Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
… no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. (verses 5-6, 8-10)
“How could I have said that?” “Why didn’t I just bite my tongue?” “If I could only stuff those words right back in!”
Ever been there? I don’t even need to ask. It’s our common plight.
James knows it well. He says the tongue, though a very small part of the body, has an outsized impact. A fierce stallion is controlled by a small bit, attached to a bridle, placed in its mouth. A ship’s rudder, small when compared with a massive vessel, steers that huge bulk even amid raging winds. So, too, a tongue. Though small, its effect is immense.
This past summer, forest fires raged across Canada, breaking all records with shocking devastation. An estimated 18.4 million hectares were decimated. But each of those fires would have started incredibly small, often with a single spark. And consider the inferno that engulfed, then razed, the historic town of Lahaina, Maui, this same summer. Such massive destruction from a very small beginning.
The tongue is capable of such devastation. James uses severe language to describe it, saying the tongue corrupts our whole being, raging like a fire that comes directly from hell itself. Ouch. Those are words to set us back on our heels, to make us catch our breath and lament the devilish damage our own careless lips have caused.
For those who serve as teachers, careless words can cause spiritual damage in the lives of those who come under their teaching. James cautions teachers that they will be judged “more strictly” (verse 1) – so weigh your words carefully, he warns.
But it’s not just teachers. Our tongues can praise God but also damage people, those whom God himself has created in his own likeness. Words of gossip, spoken thoughtlessly, damage reputations, and when they circle back to the person themselves, they inflict further wounds. So, too, with words that are spoken rashly and in anger – they leap out quickly, injuring the hearer before we’ve even had time to weigh the consequence. James, earlier in this same letter, urged us to be “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry”(James 1:19) – he knew well the danger of the tongue.
I can think of times when my tongue tried to use humour that utterly misfired. Or words that seemed wise at the time but were completely unhelpful. Or times when I spoke carelessly behind someone’s back, words that should not have been spoken at all. Painfully, I think of moments when I allowed anger to shape words that escaped my lips too quickly, pouring fuel on fires that would have been better doused with peace. I have much to learn.
How about you?
The painful reality of loose tongues compels us to turn to the Lord again – in submission (see James 4:7), in repentance, for forgiveness, for peace instead of anger, wisdom instead of quick-tempered foolishness, and for the continual renewing presence of his Spirit. May it be.
O Lord, I confess my need. My tongue needs the peace-filled, wise control of your Spirit. I submit myself to you afresh. May your kingdom come, even here. Amen.
Reflect: Think back – where, in recent days, do you need to ask the Lord’s forgiveness? Think ahead – where will your tongue most need the Spirit’s controlling presence over the next days?