The Epistle of James: Taming the Fire of the Tongue
“Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment. For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well. Now if we put the bits into the horses’ mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well. Look at the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires. So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things.
See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell. For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race. But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water? Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Nor can salt water produce fresh.”
James 3:1-12 NASB1995
This passage from James may seem strange for Thanksgiving Day, so I recommend re-reading Steve’s devotional from yesterday (11/23) on gratitude, including a beautiful prayer to get you started. But think about it: How many times have you or someone you know had a family get-together or holiday ruined because an argument started or accusations flowed after too many glasses of wine? Uncle Jimmy (a fictional character, but closely related to someone we all know in real life) has to pontificate about his political opinions and berate those who disagree, starting with his first words coming in the door and continuing right through dessert. Cousin Mary spends the entire dinner gossiping in a nasty way about her siblings (and your other cousins). Your own mother (or mother-in-law) criticizes the table settings or the way you are cooking the turkey, but “softens” it by telling you her comments are really made with love “because she cares so much”. The Dads want to eat, and they sit there and grumble about it while watching a pointless football game when dinner is taking too long to serve. And you observe this with a smoldering tongue, wishing you could just say something (and quite often you do, with regret). To be honest with you, I dearly loved those get-togethers and really miss them with family, but I also enjoy the lack of tension and anxiety now and my tongue rests easier.
The most difficult thing to control in our lives is our tongue, even long after the Holy Spirit begins to work on our fruits of the spirit; although He guides us, we are also responsible for aiding in that transformation. Self-control is the most challenging fruit to adapt. James is particularly concerned about the tongues of those who teach scripture, as they are under even stricter judgment on the words they use; everyone stumbles, including the best teachers in our lives. The jokes fall flat or the arcane example in the sermon leaves everyone scratching their heads. Writing about scripture in devotionals is also subject to the same missteps. We both think carefully about our words and do our research, but some things will be misinterpreted or be incorrect; we always pray for guidance.
James knows that the tongue is a small part of the body, but like a tiny lit match or cigarette butt tossed out of a car in a drought, it is an evil flame that can create a conflagration that can consume entire forests and nearby towns. He also compares it to the bit in a horse’s mouth or the rudder on a ship that can guide things in the wrong direction very quickly. In this modern age of social media, we have even more ways to set things on fire or steer things awry, with belittling sarcasm, nasty comments, on-line endless arguments with strangers over trivial matters, and “unfriending” or blocking while in a rage.
I had a bad habit a few years ago of posting my political opinions on social media, after “warning” those who might disagree to ignore what I was about to say. I basked in the glow of the Greek chorus that agreed with me and prepared the flames of retribution for adverse reactions and comments. I then decided that life would be much better by not being a FB arsonist and so did Steve (likely a prompting of the Holy Spirit); we both apologized to people for posting the things we did and found out from some friends who were silent that they were hurt or angered by some of things we said, but they did appreciate the apology. We lost some friends, too.
Vocal opinions about politics and other touchy subjects (most are temporal concerns in this life) are like deadly poisons. You can care about how things are being done without being a flamethrower. Keep in mind that sometimes the things that are unsaid can be just as lethal, because eventually, they will be said and usually in great anger. As you can also see in the excerpts below from Enduring Word, a vow of silence is NOT the answer (that’s too easy and people that like to mouth off like me will violate it within seconds).
James notes that one cannot praise and bless God out of the same mouth that curses others. We can’t turn a fig tree into an olive tree with words (only God can perform that miracle). David Guzik in his Enduring Word commentary on James 3 has some fantastic words about this passage (there is so much good stuff in his commentary that I have included several excerpts):
If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man: James provided a way to measure spiritual maturity for teachers and for all Christians. Jesus demonstrated in Matthew 12:34-37 that words are the revelation of the inner character.
- To not stumble in word shows true spiritual maturity. This is especially relevant to teachers, who have so much more opportunity to sin with their tongue [or with what they type-Barb].
- We stumble in word about ourselves, with our boasting, exaggeration, and selective reporting.
- We stumble in word about others, with our criticism, gossip, slander, cruelty, two-facedness, and anger; or with flattery and insincere words meant to gain favor.
You don’t solve the problem of an unruly horse by keeping it in the barn, or the problem of a hard-to-steer ship by keeping it tied to the dock. In the same way, even a vow of silence is not the ultimate answer for the misuse of our tongue.
If the tongue is like a bit in the mouth of a horse or the rudder on a ship, it leaves us with the question: Who or what holds the reins, or who or what directs the rudder? Some people have no hand on the reins or rudder, and therefore say whatever comes into mind. Others direct their tongue from their emotions or from aspects of their carnal nature. James points us towards having the Spirit of God, working through the new man, set directing hands on the reins and rudder that is our tongue.
See how great a forest a little fire kindles! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: The fire of the tongue has been used to burn many. Children are told sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me. But that child’s rhyme isn’t really true; the bitter pain of a word spoken against us can hurt us for a lifetime, long after a broken bone has healed.
- What others say to us and what we say to others can last a long time, for good or for evil. The casual sarcastic or critical remark can inflict a lasting injury on another person. The well-timed encouragement or compliment can inspire someone for the rest of their life.
- Proverbs speaks of the person who doesn’t consider the destructive power of his words. Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death, is the man who deceives his neighbor, and says, “I was only joking!” (Proverbs 26:18-19).
- Again, James isn’t telling us to never speak or to take a vow of silence; in many ways that would be easier than exercising true self-control over the tongue. The bridle, the rudder, and the fire can all do tremendous good when they are controlled properly.
Can a fig tree, my brethren, bear olives: “It would be a monstrosity, a thing to be wondered at, and stared at as unnatural and absurd if a fig tree started bearing olive berries and it is just as unnatural for a Christian to live in sin. Can he so live as to bear the fruits of iniquity instead of the fruits of righteousness? God forbid that it should be so!” (Charles Spurgeon)
- “Unless you are regenerated, born from above by a new and heavenly birth, you are not Christians, whatever you may be called, and you cannot, produce the fruit which is acceptable to God any more than a fig tree can produce olive berries.” (Spurgeon)
· You can label a fig tree “Olive Tree” and that will not make it an olive tree.
· You can trim a fig tree to look like an olive tree, and that will not make it an olive tree.
· You can treat a fig tree like an olive tree, and that will not make it an olive tree.
· You can surround a fig tree with many olive trees, and that will not make it an olive tree.
· You can transplant that fig tree to the Mount of Olives, and that would not make it an olive tree.
I thought the commentary on “sticks and stones” was particularly relevant. Words can have a permanent effect on someone and the person speaking them may have a lifetime of regret. I can still recall angry words from arguments that occurred years and years ago. Make your words a positive thing for others!
There are many passages in Proverbs about unwise and wise words, but I don’t want this to get too long; suffice to say, a good biblical search tool will help you find those passages and keep them close. It is a constant battle for me to control the rudder that guides my tongue and keep the match unlit, so my prayer below is centered on that concern. It’s definitely something to ponder before you get together with all of those friends and relatives during this busy holiday season. Have a blessed Thanksgiving!
My next devotional will examine James 3:13-18, Humble Wisdom.
Heaven On Wheels Daily Prayer: Dear Heavenly Father, please guide the words from my tongue into blessings and not curses, into love and not hate, into compassion and not anger, into gratitude and not bitterness, and into humility and not pride. Make me a perfect teacher of your Word. I ask this in the Name of my beloved Savior, Jesus. Amen.
Scripture quotations taken from the (NASB®) New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1971, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. All rights reserved. www.lockman.org
Momentary from David Guzik on Enduring Word is used with written permission.