Reading: James 3:2-6
It can be rather instructive to read how the Bible describes certain items in a sort of systematic overview. The tongue, for instance, is given all manner of descriptors throughout scripture. It is poisonous (James 3:8). It is a sharp razor and a plotter of destruction (Psalm 52:2). It can be perverse (Proverbs 10:31). It can be backbiting (Proverbs 25:23). While there are also positive connotations, many of the mentions of the mouth and tongue use descriptors such as profane, unclean, boastful, slanderous, and many more along these same lines. It becomes apparent very quickly the Bible is telling us that our speech can be a prime sign of sin.
There’s no doubt if we do not guard our speech as commanded throughout God’s Word, we can run into some serious trouble. James makes it clear in verse 2 that “we all stumble”, and that not being perfect, we all obviously are going to have issues with curbing our tongue. In verses 3 and 4, James uses some of his outdoor imagery to compare the tongue to a horse’s bridle and ship’s rudder—two relatively small things that control a much larger object. So it is with our tongue and our body. The tongue might be tiny compared to the rest of the body, but the words it forms can control and ruin an entire life.
We see this again in verse 5, when James says, “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!” (ESV). Anyone who has ever seen a malicious rumor or “harmless” bit of gossip run rampant understands this to be a perfect analogy to what even a few words can do. The great Puritan writer Richard Baxter wrote “Words and actions are transient things, and being once past, are nothing; but the effect of them on an immortal soul may be endless”. Writing earlier, John Calvin suggested “since the tongue cannot be restrained, there must be some secret fire of hell hidden in it”. Just as a single smoldering matchstick may destroy an entire forest, one unkind word, one vicious volley, one bit of jealous gossip, can devastate relationships and endeavors that took years to build up.
There is another central aspect to these verses, one that cannot be overlooked. If we look at the verse immediately preceding this passage, James 3:1 states “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (ESV). Whether we’re teaching our children, our friends, our small group, we are going to be held to account for what we teach. It’s not by coincidence that this verse is followed by the stern requirements of watching what one says. We live in a world where many of the most popular preachers do not hold to the Bible on many teachings. The words that come out of their mouths are not scriptural, or perhaps worse, twist scripture to focus on health, wealth, and prosperity or treating God like some sort of cosmic genie for acquiring things or rationalizing away sin. The church today in general often substitutes speaking in catchphrases, “easy-believism”, and worldly self-help ideas in the place of firm, scripturally-based teaching and exegesis.
As James says later in this section, “My brothers, these things ought not be” (v. 10). Before we ever open our mouths in any sort of teaching capacity, we need to follow the New Testament example of the Bereans, who “received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). If we were explaining to someone on how to defuse a bomb or perform open-heart surgery, we’d make sure every word was correct. God’s Word deserves an even higher level of respect when we share it. It’s easy to slide into “church-isms”—little phrases we like to use in fellowship that are nowhere in the Bible. With no basis in scripture, these can range from the culturally common (no, we don’t turn into angels when we die) to the self-indulgent (“God just wants you to be happy”). We can take nothing for granted, but have to truly read our Bibles and align our speech and teaching with the instructions we find therein.
In verse 6, James states 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” (ESV). In the Greek, “hell” in this passage refers to Gehenna, or the Valley of Hinom, where a large, filthy trash fire continually burned just outside the city of Jerusalem. It was used by Christ (Matthew 5:22, Mark 9:43) as a representation of the sort of eternal torment that awaits the unregenerate sinful. In fact, in one of those passages, Matthew 5:22, Christ stated that those who utter verbal abuse to others are “in danger of the fire of hell” (ESV). These are not softball images, but hard, challenging concepts. Words are carelessly thrown about in our culture. Verbal abuse is thought high comedy or an art form. The name of the Lord is uttered in vain by individuals of all walks of life, without a thought to what is being said. Nasty, angry, careless, sinful thoughts are shared on social media, 140 letters at a time, status update by status update, a modern-day Gehenna that never stops burning.
Friends, curbing our tongue, watching what we say, thinking before we speak, and not instructing without firm knowledge are counter-cultural. The stakes are high, as the Bible reinforces time and time again, from Exodus 20:7 to Ephesians 5:3-5. It’s not just a sort of vapid, moralistic “speak nicely, because that’s nice” sentiment. It’s understanding that what we say is heard before a Holy God, and that those words will have an impact not just on our spiritual life, but on the spiritual lives of those around us. It’s remembering back in 1:26, James calls the religion of someone who cannot curb their tongue “worthless”. Before we ever speak, let us “take captive every thought” (2 Cor. 10:5), and remember this is not optional. Christians are called to a standard that is not that of the world (Ephesians 5:1-2, Romans 12:2). It’s not just saying the right thing, or going through a verbal checklist, but understanding God’s grace and pure holiness, the need for repentance and forgiveness, and continuing to abide in Him through prayer, hearing and reading His word, and acknowledging Him as sovereign over all.