Seen On a Church Sign
Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell. For every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind: But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be. Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter? Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? either a vine, figs? so can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh.
The Destructive Power of the Tongue
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
It may be, that a more untrue statement was never written, or said actually, since I can remember it vividly from my school days. Think back, when did we normally invoke that phrase way back then? Usually when the exact opposite was true was when we would recite that phrase. In other words, we usually made a point to say that to somebody who had just hurt us with their words.!
Here, James uses a great comparison to discuss the destructive power of our tongues, or our speech. Earlier he compared the small tongue’s ability to control our conduct to a bit in a horses mouth, or the small rudder piloting a giant ship. Here, he compares the destructive power of the small tongue with a tiny spark which ignites a huge fire.
One of the most notable examples of this, of course, is the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Although started by something so small as a lantern in a barn, this great fire eventually burned almost half of the city of Chicago to the ground.
Two of the greatest men in the Old Testament, recognized the power of the tongue and issued guidance about controlling it. David and his son Solomon both wrote about the destructive power of speech. As David was somewhat hot tempered, we should strongly consider his words in this matter.
Psalm 39:1-3 I said, I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue: I will keep my mouth with a bridle, while the wicked is before me. I was dumb with silence, I held my peace, even from good; and my sorrow was stirred. My heart was hot within me, while I was musing the fire burned: then spake I with my tongue,
Solomon had the following to say:
Proverbs 17:27 He that hath knowledge spareth his words: and a man of understanding is of an excellent spirit.
Proverbs 14:29 He that is slow to wrath is of great understanding: but he that is hasty of spirit exalteth folly.
The tongue and fire have other similarities as well. Few would dispute that a fire under control can have many benefits, and can be used for much good. On the other hand, few would dispute that a fire, like a mouth, out or control can cause massive devastation.
What do we do with our tongues? Do we use them for good, for edifying believers or telling the Gospel to unbelievers? Or do we use them for evil by teaching untruths, gossiping or pushing the non believing away from Jesus Christ?
The Tongue is the Fire of Hell
This is quite likely the strongest statement in the entire Bible concerning the misuse of the tongue in our lives. I this simple sentence, James quite completely and unequivocally lays the dangers of the misuse of it right out.
“The tongue is a world of iniquity.” One Bible translation words this, “the tongue is the very world of iniquity.” One writer describes this as referring to a system, scheme or arrangement. It is a system of iniquity that represents every other sin of mankind.
The tongue defiles our entire body. We already discussed the comparison of the tongue to a bit in a horses mouth or the rudder of a ship. How those two things direct something much larger than themselves, so does our tongue. In this case, the sins of the tongue defile the whole person. It’s similar to the fire and the smoke damage it causes. The fire itself may not destroy everything, but the smoke permeates and ultimately ruins even what the fire doesn’t touch.
The tongue is “set on fire of hell.” This particular description was simply fascinating. The word for Hell here is from the term gehenna. This was the Valley of Hinnom to the south of Jerusalem. This is the place where the Caananites and idolatrous Israelites had gone for their child sacrifices. Because all that activity had rendered that place unclean, it was finally used as simply a garbage dump. So, this was simply a big, rotting garbage dump, constantly burning and maggot filled. Jesus used the same term to represent Hell, the place which God had prepared for Satan and his demons. This comparison of the tongue with Hell strongly implies that the tongue can be Satan’s tool to pollute and corrupt.
We Can’t Tame Our Tongue
Man, in the Garden of Eden, was clearly given dominion over all of the animals of the world. Genesis 1:26.Even today, after the fall, we know that human kind is generally able to control the beasts of the world.
We need to look no further than the nearest circus to see that man is able to bring the largest, and most terrifying of animals under his control. Lion, tigers and the largest of land animals, the elephant can be controlled by one tiny human being.
However, our tongue is an “unruly evil.” In its natural state, our tongue is similar, if not worse, than any wild animal. It is wild, untamed and without discipline. Rather than tromping us or eating us, however, our tongues destroy by lies, gossip, slander and filthy language.
James tells us that no man can tame the tongue. In and of ourselves, we cannot even to the same to our mouths as we can do with a huge elephants; we cannot tame it our bring it under control.
Since James’ Epistle is about Christian living, the solution to our problem seems readily evident. Like any sin, sins of the tongue can be managed by the saved person through the indwelling and filling of the Holy Spirit. We certainly do not have the power to do it, but God does!
David, back in the Old Testament, had something to say about how we actually take advantage of the strength of the Holy Spirit to control our tongues in Psalm 141:3:
Set a watch, O LORD, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips.
Gossip Is Poisonous
Gossip: the favorite indoor sport of many Christians. In an earlier Devotion, we talked about that old school yard saying on how sticks and stones hurt, but words do not. We all know that is patently untrue, because words do hurt; gossip and lies about other believers is one of the primary ways we use our words to wound other believers.
I have heard a particular story several times over the years, and I would like to relate it here as an illustration of how the power of gossip spreads. In a particular church, there was a woman who had, over time, spread some completely untrue things about another woman in the congregation. Ultimately, these lies had just ruined the reputation of the victim. One day, the woman who had spread the slander came to realize that everything she had said was untrue and unfounded. To her credit, she was seized by remorse and wanted to make things right. She went to her pastor, seeking guidance on how to accomplish a repair of what she had done. He pastor told her to take a down pillow, filled with fine feathers, and scatter them in the streets of town; he then told her to come back and see him the next day. Upon her return, the pastor instructed her to walk the city streets and gather the feathers and put them back in the pillow. Instantly she responded, “Well, of course I can’t ever gather those feathers back!” His response to her: “Correct, and unfortunately you can never gather back the words you said either.”
The Bible has much to say about the subject of gossip. In Romans Chapter 1, as Paul is laying out the list of the sins of man which have separated us from God, gossipers were right there in the middle of the list. In verses 29 and 30 he referred to them as “whisperers,” and “backbiters.”
Solomon had much to say about the subject as he wrote Proverbs as well.
Proverbs 11:12,13 He that is void of wisdom despiseth his neighbour: but a man of understanding holdeth his peace. A talebearer revealeth secrets: but he that is of a faithful spirit concealeth the matter.
Proverbs 18:7,8 A fool’s mouth is his destruction, and his lips are the snare of his soul. The words of a talebearer are as wounds, and they go down into the innermost parts of the belly.
Proverbs 21:23 Whoso keepeth his mouth and his tongue keepeth his soul from troubles.
Visualize the following if you will. If a man stands up during church prayer time and offers the following prayer: “Lord, please deliver my friend Joe from his alcohol and drug addiction, his womanizing and his little gambling problem. Thank you, Father, and Amen!” Is that a prayer request? Not really. That would be gossip shrouded in the guise of a prayer request.
What then, do we do about his issue? How do we fix ourselves? A wise older gentleman I know, who has never been known to say a bad word about anyone, offered the following advice to us all one day:
Is it true? If it’s not, stop right there.
Is it necessary? Just because it’s true does not mean it has to be said.
Is it kind? Neither truth or need matter if the words are unkind.
I don’t think any words are necessary to add to that!
The Danger of Flattery
One writer I read commenting on the Book of James said the following: “If gossip is saying behind someone’s back what you would never say to their face, then flattery is saying to someone’s face what you would never say behind their back.”
What is flattery? Well flattery and compliments are not the same; that is why the saying above rings so very true. A compliment is good for the person being complimented, whereas flattery is primarily for the benefit of the person giving the praise. And that, in a nutshell, is why God has a problem with flattery.
Like almost anything having to do with our tongue, we can find much guidance on the subject of flattery in the Book of Proverbs.
As we have been discussing, James is trying to teach us how to live the Christian life; he is attempting to teach us how our salvation will always result in some fruit, or action as a result. What’s that got to do with what James is teaching? Well everything, really. Because just as hard as James is trying to teach us how to do right, there are a host of people trying to teach us wrong. These would be false teachers, and flattery is one of their primary weapons in their arsenal.
Paul warns clearly of this danger in Romans 16:18 For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple.
Peter likewise warns of this in 2 Peter 2:3 And through covetousness shall they with feigned words make merchandise of you: whose judgment now of a long time lingereth not, and their damnation slumbereth not.
Here’s a question just for bloggers. Ever like, comment or follow just in the hopes of getting one yourself? A little encouragement in there just to make it look good? Of course we have to engage others to build a network of readers, but where is the line? I would really like people’s thoughts on that one.
Talking From Both Sides Of Your Mouth
Warren Wiersbe, in his commentary series, used the following illustration:
A man at work one day, a professing Christian, got angry and turned loose with a series of oaths and profanities. Embarrassed, he turned to his coworker and said, “I don’t know why I said that. It really isn’t in me.” His partner wisely replied, “It had to be in you, or it wouldn’t have come out of you.”
In real life, I had a friend who faced a similar situation. He, in his younger days(while a believer), had been noted for letting loose with an oath or two when angry or upset. One day, he decided he should clean up his act and quit all of that. His solution was to pick some simple nonsensical word to use in situations where before he would have cursed. I don’t recall what he said the word was, but I do recall that he said he would use that word in place of a curse word. Let’s say the word was “bullfrog.” Every time he would get angry, instead of cursing, he would say, “bullfrog.” That went along fine until one day a coworker, who happened to be a non believer, said the following: “You realize, of course, that using that stupid word doesn’t really change what you mean, right?” Ouch.
Discerning what James is teaching us here is not particularly difficult; in fact, it is very easy. We have already studied the tongue quite a bit, and this passage just continues this analysis.
Note some of his comparisons here: blessing and cursing, sweet and bitter, salt water and fresh. The common vein among these is simple; one of each pair is good and one is not good.
If we show through our words both good and bad consistently, which would see say is the real reflection of what is really inside?