What does James chapter 3 mean?Words and wisdom are the focus of chapter 3. Uncontrolled words and the wisdom of the world always lead to destruction. Those who trust God understand that neither human speech nor human philosophy will lead them toward a faithful life.
First, James tackles the tongue. His bottom line: the tongue is unbelievably powerful, and it cannot be fully controlled. A person who could perfectly control his or her speech 100 percent of the time would have already arrived at full control of every aspect of the entire body, and their entire life. Yes, the tongue is small. So is the bit in a horse's mouth, the rudder on a ship, or the spark that ignites a forest. That forest fire is the one James lingers on. He calls the tongue a fire that sets the whole course of our lives on fire and is itself set on fire by hell. He calls it a restless, unstable evil, full of fatal poison.
In fact, James insists, the tongue is untamable. We have no hope for controlling our words on our own as sinful human beings. Blessing and cursing shouldn't come out of the same mouth; that's bizarre and sinful. It's as weird as salt water and fresh water coming out of the same spring together. It's as weird as olive trees growing figs. And, yet, speaking both blessings and curses with the same tongue is normal behavior for sinful humans.
James next turns to the question of wisdom, insisting that wisdom is as wisdom does. This echoes his points from chapter 2, where he indicated that what a person does is a strong indication of what they actually believe. More specifically, in this chapter, James says wise people lead lives full of good works done in the humility of wisdom. James agrees with Solomon in Proverbs that wisdom always requires humility.
The wisdom of the world is built on an entirely different worldview. Instead of humility, worldly wisdom leads every person to make their lives about themselves. This mindset tells us to look at what other people have, decide what we want (bitter envy) and then make a plan to get it for yourself (selfish ambition). Success according to the world, then, is getting what you want in life.
James says this is a false perspective. Believing in such a philosophy leads to all the disorder, chaos, and evil we see in the world. The wisdom of heaven offers a very different strategy for living and leads to very different results. Because we trust God to provide what we need, we can let go of envy and selfish ambition. We can lead lives of peace, gentleness, reasonableness, kindness, and more. We can help plant peace and help bring in the harvest of righteousness.