An average person speaks millions of words in his lifetime, and has tens of thousands of conversations. Much of that speaking and conversing exalts self.
Think of the subject of conversations that you typically have. They will likely relate to a few primary topics: family, church, work, recreation, politics, sports. Then think of the direction of those conversations: they trend upward, as you elevate yourself in relation to purity, people, and plans. How is it possible with such a flood of self-exalting talk to be humble? Consider what we contend with:
- PURITY. If your subject is injustice in society, your conversation tends to reinforce your goodness by comparison
- PEOPLE. If your subject is family, your conversation tends to put down family members who aren’t living up to your standard or who have hurt you in some way
- PLANS. If your subject is work, conversation tends toward building more wealth retiring earlier (or better) than others.
We’re told in Scripture, though, that we are supposed to be humble (Matthew 5:5), and that pride and exalting self, particularly in our speech, incur God’s displeasure and keep us from his grace (James 4:7-17). James tells us to bridle the tongue (James 3:10), so followers of Jesus should avoid self-exalting speech in three main areas (James 4:7-17).
Security about Purity
People are generally secure about their purity, confident in their goodness. “I’m a good person” is the most prevalent idea in this context, and is usually held with an implied comparison in mind: not like those serial murderers, corporate embezzlers, and intolerant bigots.
But James tells us that humbling ourselves before God starts with a clear picture of our sin in relation to God, and with developing proper passions about it:
- Resist the devil. Turn away from and reject Satan and everything he represents: deceit, destruction, accusation, pride (James 4:7).
- Return to God. Without a clear and honest picture of our own sin, we pull away from God. We should “draw near” to him again with a penitent heart (James 4:8).
- Refine sin out. Get rid of the sin that so radically affects our heart and our hands: “cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (James 4:8, ESV).
- Rue sin. James warns that a proper attitude about sin engages our passions: we should lament the sin that occupies our heart and that we commit, as well as avoid a flippant, indifferent attitude about sin (James 4:9).
If we have the attitude toward sin that James commends to us, our speech should not give others (or ourselves) the impression that we have no sin, that we have fully conquered sin, or that sin is not a significant matter for Christians.
Christian speech, flowing from a faith that works, acknowledges our sin condition, admits our sinful acts, and expresses the reality that we must continually turn away from the attractions of the world and back to the excellence of our God.
Superiority over People
When we talk about work, it’s to complain of a problematic coworker or about a bumbling boss. When we talk about family, it’s to disparage the delinquent cousin, disobedient child, or disciplinarian parent. When we talk about politics, we criticize mayors, representatives, or bureaucrats. When we talk about church, it’s to pillory the pastors, demean the deacons, or malign the members.
And it is no defense that what we say might be true. James tells us not to “speak evil against” other believers (James 4:11), which eliminates all negative speech about others that does not contribute to their maturity in Christ.
The warning is so strong in this area because to speak against others is to elevate ourselves. We normally aren’t so brazen as to openly talk about how great we are, but we imply it by talking about how sorry others are. James even says that because speech reveals the heart, when we talk this way we are presenting ourselves as the one who knows and who has met the right standard by which we’re measuring others. This is elevating ourselves above the Law and above God himself (James 4:11-12).
The speech of living faith, in contrast to that of dead faith, is loving (Ephesians 4:15) and intended to help the other mature in Christ. It utters negative truth only so far as is necessary for edification (Ephesians 4:29), and strives to think and speak good things about others that not only preserves, but enhances their reputation.
Sovereignty over Plans
We like to imagine that we are sovereign in planning. James illustrates this with the businessman who plans to profit from a year-long business trip (James 4:13-15). Unless we say something like “the Lord willing” in connection with our plans, we are boasting. In other words, leaving the Lord’s plan out of speech about our own is self-exaltation.
This is equally applicable to the high school student planning courses and extracurricular activities to impress colleges, the college student managing a degree in order to land a high-paying job, the parents making housing choices and family schedules to attain their goals.
Humbling ourselves doesn’t mean making a plan then mechanically tacking on “Lord willing” as though it were a magic phrase, the equivalent of rapping our knuckles on the desk and saying “knock on wood,” or praying for something selfish and sanctifying it with “in Jesus’ name.” Nor does it mean that we should see all vocational planning as a front for evangelistic activity.
While we plan for college, and plan for work, and plan for family…as we plan for life, we take into account what pleases God most, how that plan contributes to the mission. “The Lord willing” is not a mechanical utterance, but a deliberate intention to make plans on mission with God.
Pride is the Christian’s consistent enemy, humility his constant aim. Guard your thinking and your speaking about purity, people, and plans.