In the age of the Internet, iPhones, social media, and other technological amenities of the 21st century, is learning from the pages of centuries old writing even relevant anymore? Have we not progressed as a society where psychologists, depression medicine, and other self-help tactics are a dime a dozen?
While I do believe there our current social-historical environment enjoys some of the greatest advancements and quality of life in the history of the human race, there still is wisdom to be gleaned from ancient texts. I came across such writing recently in both a familiar yet fresh place—the Epistle of James from the New Testament.
Build your house on the living cornerstone instead of out of straw
One of my favorite children’s short stories is The Story of the Three Little Pigs. Along with being able to tell that tale to my children now, I enjoy the practical and simple message that the story contains. Preparation is key and having a solid foundation is vital not only to having a secure home, but also leading a stable and joyful life. Martin Luther, the champion of the Protestant Reformation, once called the Letter of James an “epistle of straw”. He jettisoned this work from his New Testament. As a result, the Protestant canon does not officially contain the Epistle of James.
Simply by reading the writing by St. James, his work is definitely not built on straw. Rather, this is truly an inspired text. I find practical applications of its message in my daily life. James 1:2 provides healing during stressful times in my life. Chapter 1 verse 2 states, “Consider it all joy, my brothers, when you encounter various trials.” This advice is much tougher than it sounds to incorporate, but I have noticed when I take time to discover joy in my suffering that weight becomes more bearable! Let Christ me a cornerstone for your life.
Tame the tongue
James 3 focuses on the dangers and evils associated with ill words. The New Testament writer uses such eloquent speech and examples. Because I do not want to downplay the inspired epistle I will cite James’ text before I provide the lessons I learned. St. James authoritatively states,
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you realize that we will be judged more strictly, 2for we all fall short in many respects. If anyone does not fall short in speech, he is a perfect man, able to bridle his whole body also.a 3If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we also guide their whole bodies. 4It is the same with ships: even though they are so large and driven by fierce winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot’s inclination wishes. 5In the same way the tongue is a small member and yet has great pretensions.
Consider how small a fire can set a huge forest ablaze. 6The tongue is also a fire. It exists among our members as a world of malice, defiling the whole body and setting the entire course of our lives on fire, itself set on fire by Gehenna. 7For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, 8but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.b 9With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings who are made in the likeness of God. 10From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. This need not be so, my brothers. 11Does a spring gush forth from the same opening both pure and brackish water? 12Can a fig tree, my brothers, produce olives, or a grapevine figs? Neither can salt water yield fresh.c (James 3:1-12).
Practical wisdom and spiritual guidance from this passage
- Words guide actions
- Men may tame the natural world, but only the Holy Spirit may tame mankind
- Failure to control our speech will have dangerous consequences in daily life
- Complaining and cursing lead to destruction of a person’s entire character
Actions speak louder than words
Music provided a refuge from my depression in high school. During my junior and senior years, I was a part of nearly every musical group the school had to offer: All-state choir, chamber choir, musical, caroling, and show choir. There was a particular song I remember the varsity show choir sang during my freshman year—Louder than Words from the musical Tick, Tick…BOOM. I occasionally find myself singing the refrain randomly over the years. Below is an excerpt from the more famous part of the song and the section that I most remember.
Why do we play with fire?
Why do we run our finger through the flame?
Why do we leave our hand on the stove-
Although we know we’re in for some pain?
Oh, why do we refuse to hang a light
When the streets are dangerous?
Why does it take an accident
Before the truth gets through to us?
Cages or wings?
Which do you prefer?
Ask the birds.
Fear or love, baby?
Don’t say the answer
Actions speak louder than words.
Talk is Cheap
I am not sure what the original intention the songwriter’s had in composing the lyrics, but the juxtaposition between cages or wings is a simple and relatable image that I reflect on constantly during my battles against depression. I often toe the line between freedom and entrapment. What this song does a good job doing is reminding myself that deeds define a person. Words are cheap. Verbal promises are created easily. Where it gets difficult if when we our actions need to be consistent with our words—especially in times of trial! How often do we select cages over the freedom of wings? Do we allow sloth and our pride to prevent us from seeking new opportunities to act, to serve others, and engage in things that bring us true and lasting freedom? Do we choose fear or love?
The epistle of James provides us an answer to these questions. James states, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?i If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?j 17 So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:14-17). It is not sufficient to say that you love God, or that you love your neighbor. True faith is demonstrable. It dons the cloak of charity in feeding the hungry, comforting the depressed, or helping the disenfranchised.
Call to Action
Will you make your house out of straw? Why is refraining from sins of the tongue a good thing? Do you prefer cages or wings? The Epistle of James provided me practical answers to these questions. His writing leads me to have the possibility for daily success!
How the Letter of Saint James Guides Your Speech (and Heart)
4 Secrets to Guarantee a Successful Life
The Wisdom of St. James and the New Testament Canon