Fiery words


James 3:1–13

Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.

As humans we don’t fear the tongue as much as a raging bushfire but it can cause us to lose everything.

When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. 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.

All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but 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. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.

Fire. As humans, we’ve always had an uneasy relationship with this unstable element. We have harnessed its explosive power to drive engines, warm our homes, and modify elements found in the natural world.

I have pleasant childhood memories of sitting around campfires, singing worship songs and toasting marshmallows, enthralled by the dancing flames and popping logs, the fingers of warmth that radiated out pushing back the cold.

Yet there is an ever-present danger. Burnt fingers testify to that. Sometimes it is more than just fingers that are burnt. I was living in the beautiful Warburton valley, Victoria, when Black Saturday happened. It was incredibly scary. I remember having to stay down in the city for fear the fires would burn up the valley. I remember the uncertainty as we went to work each day, our ears tuned to ABC national radio broadcasts for updates on the situation and any warnings. Marysville and Kinglake were no more. More than a hundred people had lost their lives and many more their homes. And we were waiting to see if it would visit the same destruction on us. 

This week, I have been struck again by the devastation that can be wreaked by fire. I’ve since moved to NSW and it is now NSW that is gripped by fire-watching, waiting to see where the next outbreak will be, hoping and praying no more lives are lost and that the fire fighters will have the strength and resources to protect our homes. Sadly, many have already lost property, including one Adventist minister, and it is still only Spring.

Forest fires are serious. So is the apostle James right when he compares the tongue to a forest fire? Is he exaggerating?

Let’s look at the impact words can have. Many people struggle to escape the way other people’s words have defined them. Ever had someone say something to you, a criticism or even a joke, that stuck with you?Your mind turns it over like a Rubik’s cube, you can’t solve it or put it down, as your frustration and impatience grow. Different personalities react to things said to them differently yet for most of us, the old “Sticks and stones” rhyme is just not true. Sometimes it takes days or weeks to forgive the slight rendered by a careless word.

Even Ellen White acknowledged the danger of people’s words by those in the church. “It pains me to say that there are unruly tongues among church members. There are false tongues that feed on mischief. There are sly, whispering tongues. There is tattling, impertinent meddling, adroit quizzing. Among the lovers of gossip some are actuated by curiosity, others by jealousy, many by hatred against those through whom God has spoken to reprove them. All these discordant elements are at work. . . They scarcely know the strength of their feelings or the effect of their words.” (Testimonies, Vol 5 p 94-5)

My work to reach my neighbours or friends can be undone by a careless rebuke of my wife. The prayer I offer before basketball, will be rendered powerless by a curse word dropped in frustration or disrespect hurled at the umpires. Many children are damaged for life or see themselves as someone else defined them in their formative years. It is no surprise then that Christian thinkers and mystics throughout the years have acknowledged the importance of silence.

King Solomon has a great deal of things to say that back up James’ statements about the power of the tongue, including this gem.

“From the fruit of his mouth a man’s stomach is filled; with the harvest from his lips he is satisfied. The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit” (Proverbs 18:20–21).

Families are broken apart, careers are destroyed and hearts are made sick by words spoken intentionally or carelessly.

It is an area, I know I need to work on—thought before speech. Unfortunately, rash words can erupt from simmering emotions, tiredness, prejudice, bias, selfishness, pride, defensiveness, all manner of other internal issues that the hearer doesn’t register are going on. They just see the “fruit” of the mouth and react accordingly.

As humans we don’t fear the tongue as much as a raging bushfire but it can cause us to lose everything. I’ll leave the last words to Jesus.

“I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37 ESV).

What do you think? Have you experienced pain or destruction in your life from careless words? How can we most effectively “tame the tongue”?