by Gary Kerr
Synopsis: History records tragic examples of fires that started with a spark or a small flame but quickly spread into devastating infernos. No wonder the Holy Spirit guided James to employ this imagery to illustrate the power the tongue has for both good and evil.
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 (Jas. 3:6, ESV).
In October, 1871, the worst fire in American history roared through Wisconsin and Michigan, destroying millions of dollars' worth of property, killing an estimated 2,400 people, consuming nearly 1,900 square miles of forest, and destroying two billion trees. Known as the Peshtigo Fire, it is believed to have been kindled by rail sparks from passing trains igniting dry grass and brush beside the tracks.
At the same time the city of Chicago also endured a terrible fire—started, according to local legend, when Mrs. O'Leary's cow kicked over a lantern! That fire killed over 300 people, destroyed more than three square miles of Chicago property, and left at least 100,000 people homeless.
How true are the words of James 3:5, which states, "How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!" Why did James say this? Because, "the tongue is a fire" (v. 6). The tongue represents our ability to speak, and like fire, our speech has the potential to cause both great harm and great good. "Death and life are in the power of the tongue" (Prov. 18:21).
We don't stop using fire because we fear the damage it might cause, and it would be foolish to think that the only way to keep from sinning with our tongues would be to stop talking! The key is control. If we control and properly use fire, it can accomplish many wonderful and helpful things. If we control our tongues, we can harness its power to honor God and benefit others.
Let the words of my mouth… be acceptable in your sight, O Lord! (Ps. 19:14).
We frequently focus on the first twelve verses of James chapter three, and concentrate on the negative power of the tongue, but I believe James, in verses 13-18, is also showing us the powerful effects of a positive use of the tongue. Scot McKnight says this about the connection between "the tongue" and James 3:13-18:
If James 3:1-12 is about teaching and the tongue and if James 3:13 suggests that we are still talking to teachers, then it makes sense that the whole of chapter three is shaped toward addressing teachers. Furthermore, James 4:1-10 carries forward an implicit theme of James 3:13-18, namely, dissension, just as it carries forward a theme about the tongue.
The tongue—which represents our ability to communicate thoughts and feelings, whether we do so with words, or hand signs, or by writing—is a marvelous gift from God. It can be used to produce both terrible negative results and wonderfully positive results. Using James chapter three as a guide, let's look at both.
The harmful potential of our tongue is much greater than our ability to control its use. James says whoever keeps from stumbling (i.e., a "slip of the tongue") is "perfect" (i.e., "mature") because they can "bridle" the whole body as well.
Although the tongue is among the smallest members of the body, its impact far outweighs its size. This truth is illustrated by James in two ways: (1) in the way a bit in the mouth of a horse controls the horse; and (2) in the way the rudder of a ship steers the whole ship. These both teach us that a small part of something (our tongue) can control the course of the whole thing itself—our bodies, our lives, our selves. James next points out the prospective destructiveness of the tongue, even though small. It can be like a tiny spark in relation to a forest fire, which can damage a wide area quickly and can be almost unstoppable. So, the tongue, as James says, "is a fire."
James describes the tongue's negative potential in other ways as well:
Who is wise and understanding among you? (Jas. 3:13).
Many who think themselves clever with words may be tempted to quickly raise their hand in response to James' question. Yet, his next statement shows that true wisdom isn't found in such things as clever replies, sarcastic answers, witty rejoinders, or by being victorious in debate. The claim to be "wise and understanding" can only be proven through "good conduct" and through "works in the meekness of wisdom."
James speaks of two different kinds of wisdom, which are identified by their source: either "wisdom that comes down from above" (that is, from God); or wisdom from a more diabolical and evil source—and you can tell which it is by the pattern it follows.
The first kind of "wisdom" is characterized by "jealousy and selfish ambition" and is "earthly, unspiritual, demonic." Because of its character and source, such wisdom does no good—only harm. James has already warned his readers that this kind of wisdom which often results in people failing to be "quick to hear, slow to speak (emphasis mine, GCK), slow to anger" (Jas. 1:19-20), cannot produce the righteousness of God.
Conversely, the "wisdom from above" follows a completely different pattern. It is "first pure," that is, "free from ceremonial defilement" (Thomas). This doctrinal, Biblical purity must come first. All the other characteristics of true wisdom follow from it.
James goes on to define this "wisdom" as "peaceable" ("peace-loving," NIV); "gentle" ("considerate," NIV); "open to reason" ("willing to yield," NKJV); "full of mercy and good fruits"; "impartial" (true wisdom will bend when it needs to; but it also knows when it must not bend); and "sincere" ("without hypocrisy," NASB—there is no pretense to it; it does not try to be what it isn't). What would be the result if we all conducted ourselves by following this pattern of the "wisdom from above?"
James closes this chapter with an important conclusion regarding wisdom: "And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace" (Jas. 3:18). What a wonderful, positive, and constructive use of the tongue—using it to make "peace" among brethren, families, neighbors, and ultimately the most important kind of peace, peace with God!
Can you see how following James' teaching about the proper use of "wisdom" can help us to harness the power of our tongue for good and avoid using it to kindle fires that cause pain and destruction?
What a wonderful blessing God has given us—the ability to communicate our thoughts and feelings to others! May we always strive to select the proper words, "words of wisdom," and put forth the effort to be gracious in using them (cf. Prov. 16:24; Col. 4:16). Then, the power of our tongues can be used positively to offer healing and edification to our listeners, while at the same time helping us to please our Heavenly Father, the Giver of the precious gift of speech.
McKnight, Scot. The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Letter of James. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011. Accessed on-line via e-Sword on March 1, 2018.
Thomas, Robert L. New American Standard Hebrew-Aramaic and Greek Dictionaries : Updated Edition. Anaheim: Foundation Publications, Inc., 1998. Accessed on-line via e-Sword on March 1, 2018.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The ESV Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version), © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Author Bio: Gary Kerr has preached at Eastside church of Christ in Bowling Green, KY for the past nine years. He and Susan have been married for forty-three years, and they have three grown and married sons, and seven grandchildren (as of this coming August!). The church website is mightyisthelord.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.