By our fruit

Most of us, I suspect, live with a gap between where we are and where we aspire to be — or at least, where we say we aspire to be. Often, there’s a gap between what we say we value and what we actually do. For example, we may say we want to be more physically fit but not exercise, as if merely wishing would make it so.

Does that mean we don’t actually value fitness? Possibly. Or it could mean that we value other things more — like the freedom to binge-watch our favorite program whenever we want, with a bag of Doritos in our lap.

Here’s another example. We may say that we love someone. We may even say it every day. But the other person has every right to doubt our sincerity if we don’t do anything to show that we love them. Yes, yes, I know: maybe the other person doesn’t see it because we don’t share the same “love language,” as Gary Chapman would put it. But in that case, wouldn’t love entail the willingness to compassionately understand the difference and change our behavior for the sake of the other?

In previous posts, we’ve been exploring what the apostle James has to say not only about faith and works, but more specifically about faith and words. He uses unflinchingly harsh metaphors to describe the evil and havoc wrought by careless speech, and condemns the hypocrisy of using the same mouth to utter both pious language and curses (James 3:5-10).

He then continues in the same vein, deepening the point:

Both fresh water and salt water don’t come from the same spring, do they? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree produce olives? Can a grapevine produce figs? Of course not, and fresh water doesn’t flow from a saltwater spring either. (James 3:11-12, CEB)

His point is reminiscent of the teaching of Jesus. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned his followers against false prophets: You will know them by their fruit” (Matt 7:16, 20). You get what you plant, and James in particular is wanting to see the fruit of the gospel that had supposedly been planted deeply in believers (James 1:21). If it’s true that James was at least partly addressing a problem of false teaching in the church, then Jesus’ words on the subject would have been particularly applicable. You will know them by their fruit.

But his larger point is about what our words say about our character. Having words of blessing and cursing come from the same mouth is as paradoxical as fresh and salt water coming from the same spring. Three sentences later, he renews the metaphor, but uses it more pointedly. It’s as if to say, “Fresh water doesn’t come out of a saltwater spring, right? Neither does true blessing flow from a corrupt heart. So forget about all the pious language. If you’re cursing people, what does that say about your inner character?”

This too echoes the teaching of Jesus. The Pharisees and legal scholars had criticized Jesus and his disciples for not washing their hands before eating, as was the ceremonial custom. Jesus condemned them for their hypocrisy, then turned to the crowd and said:

It’s not what goes into the mouth that contaminates a person in God’s sight. It’s what comes out of the mouth that contaminates the person. (Matt 15:11)

Later, he explained further to his disciples that this was because “what goes out of the mouth comes from the heart” (Matt 15:18) — and what’s in the heart is what matters to God.

Our words are the fruit of our innermost being. What we say demonstrates something of our character. Yes, as James says, we all make mistakes (James 3:2); with our words, we “stumble” in many ways. But hopefully, we can use each stumble to examine our hearts — indeed, we can ask God to examine our hearts.

True faith, James insists, is demonstrated in a person’s behavior. And the word planted in us should bear fruit in the words we speak.