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. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water. (James 3:5b-12)
James compares the damage the tongue can do to a raging fire–the tongue’s wickedness has its source in hell itself. The uncontrolled tongue can do terrible damage. Satan uses the tongue to divide people and pit them against one another. Idle and hateful words are damaging because they spread destruction quickly, and no one can stop the results once they are spoken. We dare not be careless with what we say, thinking we can apologize later, because even if we do, the scars remain. A few words spoken in anger can destroy a relationship that took years to build. Before you speak, remember that words are like fire–you can neither control nor reverse the damage they can do. “There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies and a person who stirs up conflict in the community.” (Proverbs 6:16-19)
“But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.” (Matthew 15:18-19) If no human being can control the tongue, why bother trying? Even if we may not achieve perfect control of our tongues, we can still learn enough control to reduce the damage our words can do. It is better to fight a fire than to go around setting new ones! Remember that we are not fighting the tongue’s fire in our own strength. No person can tame the tongue, but Christ can. This involves a surrender, on our part, of our mind and heart. The Holy Spirit will give us increasing power to monitor and control what we say, so that when we are offended, the Spirit will remind us of God’s love, and we won’t react in a hateful manner. When we are criticized, the Spirit will heal the hurt, and we won’t lash out. When you open your heart to the Holy Spirit, you’ll have the self-control so you’ll speak the words that are pleasing to God.
James is reminding us that humans were given dominion over the animals. “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. (James 3:7-8) In yesterday’s passage, we were told one of the ways we control horses is with a bit. “When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal.” (James 3:3) While we ourselves may be unable to tame our tongue, our Lord God can, we only need to ask Him and submit to Him. “Set a guard over my mouth, Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips.” (Psalm 141:3)
Our contradictory speech often puzzles us. At times our words are right and pleasing to God, but at other times they are violent and destructive. Which of these speech patterns reflects our true identity? The tongue gives us a picture of our basic human nature. We were made in God’s image, but we have also fallen into sin. God works to change us from the inside out. When the Holy Spirit purifies a heart, he gives self-control so that the person will speak words that please God.
When our speech is motivated by Satan, it is full of: Bitter, Envy, Selfish ambition, Earthly concerns and desires, Unspiritual thoughts and ideas, Disorder, and Evil.
When our speech is motivated by God and His wisdom, it is full of: Mercy, Love for others, Peace, Consideration for others, Submission, Sincerity, Impartiality, and Righteousness.
Real faith uses the Spirit’s power in words to build others up, to speak the truth in love, to compliment, forgive, and comfort. And, as James wrote earlier, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires” (James 1:19-20). Real faith knows when to hold its tongue.