James 3:5-6, 9-10 – “The tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. 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… 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.”
I would love to know the context of what was going on as James said the strong things he said about the tongue in James 3. Was he thinking about a few specific people who have harmed others with their words? Was he speaking strongly against a specific situation? Amazingly, whether he was speaking to a specific situation of his day or not, his words were inspired perfectly for us to be challenged today.
Think about all that James says. You can have victory over sexual temptation, over anger issues, over a problem of lying or stealing or cheating. You can experience victory over a number of sinful tendencies in your life; but chances are you will still struggle with harmful words you utter.
The tongue stains the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life. What exactly does that mean? I believe what he is saying is that what comes out of your mouth shows you who you really are. If you are someone who struggles with temptations to gossip, or maybe you are that person that everyone knows will spread ideas or rumors or “prayer requests” about others, then that says something much deeper about who you are. In Luke 6:45, Jesus said: “Out of the overflow of your heart, the mouth speaks.” Meaning, what is on the inside will come out through your mouth. If your mouth can’t be trusted, then you in general can’t be trusted.
It is a pretty regular occurrence for me to hear about people being hurt by other people’s words. Oftentimes someone says something without any hurtful intent, but because of a variety of reasons, it is heard in a hurtful way. That’s what happens when we open our mouth without care, since our tongue “is a fire, a world of unrighteousness.” James says that a great forest is set on fire by just a small spark. This is the case with our tongues. When we allow our tongues to speak without being careful of what comes out, damage is done. Imagine then what happens when a group of people join together to “express concern for someone” when in reality all they are doing is gossiping. This happens and is justified all too often.
Yet, the irony of our tongues is what James says in v. 9: “With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God.” This contradiction makes no sense. And that is James’ point. How can you call yourself a child of God, yet you curse a brother or sister in Christ? How can you worship the Lord through music on Sunday morning, but then lash out in anger at your children in the afternoon? How can you claim that you love God, but then display such a selfish heart as you gleefully boast of other people’s failures to build up your victories? How can you claim to love God and love others and be that person that no one trusts to share deep truths with because of how they know it will not be kept confidentially? Like GI Joe used to say, “Knowing is half the battle.” It is good to know that our tongues are not to be trusted. Yet knowing this truth is truly half the battle. We must submit our tongues to the Lord for him to take charge over them. “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing in your sight” (Psalm 19:14).