STUDIES IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
“See how great a forest a little fire kindles! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and creature of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind. But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.” (James 3:5b-8)
Wildfires can be very destructive and extensive. California residents know this from experience, as our state recently suffered record-setting wildfires, devastating over four million acres. Across the state, wildfires destroyed forests, homes and businesses, and human lives.
It doesn’t take much to start a fiery conflagration. A mere spark from faulty equipment can ignite tinder-dry ground cover, and then windy conditions can fan wildfires out of control.
Our Bible text characterizes the human tongue as a fire that can cause far-reaching harm.
Even though our tongue is a little member in our body, yet like a spark, when an unloving word is spoken, it can set the world around us on fire. Evil tongues have caused contentions and wars, alienation from family and friends. The good names and reputations of people and businesses have been ruined.
Sparks that set fires ablaze are such things as idle gossip and slander, ridicule and insults, and lies and deceit.
When searching for the cause of a fiery tongue, we need look no further than our sin-corrupted hearts. Jesus puts His finger on it when He declares, “out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies.” (Matthew 15:19) The devil, who is an accelerant agent, ever stands ready to help ignite human conflagrations. James writes that the tongue “is set on fire by hell.”
Not only our neighbors are burnt by our evil tongues, but also we ourselves. Jesus reveals that “those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man.” (Matthew 15:18) James echoes this revelation, writing, “The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body.” (3:6)
The defilement of our beings by our tongues causes us to be alienated from God. And if we do not repent, our final fate is the fiery pit of hell, where the flames of fire never burn out.
What is the remedy for our fiery tongues so that we don’t go around torching others with sinful speech? James writes, “For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and creature of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind. But no man can tame the tongue.” On the face of it, this revelation doesn’t sound very hopeful. While mankind is able to tame wild beasts and bring them under control, we do not possess the inner strength to tame our tongue.
The answer to this problem lies with the Holy Spirit. Through His sanctifying Word He “works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:13)
Relying also on prayer, we beseech God in the words of the hymnist:
“Oh, let me never speak what bounds of truth exceedeth;
Grant that no idle word from out my mouth proceedeth;
And then, when in my place I must and ought to speak,
My words grant pow’r and grace lest I offend the weak.” (TLH 395:3)
May the Lord put out the fire of our tongues and help us to control them so that our speech helps, rather than hurts.
Mark Gullerud is retired from the pastoral ministry. He lives in Sunnyvale, California.