James opens this chapter by recommending his listeners not to seek out a teaching position. Back then (and sometimes in the present day), teachers were synonymous with prestige and an enviable position. Such authority gave them the aura of power and importance. Teachers were looked up to, held in high esteem, and their words could be taken, unfiltered, straight to the heart.
It was this last quality that prompted James to steer people away from clambering toward being a teacher—it brings an awesome responsibility, and that is sometimes overlooked. Part of this responsibility is being held to a “stricter judgment” (James 3:1) with words, since words have even more power when coupled with more influence. Becoming a teacher, especially a spiritual teacher, is not something to be sought after for worldly reasons or power; it is something that should only be pursued with God’s calling and strength.
A few verses later, James seems to be swept along by his own imagery and waxes poetic about the dangers of the tongue, calling it a “world of iniquity” that “defiles the whole body” and “is set on fire by hell” (v. 6). He seems to be stressing that words do more than they seem to, and therefore the tongue has more power than we give it credit for. Words have been used to take a righteous person’s life (1 Kings 21:1–16), discourage an entire group of people from God’s work (Neh. 6:5–9, 19), and even to deny a relationship with Jesus (Luke 22:54–62).
It’s common to hear, “I didn’t mean it,” or, “I was only joking,” appended to harsh or un-Christ-like expressions. Phrases like these cannot undo the damage of words (though, of course, apologies are intensely appropriate in the aftermath of such expressions). There is no “backspace” when it comes to what one says that can truly undo the effect.
Words can deeply affect an individual’s life that aren’t even used as an insult. After David had killed Goliath and been welcomed into King Saul’s inner circle, David and Saul were the recipients of a song by the women celebrating: “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands” (1 Sam. 18:7). This comparison gave opportunity for the birth of resentment and long-term hatred of Saul toward David (v. 8). Later, on two separate occasions when David was seeking refuge from foreign (and enemy) nations, these very words were used by the servants of these foreign kings to explain why David was not someone to be trusted: Hadn’t they heard the song? Didn’t they know who David was? (1 Sam. 21:11; 29:5). Knowing full well these stories, as well as the teachings of Jesus, James urges his listeners to not underestimate the power of one’s words and their far-reaching effect—whether for good or evil.