In the world where I grew up, little boys were expected to be strong and tough, impervious to pain. So, when someone called me a name or said mean things, the culturally expected response was, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”¹ My parents, teachers, and others in authority encouraged this rejoinder. So, when bullied or insulted by another child, I said the words, but I knew they were not true. Being called names, most of which I prefer not to repeat, hurt. It hurt deeply. Furthermore, some of those wounds have never healed.
Nevertheless, I also have memories of healing words—words that came at just the right time to encourage, restore hope, and build up instead of tear down. Healing words express mercy and grace; kind words cure pain; polite words restore health. Moreover, memories of those words continue to bring healing today, just as they did when the words were spoken.
Our Savior’s brother and author of an epistle that bears his name wrote wisely about using words. Like the Book of Proverbs, James’s epistle strongly contrasts the way of foolishness and the way of wisdom. When he addresses the use of words, James confronts those who speak unkindly and unjustly. He calls out the inconsistency of praise and curse coming from the same person.
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it, we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and saltwater flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water (Jas 3:9–12).
Consistent with the other texts that use the language of “image” (Gen 9:6) or “image and likeness” (Gen 1:26–27; 5:3) or “likeness” (Gen 5:1), when James refers to the “likeness of God” he most likely intends the imago Dei. Jesus is the perfect “image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15). But biblical use of the language of image and likeness seems to apply to all humans—both believers and unbelievers. All humans share the image and likeness of God. Although there are many ways this language has been understood throughout the history of interpretation, the imago Dei seems to include several important affirmations about humanity. The God who is invisible is revealed in His imagers, representing Him on the earth, and the rule (care for) the creatures God created and the earth itself.
As a result of their creation by God, humans have dignity. That all humans are imagers of God means that all humans have dignity. All humans should be treated as if they are God’s representatives because they are. All humans reveal the God who created them, and all share in the goal of caring for God’s creation. Thus, believers demonstrate our love for God by loving those that God has created, and we evidence our love for one another by loving the God who created us. When we do, we fulfill the law of God. Jesus taught that all of Scripture is summarized in the great commandment—love God and love others (Matt 22:36–40). The apostle Paul reminds us, “Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Rom 13:10) and “the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Gal 5:14).
James introduces this exhortation with a shocking inconsistency; the same mouth, the same person, both praises God and curses it’s representatives. “This should not be.” Then he uses several illustrations from creation because creation reveals God’s attributes and character (cf. Rom 1:18–25). Fresh water and salt water do not come from the same source. The two are not the same. I remember the first experience of tasting salt water. It looks the same as the water that comes from the tap, as the water that flows into the shower or bathtub, but the taste is much different. Further, when fresh water flows into salt water, the water becomes salty. Brackish water has less salinity than seawater but more than fresh water; it is not good to drink it because it is salty. James’s point is clear: A spring cannot produce both fresh water and salt water simultaneously. Furthermore, when salt water is mixed with fresh water, the result is not fresh water. When the tongue speaks both blessing and curse, the curse remains. The blessing does not remove the curse.
Second, James uses an illustration from horticulture. Fig trees produce figs, not olives or some other fruit. Grapevines produce grapes, not figs. James concludes with a repetition of the first illustration: “Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.”
In these illustrations, each of the created things is good when and where appropriate. Salt water is the perfect environment for creatures who are adapted to live there. The same creatures could not survive in a freshwater lake. For the production of wine, grapes are necessary. Figs would not provide the necessary grape juice. However, for a fresh fig pie, the chef would use figs, not grapes. James’s use of the illustrations is not to treat one as good and the other bad, not to say that one of the two is better than the other. Rather, he is reminding his readers that salt water and fresh water cannot come from the same source and that figs and grapes cannot come from the same tree. He then implies the rhetorical question, how can both blessing and cursing come from the same person? Apparently, what is impossible in creation is possible in creatures and thus the strong admonition: “This should not be.”
In the midst of a polarized and polarizing culture, Christians have an opportunity to shine as light and show a way forward that honors and respects people whose views we find difficult or impossible to accept and sometimes even impossible to understand. It is possible to respect the person without respecting the position that person holds. It is possible to honor the imager while disagreeing strongly with the behavior of that person. It is possible to treat another person with dignity while rejecting that person’s words. We have the opportunity to practice speaking the truth in love (Eph 4:15).
Early in my career as a professor, I learned a valuable lesson from Dr. Mark Bailey, who was the president of DTS. One morning in class, as I was defending a view I hold, I mentioned to the students that I know the president holds a different view. Then I said, “I think he is wrong.” The reaction of the students surprised me. I sensed some discomfort or even shock that I would disagree with the president. It led me to question whether what I said was appropriate.
In God’s providence, I was scheduled to have lunch with Dr. Bailey that same day, so I told him that I had disagreed with him in class. He smiled and said that he could probably guess. When I told him what it was, the specific issue is not necessary for the illustration, he said he had thought it was probably the one. He explained his view to me (I already knew it since he had been my professor when I was a student) and then said, “I disagree with you, but I will defend your right to hold that view. That is what academic freedom entails.” And then he went on to say, “I think students should know that we on the faculty do not all hold the same view on every issue. We agree on Christian orthodoxy, we all annually affirm the doctrinal statement, but there are differences in opinions. We honor and respect one another even when we disagree.” ² I have never forgotten that conversation.
According to Jesus, “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 7:12). Since I would prefer that others respect me, honor me, and treat me with dignity even when they disagree with me, I have tried to practice what I learned from Dr. Bailey. Even when others do not treat me well, my goal is to respond as Dr. Bailey did that day. Moreover, I recommend that others adopt his approach as well. May our words bring healing and grace in a broken and graceless culture.
About the Contributors
Prior to teaching at DTS, Dr. Kreider served as Director of Christian Education and then as Senior Pastor in Cedar Hill, TX. His research and writing interests include Jonathan Edwards, theological method, theology and popular culture, and our eschatological hope. Dr. Kreider believes that grace really is amazing; it is a thought that will change the world. He is married to his best friend, Janice, and they have two grown children, a son-in-law, and one granddaughter, Marlo Grace. He and Janice enjoy live music, good stories, bold coffee, and their five rescue dogs—two pugs, a chihuahua, a terrier named Chloe, and a black lab, Carlile.