In some Charismatic and Pentecostal churches, it is common for believers to be reprimanded when they admit to suffering. Such a rebuke is especially typical when believers experience illness. For example, when they state they are not feeling well, their peers insensitively censure them for speaking sickness over their bodies. Allegedly, bad tidings ought to be “cut off” or “cancelled” in the Name of Jesus, and believers are urged to “speak life” over themselves and others. The underlying premise is that the mere articulation of a positive or happy thought has the inherent power to become a reality.

So, then, from where does this aberrant theology originate? While some advocates point to Job 3:25–26, Prov 18:21, and Rom 4:17, many others base such a teaching on James 3:1–12. In this brief blogpost, we contend that the “name it and claim it,” prosperity theology described above lacks credibility and fails to be persuasive. This viewpoint becomes even more apparent when examining James 3:1–12 within its proper context. It’s evident that the author did not intend to promote mystical incantations when he discussed the power of human speech.

Since James “says more about speech than any other single topic” (Thielman 2005, 505), it is important for us to correctly understand his point. The passage begins with the issue of being responsible teachers of Scripture (vv. 1–2). James cautions his readers that teachers are held to a higher ethical standard and that not many of them should aspire to teach. Admittedly, such a position carries a degree of power and authority. In turn, this reality makes teaching attractive to some who are perhaps not called to such a ministry and who are irresponsibly using their tongues.

James alerts his readers to the fact that the tongue, in contrast to every other part of the human body, most clearly reveals a person’s depraved, wayward tendencies. Note that not even those who teach Scripture are exempt from this sobering reality. Indeed, only those who are perfect can keep a tight rein on their speech. The Greek adjective rendered perfect (LEB; τέλειος; 3:2) refers to being fully developed in a moral sense and meeting the highest ethical standards (Silva 2014, s.v. τέλειος; Swanson 2001, s.v. τέλειος). In short, the emphasis here is on becoming more Christlike, not achieving material prosperity.

James offers two examples to illustrate the depraved and wild nature of the tongue. First, he observes how a small object, such as the human tongue, can either positively or negatively control the destiny of a much larger entity, such as the bit in an animal’s mouth and the rudder of a ship (v. 3). Second, he notes that the tongue can produce a great deal of good or evil. This observation is reinforced by the metaphor of a small spark that can set a whole forest ablaze (v. 5). Similarly, the tongue can corrupt the whole body and set aflame the entire course of one’s life. Likewise, the tongue is itself set ablaze by hell (v. 6). Understandably, when the tongue is left uncontrolled, it becomes a tool for vice, rather than virtue. As a matter of fact, under the influence of Satan and his demonic cohorts, people say things that are inherently destructive in nature.

James continues his discourse by comparing the tongue to an untamed animal (vv. 7–8). While humankind has succeeded in carrying out the divine mandate to rule over virtually every wild creature, the instruments of communication people use remain feral. Verse 8 bluntly states the reason for humanity’s abysmal failure rate, namely, that their instrument of speech is not only evil, but also restless. Loh and Hatton (1997) put forward the image of a “caged beast” that anxiously paces “back and forth” in search of an “opportunity to break out.”

Moreover, humans are contradictory in their speech. Consider this: the same mouth that praises God also curses human beings whom he made in his image (vv. 9–10). James, with good reason, condemns such doublespeak, saying, “my dear brothers and sister, this should not be” (v. 10). To illustrate his point, James uses two rhetorical questions, first by asking whether fresh and salt water can flow from the same spring, and second by wondering whether a fig tree can bear olives (vv. 11–12). The answer to both queries is a resounding no. Here, the context is speech that demeans people, destroys unity among them, and corrupts their relationships.

In short, James’s concern in this passage is not about a mystical speaking of good or bad fortune, but the reality that an untamed tongue can morally corrupt both individuals and their entire community. Moreover, James is not concerned about promoting health, wealth, and prosperity, but about urging afflicted believers to persevere and one day receive from God the crown of life (1:12). The broader literary context for both the preceding verse and 3:1–12 is James’s exhortation that his readers rejoice in the face of many kinds of trials (1:2), exercise patience in the face of suffering (5:10), and acknowledge the reality of trouble and sickness in their lives (5:14–14). Lastly, the outcome of rejoicing and persevering (1:4) is spiritual maturity, not becoming rich, famous, and powerful in the eyes of the world.

This blog is distilled from an article written by Prof Lioy entitled, “The Destructive Power of the Tongue as a Verbum Inefficax: A Canonical-Literary Reading of James 3:1–12 through the Lens of Speech-Act Theory.” The article is available here.


Works Cited

Loh, I-Jin, and Howard A. Hatton. 1997. A Handbook on the Letter from James. UBS Helps for Translators. New York: United Bible Societies. Logos.

Thielman, Frank. 2005. Theology of the New Testament: A Canonical and Synthetic Approach. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.          

Silva, Moisés. 2014. “τέλειος.” Pages 470–480 in vol. 4 of New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. Logos.

Swanson, James. 2001. “τέλος.” In A Dictionary of Biblical Languages: Greek New Testament with Semantic Domains. Bellingham: Logos.