Geoff writes in to ask, “Dear Pastor John, what is James talking about in James 4:11 about not speaking evil against a brother? How do we do this — or rather, how do we avoid this?”
I love that question because it just goes right to a verse which is troubling to me, and says, “Okay, let’s deal with it. What does it mean? How do we apply this in life?” That is what I want most of my life to be. I want to hear God speak. I want to understand what he says. I want to apply it to my life. I want to honor him. So I am glad Jeff asked the question.
Evil from the Heart
James 4:10–1 says, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. Do not speak evil against one another, brothers.” So that is what he is asking about. What does that mean? Should you never criticize anybody? Should we never call anybody to account? I mean, I think that is what is behind the question.
What does that mean — “Do not speak evil against one another?” “The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge” (James 4:11). So that is the context. And I see in that context two clues that help me define how James means for us to apply “do not speak evil against one another.”
1. A proud spirit curses.
The first clue is the connection with humility in verse 10: “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. Do not speak evil.” So it seems to me that there is some connection there between speaking evil being a fruit or an overflow of a proud spirit. And a humble spirit would not do what he is telling us not to do. So that is the first clue — connection with humility.
2. A humble spirit corrects.
The second clue is the connection with judging. James puts them side by side, and he explains what he means by speaking evil in connection with judging: “The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother.” So there is that link.
The reason that feels important to me is because I know what Jesus said, and James is regularly quoting Jesus in the book of James, or at least alluding to him. I know what Jesus did with that in Matthew 7:1–5, so let me read that, and that is going to shed light back on James 4:
Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.
So there is this connection with humility — that the key to not judging, what Jesus means by it, is humility. First, take the log out of your own eye. Then, you will see clearly to take the speck. So it is not wrong to notice that there is a speck in your brother’s eye. It is not wrong to want to point it out, some flaw in him, which would be negative speaking.
Is that what James is excluding? Jesus doesn’t say so. It is not wrong to want to take the speck, if your heart is right and you are humbling yourself before him and becoming his servant — not his judge, not his condemning accuser.
Restoration from the Heart
So that is exactly the way Paul deals with it in Galatians 6:1. He says, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression” — so we do catch people, we catch ourselves, we are caught, we catch others; and so there are negative things we have to say in situations when you are caught in any transgression or when you catch someone — “you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” Now there is humility again. There is getting the log out of your own eye. “Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.”
So, in other words, it is right to make judgments about someone if they are caught in a transgression. It is not wrong to say to someone, “You are wrong. You are transgressing. Do you see what you are doing?” and to call them to account. But the issue is, are we speaking the truth, and are we humbling ourselves, first realizing we could so easily be tempted? Then, are we speaking for healing and for redemption, or are we just enjoying the put down? Are we enjoying the gossip? So speaking evil is the opposite of that.
Recognizing a Need for Grace
So, my answer to what James 4:11 is getting at in not speaking evil when it is lined up aside not judging, is not that it is the absence of all negative assessment of others. That just won’t work. You can’t obey lots of commands in the Bible if you exclude negative assessments of others. It is not the absence of all criticism or admonition or warning.
Rather — and this would be my conclusion — it is a proud, hurtful, demeaning speaking about another’s faults without any heartfelt care for their good. It is a failure to realize that we, too, are sinners, and that the grace that has been shown to us in Christ should govern our speaking about others and our speaking to others. That is what I think James is getting at when he says, “Do not speak evil against one another.”