As I write this article, fires are burning in Canada that have produced smoke as far south as Georgia and Alabama. Journalists claim that people have caused about half of those fires. They also say that some of the fires may have begun with something seemingly trivial, like a smoldering cigarette butt. A tiny spark has the potential to affect an entire continent.
In James 3, the Lord’s brother warns us to beware of a different but no less deadly fire: the tongue. Although many of us perhaps have heard that words aren’t as harmful as sticks and stones, James makes the opposite point. The tongue — a symbol for language — has the power to wreak havoc. A bit in a horse’s mouth, a spark in a forest, and the rudder of a boat are all small, but they direct far larger realities. The tongue is no different. Although tongues are small, they guide, shape, and sometimes destroy lives.
James claims that our tongues are set on fire by hell, which makes sense of the fact that using words for evil is easier than using them for good (James 3:6). We use language to gossip, slander, backbite, grumble, judge, curse, blaspheme, or spread heresy. Believers face the temptation to regularly bless God while simultaneously cursing His image bearers. Do we rail against other drivers while driving home from church? Do we blast political opponents with more fervor than we do in praising the living God? According to James, this hypocrisy is as absurd as a spring producing salty and fresh water, a fig tree producing olives, or a grapevine producing figs (3:10-12).
James’ teaching on the tongue appears to be a paradox. “No one can tame the tongue,” he says (James 3:8, CSB), but true religion includes controlling one’s tongue (1:26). How can we control the untamable? The answer comes in the final verse of chapter 3. What type of wisdom are we pursuing? Wisdom of this world comes from envy and selfish ambition. The wisdom from God arises from meekness. Meekness is not weakness; it is a characteristic of people who are not obsessed with themselves (3:13; see also 1:21). God’s wisdom has seven further traits: purity, peaceability, reasonability, gentleness, mercy, impartiality, and sincerity (3:16-17).
Since no one can truly tame the tongue, we will always fight the urge to speak in ungodly and harmful ways. The way to fight these urges is to pray for God’s wisdom as it’s described in James 3, and we can pray with confidence knowing that God gives wisdom generously to those who ask in faith (1:5). Meditating on the list in James 3:17-18 and comparing translations can also help us grow in God’s wisdom.
The first verse is a warning to everyone who teaches or preaches in churches. I mention this verse last because the whole of chapter 3 is key to understanding verse 1. Chapter 3 shows how easy it is to sin with our words. Those who preach and teach must be exceedingly careful how they use words. Obviously, preachers and teachers should be willing to speak hard truths (2 Timothy 4:1-5). James’ warning here is for those who would speak when they should remain silent.
We whom God has called to teach and preach should read this chapter with fear and trembling, lest the words we speak, write, post or tweet start a fire that destroys Christians and churches.