Illustration – Baby Chicks
If you grew up on a farm you might remember every spring ordering the baby chicks, and they would come in big boxes through the post office. Every now and then, one of the baby chicks would have a blemish – a blood spot. Nothing harmful, just a spot that made it stand out from all the other chicks. And you know what would happen? The other chicks would start pecking at that blood spot. And they would peck and peck until that baby chick was dead.
And so James writes:
Brothers do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you – who are you to judge your neighbor? (James 4:11-12)
For a moment, let’s take a seat by the side of Job as he confronts God with what he sees as unfair and unjustified sufferings, and then as God responds to his accusations. Throughout the book of Job, Job has questioned the fairness of God, and demanded a referee to settle the dispute between them.
We always talk about the patience of Job – James, in a few verses will talk about Job’s perseverance under suffering. The fact is, Job was anything but patient – faithful, yes, patient, no. Listen as Job speaks to God – “If I have sinned, what have I done to you, O watcher of men? Why have you made me your target? Have I become a burden to you?” (7:20).
A couple chapters later he is complaining to his friends –“He is not a man like me that I might answer him, that we might confront each other in court. If only there were someone to arbitrate between us, to lay his hand upon us both, someone to remove God's rod from me, so that his terror would frighten me no more. Then I would speak up without fear of him, but as it now stands with me, I cannot.” (Job 9:32-35)
So, Job keeps questioning and demanding, and finally God steps down to answer him: “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it?” (Job 38: 2)
And then God walks Job through the expanse of creation – from the oceans to the heavens, the rising and setting of the sun, the mysteries of the weather, the ways of the wild animals – where were you when they were created, when I set them in motion, when I established their place?
And then finally in chapter 40: The LORD said to Job: “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him? Let him who accuses God answer him!” (Job 40:1)
All Job could see was the surface of things – the loss of his possessions, his family, his health – and in his eyes, he been given a raw deal. He didn’t deserve any of this. But God sees deeper than the surface – God has information and perspective that we are unable to comprehend.
What does all that have to do with James?
It brings us back to a proper perspective on things. James has been telling us on one front – “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble… Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.” So, we begin with a proper perspective of our place – who we are before God.
But then, on a second front, we learn, it’s not all about us, and we need to have a proper perspective of our relationships with others. So far in his letter, how many times has James talked about the use of the tongue? – “If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless… the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts… the tongue is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body.” We’ve seen how powerful our words are, and how easy it is to use them in evil ways. And how dramatically those words affect our relationships with others.
Here in these two verses in James 4, James brings both of those together – pride and a careless tongue result in slander and judgment.
He begins with a simple statement – “Brothers, do not slander one another.”
Two things about what he says and how he says it:
First of all (and I wish it weren’t so) he’s talking to Christians – Christians slandering other Christians.
Second, the grammar of the sentence tells us it is a prohibition of something they’re already doing. (It’s not a warning not to start a sinful behavior – they are already guilty of it, and he’s telling them it’s got to stop now.)
I wish James’ prohibition were irrelevant here at the Glenwood church – that we just don’t have a problem with gossip and slander. But I suspect we do. How do I know? I know because at least one person in this room is guilt, and I’m not pointing any fingers, but I know I do – and if you’re honest, you’ll admit you are also. Say the words, “Have you heard about…?” If those words have ever come out of your mouth, they probably preceded something you said in gossip about someone else, and were followed by words that spoke unkindly about that person. And that’s slander.
It’s amazing how Christians sanctify gossip by saying “I just want people to be praying about that person.” And then we justify slander by saying, “Well, it’s true.”
In Prov. 6:16 Solomon writes that slander is “abominable to God”
The Hebrew Talmud calls slander “The triple slayer” – it destroys the speaker, the one spoken to, and the one spoken about.
One modern paraphrase translates it – “The love of fault-finding.”
William Tyndale (1526), in one of the very first English translations of the Bible coined the phrase “Back-biting.”
Slander is one of the greatest temptations – it is really the most available sin. What else do you need - a judgmental heart, a sharp tongue and a listening ear.
The word that James uses is really broader than the technically narrow word “slander” (i.e., make false charges that damage a person’s reputation). It is a very straight-forward compound word – “speak against” (James actually uses the word three times – the second two times the NIV translates it that way).
James tells us that when we speak against another person, the problem is that we’re setting ourselves up as a judge over that person. We’re saying, “I have all the information and knowledge about this person that I need to render a verdict against them… There is nothing about their situation or heart that might make my judgment against them inaccurate.”
And you know, when you say something evil about someone, it may actually be true and accurate – you may have all the facts. But your heart’s not right. You may have your information correct, but when you have evil intent when you speak against another person, you have appointed yourself prosecutor, judge and jury. And James calls that slander and that is sin.
In verse 11, James tells us that slander is more than just a sin against a brother or sister, it is an affront to God himself: “Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it.”
The real significance of slander, James tells us, is not just that you make yourself a judge over another person, but that you slander the Law and make yourself a judge over the Law.
How is that? We assume that we know what God knows, we think our assessments are what God would come up with. In other words, if we were writing the Law, we could do it as well as God did it.
Pretty arrogant don’t you think? Well, none of us would ever come out and say it that way. We don’t think about the implications of our words and motives – but James makes us think about them. So, in effect, when you speak against another person, you are assuming a position for which you are unqualified and unauthorized.
Let’s make sure we put this in perspective – it’s the same problem we deal with everyday. I look at others with a magnifying glass and at myself with rose colored glasses. I can do no wrong, and they can do no right. That’s why Paul wrote in Galatians 6:1 – Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. It’s easy to look at others and see their sins, all the while blind to the fact that we just as vulnerable to Satan’s temptations.
Now understand, this warning is not against applying God’s Word or confronting sin – the Bible says clearly again and again that we have a responsibility to bring God’s Word to bear in people’s lives. What James prohibits are the arbitrary and personal condemnations of others that comes out of our own personal agendas. Or the self-congratulatory condemnations of others when we are guilty of the same or worse. And we’ll know when we’ve crossed the line when we take delight in the failings of others rather than be broken hearted that a brother or sister isn’t right with God.
The Pharisees were experts at applying the law to others and judging others guilty of sin, but were blind to their own sin. And so Jesus confronts them: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.” (Matt. 23:25)
It’s very similar to the problem Paul addressed in Romans 14 – two groups with different opinions on things like eating meat and celebrating holidays are condemning each other for not doing things the way they think they ought to be done. And Paul says, it’s none of your business – each of us answers to God – “Who are you to judge someone else's servant? To his own master he stands or falls… You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God's judgment seat. So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God. Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another” (Romans 14:4,10-13).
And here is James’ point – you’re neither qualified nor authorized to pass judgment on anyone else – you’re not God. (Back to Job – “Where were you…?”) And so James says, “There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you -- who are you to judge your neighbor?”
When you speak against someone – when you gossip about them, slander them, tear them down in other’s eyes – you are climbing into the throne of God and saying, “I can do this judging thing better than God.”
There is a crucial difference. God judges justly, but he also judges mercifully. He is able, not only to destroy, but to save.
When someone does me wrong, I want them to get what they deserve (actually, I want them to get worse than what they deserve), but God is more concerned with what people really need. We deserved to spend eternity in hell, but God sent his son. We deserve death, but God gives life.
Have you ever been slandered and hurt by the words someone spoke against you? Then you know the pain that slander causes. Have your words hurt someone because you didn’t keep your tongue in check and used those words as a weapon to cause another person pain? Think back on what Paul wrote to the Christians in the churches of Galatia: If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. (Gal. 5:15)
Don’t assume your words have no consequence – they can be devastating. But more than the damage they do to others, the damage they do to your relationship with God is even more devastating.
When Jesus preached his Sermon on the Mount, and he said, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Matt. 7:1-2)
Illust – Mercy, not justice
A story comes out of the Civil War that a private was assigned to guard duty. It had been a long and grueling day of battle, and while on watch he fell asleep. He was arrested and put in prison, and the penalty for this during time of war is death. When the court martial came, the mother of this soldier attended the proceedings. As the general overseeing the case was about to pronounce judgment, the mother arose and asked to speak. She pleaded for her son’s life and begged the general not to put him to death. The general said, “Ma’am, justice demands his death.” And the mother replied, “Sir, I’m not asking for justice, I’m asking for mercy.”
When I stand before God in judgment, I want mercy, not justice. I don’t want what I deserve – I want God’s mercy and grace. And if we have experienced God’s mercy, we should extend that mercy to others, and especially in our judgment of them and the things we say about them. Grace means everything.