Ask anyone to tell you what constitutes a good work, and it will not be too long before you receive a litany of responses. Helping to repair a widow’s leaky roof, giving shelter to the homeless, helping the local rescue mission serve hot meals on Thanksgiving Day, and many other physical expressions of goodness readily spring to mind when we think of the phrase “good work.”
Certainly all of the things that I have listed can be considered good works. Helping the needy among us is of primary importance to our profession of faith (James 2:14–17). Our faith does, indeed it must, express itself in such tangible and physical ways.
Yet if we limit our definition of good deeds to only the overt act of giving to the poor, we run into a problem. It is possible that we might begin to judge the authenticity of our faith solely by the way we provide for the physical needs of others. The one who gossips might then believe that he is in good standing with the Lord because he gives a lot of money to the poor when, in reality, his use of his tongue to assasinate another’s character shows that he is far from the kingdom.
Providing for the needs of the widow and the orphan is one good work that demonstrates we have authentic faith (1:27). But there are other good works that, in less tangible ways, also demonstrate our faith. If we have one of these without the other, then we deceive ourselves as to our true spiritual state.
James tells us that in addition to doing the good work of giving to the needy, we must also do the good work of restraining the tongue (v. 26). Immediately following his call to good works in chapter 2, he tells us in 3:1–12 to control our speech for the good of others. As we conclude our study of his epistle this month, the bridling of the tongue is a repeated theme. We must not use it to “murder” another’s character (4:2) or issue malicious and unscriptural judgments (vv. 11–12). We must not boastfully speak of the future (vv. 13–17) or grumble in our sufferings (5:7–11). Instead of swearing falsely, we must use it to pray and to confess our sins to others that they might help to strengthen us in our faith (vv. 12–20).
Without ever neglecting our duty to provide for the poor, we must remember that the good work of curbing the tongue must also be evident in our lives. For by controlling our speech, we demonstrate true faith and live according to the wisdom of God (3:13).