The apostle James warns us about the power of our words. Our tongue, James says, has an outsized impact relative to its size. Because of that, our thoughts and words should be kept in reserve unless necessary. He has compared our tongues to a bit that controls a horse or a rudder that controls a boat. A bit or rudder looks almost insignificant, but they actually determine the direction of the beast or boat.
James then compares our words or our tongues to something far more destructive: a wildfire. In James 3:5b-5, he writes, "How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell."
Wildfires are well known today and in the ancient world. Just in the past several years, California and Australia have seen dozens of lives lost and billions of dollars in damage. The ancient world had horrific wildfires, as well. Virgil and Homer, Ancient Greek poets, both wrote about wildfires as poetic devices to illustrate massive destruction. Even today, sometimes the best we can do is simply manage the destruction. We can't stop it. So it is with the tongue.
Now James is focused on the destructive power of our words. It's not a new biblical idea. Again, the Proverbs speak to this.
"A worthless man plots evil, and his speech is like a scorching fire." Proverbs 16:27.
"As charcoal to hot embers and wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife." Proverbs 26:20-21.
He says the tongue is a "world of unrighteousness." Biblically, the "world" is the system that's opposed to God. James has picked up on this at a few points. In 1:27, we're told to keep ourselves unstained by the world. In 4:4, we're told that alliance with the world is being an enemy with God. James' point is that the tongue is the clearest representative of an evil, fallen world.
So many of our problems are rooted in the fact that we say things we shouldn't, or we say them in a way that undermines what we mean. We would rather be right and start a fight than wait to say what needs to be said at the right time. This, says James, is why the tongue is "set on fire from hell."
Hell is the old English world put in place for Gehenna in the Scriptures. It was the place of pagan sacrifices that had been turned into a garbage dump where the fire never stopped during. It became the image of eternal punishment.
Here's the point: an undisciplined tongue is more aligned with hell than a righteous God.
James then writes, "For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison" (3:7-8).
In relation to all other species, humans are distinct. God made us in his image and gave us the creation mandate in Genesis 1:27. But here's the irony: all of the animals have been domesticated and tamed. At the very least, we understand how to manage the animals, whether it's bringing them into our homes or keep our distance from them.
And yet, we can't tame our own tongues. "No human being can tame the tongue." Now clearly, he's overstating the fact, because he's actually writing to implore us to do just that. But there is always more room for greater maturity in the discipline of our tongues.
Like a restless, unstable animal, the tongue must be bridled to be controlled. And if we're not extremely careful with our words, we speak out of both sides of our mouths.
James the writes, "With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so" (3:9-10).
The worth of every male and female, regardless of age or stage of life, social status, economic worth, education, physical or mental ability, is made in God's image. That fact surpasses all of those other things by an immeasurable degree.
Praise and cursing supports that idea that many Christians are hypocrites. We say one thing and do another. So, it behooves us to speak the truth in a winsome way and to live a life in concert with the truth. No one should be able to look at what we say and what we do and think we're two different people.
Next week, we'll close out our look at James 3 with yet another illustration about the tongue's power.