“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. 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.” (James 3:6-8)
Our tongues can be used for good or evil, like all of our other body parts. Wise feet stay on the narrow path with Christ, but foolish feet choose the broad path of the world for fulfillment. Wise hands work diligently to build or work; foolish hands grab at coveted possessions. Wise tongues teach biblical truths to others, testify for Christ, praise God, minister to those who are ill, recite Scripture, and encourage the faithful. But foolish tongues provocatively start conflicts or re-light conflicts that were dying out (and just needed a little fuel to flame them into fire again). James helps us understand the deadly seriousness of a foolish tongue with pictures of a forest fire, an untamable, wild animal and a fatal poisonous sting.
Have you ever witnessed or tried to stop a brush fire? If you have, you know the speed at which it spreads, the heat it generates, and the fear it instills. When I lived on a horse farm in Maryland many years ago, a tractor hit a small rock and sparked a fire on the adjacent field. Within minutes the fire was alarmingly moving in our direction, toward the house. We raced to soak the ground around the house to keep the blaze from engulfing it and fortunately this tactic worked. But we stayed there watching the fire until it petered out to be sure that we had averted the danger of the all-consuming inferno. The ground was black from the water line as far as we could see in the field. What had been green trees were now ash covered sticks pointing feebly toward the sky. The farmer didn’t plant any crops that season on the dried-up topsoil, and it took weeks before any green foliage reappeared that summer.
Our tongues, instruments of unrighteousness, can quickly set afire controversy that will ruin lives, or destroy relationships, burning up all the goodness that has been established. Like a fire burning out of control, we cannot tame or restrain our tongues in spite of knowing how dangerous they are. With our poisonous tongues we pretend, lie, flatter, gossip, slander, and stir people up in anger.
There are two points of hope, however, so that we do not lose heart. First and foremost, while we cannot control our tongues, the Holy Spirit can, as we submit to him. One day, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11). This is the highest use of our tongues.
Secondly, since all that comes out on our tongues is from our hearts, as we engage in the work of sanctification, our tongues will bear the fruit of our spiritual growth. Our cursing will decrease as we increasingly use our mouths to bless God and others. “For lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, quarreling ceases. As charcoal to hot embers and wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife.” (Proverbs 26:20-21)
Will you be starting or putting out fires today?