It was June, but I was wearing a hat and long sleeves, and was happy to see that the bank had an awning over the ATM. I pulled under it, left my two small children in the car (with the door open and the windows down of course) and dashed three feet away to pull out my cash. As I started to get back into my car, I heard someone yelling.
I looked up to see a red-faced, older man walking toward me shaking his finger. “How dare you pull up here and cut in front of me! Do you see this parking lot? You are supposed to park there, and walk here! Are you stupid or something?"
I started to explain myself: “Oh, I am so sorry! I didn’t realize you were…it’s just that I have this rash and my kids are in their car seats and my doctor said….”
“I don’t care what you say!” He interrupted, “I’ll tell you what you are, you’re lazy!”
At this point my kids started crying and I was shaking. He was getting near enough for me to feel his hot angry breath, and see glistening sweat beads forming on his temples. His finger close enough to my nose, I had to cross my eyes to see the end of it. I was paralyzed with fear but somehow had enough clarity to abandon all efforts to explain myself. The flight side of fight or flight kicked in and I jumped in my car and drove away. In my rear view mirror I could see his rant escalate into a full-fledged temper tantrum. His finger now pointed to the sky as if to command fiery judgment to rain down on me. Surely cutting in front of someone at the ATM is a crime worthy of death.
After getting over the initial shock and fear, I too became angry. How dare he talk to me like that, especially in front of my children! “You don’t know me!” I yelled into the air. “You stupid ignorant jerk-face meanie!” (At that time, stronger language was not in my vocabulary). “He didn’t even listen! I don’t see him wearing long sleeves or having to get two little kids out of his car! Well one thing is for sure. I am most certainly NOT lazy!” I raged through angry tears all the way home.
For months afterward, I had conversations with that man in my mind, cutting him down to size and entertaining myself with thoughts of publicly shaming him for his brazen assault. I even considered printing bumper stickers that read: “Keep Your Crazy to Yourself!” How anger must rule that man’s life. But it was contagious—I caught it. His anger infected me to the point where I wanted to find him somehow and out-rage him. I fantasized about waiting for him at the bank, cutting in front of him again, not parking in the parking lot, and daring him to stick his finger in my face a second time.
The whole scene sounds silly now, but it is a prime example of how people cannot keep their crazy to themselves. Eventually it bubbles to the surface and brings out the crazy hiding within other people.
People cannot keep their crazy to themselves. Eventually it bubbles to the surface and brings out the crazy hiding within other people.
Jesus's half brother James says that our tongues are a restless evil, equivalent to a destructive fire that starts with a small spark. Not only do our small tongues have the power to direct our whole lives (like a bit in a horse’s mouth or a rudder on a ship) but they are bent toward evil. James describes in chapter three of his epistle how beastly it is to control. It is easier to train wild animals—even sea creatures and reptiles.
Of all my years hearing conservative Christians teach about how to control the tongue from James chapter three, I noticed an interesting fact when I studied it intensely on my own. James never gives advice on how to control the tongue. We do that—especially in women’s Bible studies. We add all kinds of tips and rules and steps for controlling our tongues, but James simply says it can’t be done. Ultimately our tongues are not the problem—which is what he was getting at in the first place. Whatever is in the heart of a person eventually comes out of their mouth. Can’t keep your crazy to yourself? Neither can I.
There is an obvious tension throughout the book of James—really throughout the entire Bible. This tension comes from the dual message that we are commanded to live perfect lives (Law), coupled with the fact that it cannot be done (See Romans 7:21-25). James doesn’t explain it away. In fact for three chapters he has let the tension build so that it finally culminates in chapter four with a call to cry uncle, stop trying to control everybody and everything, and rest in faith (Gospel)—not in one’s own righteousness, but in the righteousness of God given freely through faith in Jesus Christ.
James's audience was mostly Jewish. It was ingrained in them from birth to run back to the comfort of the Law where they knew what to do, what was expected of them, and how to fake righteousness with external activity and loopholes.
Over and over in the New Testament, young churches struggled to get the gospel right and to get along with each other. These folks were particularly tempted to go back to focusing on the outward appearance of righteousness to impress people, and neglect the heart. They were giving preference to rich people and ignoring the widows and orphans in their midst. And of course, they were running their mouths and fighting over who should be the teacher.
In Judaism, it was perfectly normal for the spiritual elite to intimidate others with their knowledge and position. Teachers demanded respect and lorded their authority over their followers. Anger was a common motivator. It was easy enough to slip back into old habits for these converted Jews and just let the men in charge think for them. This attitude bled over to the Gentile communities of Christians as well. And don’t we have the same problem today? If a person is lording some perceived authority over their adult congregation, or Sunday school class, or small group, that is not Gospel fellowship. It is a new form of Law-keeping Judaism—and it is harmful. We have two distinct privileges as Christians. To live our lives in the freedom that comes from faith, and to offer people Jesus. We can be free from trying to control each other with anger or any other manipulative method. Truth is, we can’t even control ourselves. If we can’t keep our crazy hidden, why keep trying?
…but he gives us more grace (James 4:6).