true change this way—in relation to others—won’t happen unless there’s change this way—in relation to God. So the first thing he does is connect our sitting in judgment over our brother to sitting in judgment over God’s law. How do the two connect, though?
It helps to understand what James means by the law. He mentions it first in 1:25 as “the perfect law, the law of liberty” (cf. 2:12). That’s the Old Testament law as interpreted by and fulfilled in Jesus under the new covenant. Then, in 2:8, he calls it the royal law. Again, that is the Old Testament law—it is God’s law—but it’s the law that, under the new covenant and through the Spirit’s power, gets fulfilled in one word: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
James seems to be alluding to this same love command here in verses 11-12. That seems obvious by the way he switches to “neighbor” at the end of verse 12. Also, if you go back and read the context of Leviticus 19—which is the love command—the context mentions not slandering your neighbor. To slander your neighbor is to do them wrong, and therefore not to fulfill the law through love. Paul says in Romans 13:10, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (cf. Rom 8:4; Gal 5:14)—that includes our speech ethics.
So here’s what I think James is saying. The law of God, when taken as a whole, can be summed up in neighbor love. To love your neighbor as yourself is not merely to love another as much as yourself, but to take up the life of another and make it your own.[ii] You may remember when Wes walked you through Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. Being a neighbor to someone excludes looking down upon others with contempt and judgmental attitudes. Being a neighbor forsakes all selfish interests, identifies with the other’s weakness, and comes down to serve. It speaks not to tear down and destroy but to raise up and heal.
Whenever that neighbor love is not present in our speech, we are functionally putting ourselves above God’s law and saying it doesn’t matter. It’s saying to God, “Your law of neighbor love doesn’t matter. I have a better way than your way. My harmful words will bring a better kingdom than your kingdom. My crass put downs will bring faster change than me laying my life down!” That’s what we’re essentially telling God when we use harmful speech. And here’s what happens next…
To sit in judgment over God’s law subverts obedience to God’s law
Step two, to sit in judgment over God’s law subverts obedience to God’s law. Verse 11 again, “But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge.” Once we determine ourselves to know better than God, we subvert our obedience to him. We functionally say, “If I’m above the law, then I don’t have to obey it. What’s the point in obeying God, if I know better than God? I know his law calls me to love, but love is just not my way.” You can see how the one leads to the other.
Alec Motyer writes, “In effect we say that the law is mistaken in commanding love. It ought rather to have commanded criticism—and if we were the lawgivers it would do so. The law no longer expresses the highest values as far as we are concerned. We know values—those of ‘talking down’ to our brothers—which are higher still.”[iii]
Isn’t this hideous? We set our own law that everybody else has to abide by, and “if you cross it, I’ll smear you with my words.” And simultaneously we’re absolving ourselves from any responsibility to our Creator. And you know what that makes us? Idolaters—we see that next.
To sit in judgment over & subvert obedience to God’s law is, ultimately, to become a God wannabe
Lastly, step three, to sit in judgment over God’s law and subvert obedience to God’s law is ultimately to become a God wannabe. It’s to set ourselves up on the throne of justice and dictate to God how people in his kingdom ought to be valued and treated and condemned. That’s what harmful speech is ultimately about—it’s about God taking a back seat to my judgments and my kingdom succeeding. It’s idolatry; it’s self-worship.
That’s why verse 12 goes on to assert, “There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy.” If you have the power to save and to destroy humans for what they’ve done, you have supreme authority and supreme rights in the universe. And there is only one with those rights, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. He alone gives the law. He alone truly knows right from wrong. He alone has exhaustive knowledge of all things. And he alone judges rightly and fully and finally.
How sobering is this, folks? When we use evil words, here’s what’s going on. We’ve moved from “I’m better than your law” to “I don’t have to obey your law” to “Get off the throne, I’ll say what I want about him.” With just a few evil words against other brothers and sisters, we’re attempting to usurp God’s authority as Judge. We commit cosmic treason, we plot the coup, and now our words are putting the coup into action.
Of course, it’s useless. If God alone is sovereign Judge—he has no true competitors to his throne—then we’ll be held accountable to his law.
A Final Humbling Question: “Who are you?”
So where do we go from here? James takes us back to that point about humility that he spelled out so well in verses 6-10. But this time he humbles us with just a final question to consider, and I want us to linger here for the rest of our time. He simply asks at the end of verse 12, “But who are you to judge your neighbor?” Or better, “But you—you who judge your neighbor—who are you?”
Isn’t this what Paul asked the church in Rome as well when they were standing in judgment over each other based on what kinds of food they wanted to eat and what kind of days they liked celebrating: “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls” (Rom 14:4-5). Who are you? This is how you kill the desire to speak evil against others. This is how you put to death those impulses to cut others down with your words—you humbly consider in light of Scripture, “Who are you, really, Bret Rogers?”
You’re not the Lawgiver & Judge
And we can start with this: you’re not the Lawgiver and Judge, God is. James puts us in our place by pointing us to God’s glory in verse 12 as Lawgiver and Judge. Sinning against others with our speech reveals that our view of God isn’t high enough. We’re not centered on his glory enough. We’re centered on our own selfish pursuits. We’re not trusting him as Judge, so we want to be Judge.
The remedy is to embrace the fact that you’re not the Judge; God is. You’re not the Lawgiver; God is. True knowledge of self only comes with a true knowledge of God and who we are in relation to him. We must humble ourselves before the true Judge.
That’s crucial to remember. Otherwise, we end up creating our own laws to live by and our own laws for others to live by—our personal tastes and preferences and prejudices become the rubric by which we judge others in the world. If they don’t look like us, talk like us, do school like us, sing hymns like us, spend money like us, do ministry like us, make much of us, then we speak evil of them. That’s what goes on in a people who do not bow before the true Judge.
Our own laws have determined good from evil in the world—and we have witnessed how disastrous this is. It has been the problem with the world since Adam and Eve attempted to bump God off and be their own determiners of what’s good and evil. And it’s a problem right now as even Christians tear into each other across social media platforms. It’s a problem right now as even Christians spread false narratives about one another without getting the facts straight face to face. We must step back and remember the real Lawgiver, the Creator and Judge of all—and we are not him.
You are deserving of judgment
Something else to remember about yourself: you are deserving of judgment. We have not always been loving with our words. To one degree or another, we’re all guilty of speaking evil of others. God has said love your neighbor with your words, and we have cut them down. Romans 3:14-15 gives an accurate diagnosis: “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” That’s everybody, guilty before the Judge. Knowing that about yourself keeps you humble.
Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:1-5 helpfully complement James’ words here. He says, “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”
Now, how many times has someone used this passage to escape conviction over sin?—“Judge not, lest you too be judged.” But if you go on and read, the context isn’t saying not to judge at all. Rather, Jesus is telling us how to judge; and that is with the humble awareness that we are just as guilty. We’ve got our own logs to deal with first. And unless we deal with our own logs first, we’ll walk around puffed up with judgmental attitudes and self-righteous condemnation of others. Part of remembering who we are is remembering that we’re no better than others. We deserve judgment, too.
You have received mercy
Next, remember also that you have received mercy. James 2:13, “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” Even though we deserve destruction, God has shown us mercy. He sent Jesus into the world to take away our sins and bear the punishment we deserved. If you’re not in Christ this morning, place your trust in Jesus. He alone takes away sins. All your violations against God’s law will be forgiven.
He spoke words that lifted us out of the pit of despair when we had slandered others. We hurled insults at him and mocked his lordship, and yet he brought us forth by the word of truth to be his own children. These mercies are new for us every morning, the Psalmist says. And if all that mercy is true for us when we deserved judgment, then what kind of mercy ought we to show one another in our speech?
Going back to the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10, which man proved to be a neighbor? The Bible says, “The one who showed him mercy” (Luke 10:37). You’re not a neighbor, if you don’t show mercy with your words. Luke 6:36, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” He has shown us mercy, and that is the fundamental motive to show mercy to others, even with our words.
You are a new creation
Also, recall that you are a new creation in Christ. James 1:18, “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” The new birth gives us a new status with God. We’re not part of the world where evil speech is so commonplace. We’re part of God’s new creation breaking into the world. New-creation people speak new-creation lingo.
Paul brings up something similar in relation to our speech ethics. In Ephesians 4, he talks about putting on the new self in Christ—the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Eph 4:24). He says nearly the same thing in Colossians 3:10, “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” The point is that in Jesus, we can bear God’s image rightly.
Part of that new-creation image-bearing involves speech. Ephesians 4:29 gives us the new-creation lingo: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” New-creation words are constructive and carefully chosen for every occasion, so that it blesses others.
Just think, every word we utter in the kingdom to come will build up and will be perfectly suited for every occasion, so that every syllable imparts grace. Every syllable! We’re not going to need road signs anymore that say, “Do not speak evil against one another”—we won’t want to. Our hearts will be so full of grace that our mouths will finally be released to spread grace with every sentence! Let’s open our Bibles and go to new-creation language school now in hopes of that coming day! And let’s do it together, which leads to one more part of answering this question, “Who are you?”
You are family
Finally, you are family. Did you notice that he uses the word “brother” three times in verse 11? “Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother…” That’s the fifteenth time for “brother” in this short letter. I think he’s trying to make a point. When we are in Christ, we’re family; and the bond we share in Christ is greater than anything else on earth.
According to 1 Peter 2:1, Christ purified us and set us apart to be a community with sincere brotherly love. We’ve tasted of the Lord’s goodness, and his goodness toward us leads us to speak purely to each other. James agrees and this is why he says, “Do not speak evil of one another.” We are brothers and sisters united in Christ. And that means Christ stands between me and how I speak about anybody else. Don’t hurl words at anybody else that Christ himself wouldn’t pass on.
Even when somebody in the church wrongs us, it’s not our place to condemn them. We cannot condemn with our words those whom God has chosen to save from condemnation. Our attitude cannot be, “You go to hell,” if God has spared them hell at the cost of his only Son. Who are we to climb on his throne with our words, and tell him whom he can and cannot love? Or who can and cannot be part of his family?
We were all orphans without hope, and we’ve all been adopted by the same Father who gave up his only, one-of-a-kind Son. None of us have rights to the inheritance. Only Jesus is the firstborn from the dead. Only Jesus has the rights. That means that all of us are in the same boat: we’ve got nothing apart from union with him. But in union with him, we all become sons and daughters and heirs with Christ.
Now we should speak of each other as fellow heirs. We cannot talk down on those that God has raised up to reign beside us. And when we consider how to walk together, we all go to our one Father’s word to determine what’s right and wrong. We don’t create our own household rules; we follow his rule spelled out here in Scripture.
So, who are you, really? Take that question to Scripture. Turn away from the idolatry of harmful speech. Humble yourself before the true Judge. Remember that his law is good, and its goal is love. Stand in awe of the mercy you’ve received. And then walk alongside your brothers and sisters who’ve received the same mercy. Speak of them in ways that match these gospel realities. Let’s not try to live above these gospel realities. We cannot top them.
[i]E.g., David Harsanyi, “Hillary Clinton Is Above the Law,” The Federalist (July 5, 2016), http://thefederalist.com/2016/07/05/hillary-clinton-is-above-the-law/; Jim Jordan, “Hillary Clinton: Above the Law?” The Hill (July 6, 2016), http://thehill.com/opinion/op-ed/286723-hillary-clinton-above-the-law.
[ii]Timothy Savage, The Church: God’s New People (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011).
[iii]Motyer, James, 159.
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