See how great a forest a little fire kindles! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell.
In last week’s devotional we noted that the tongue, though small, is a very powerful member of our body. To make this point, James used the examples of the bit on a horse, and the rudder of a ship. Both are small objects that steer much bigger ones.
Now, if James had just left it there, we would be left with the impression that the tongue is a neutral entity, and that it can be used either for good or for evil with equal ease.
James, however, did not leave it there. The next section takes a sudden and very dark turn. In the previous verses we saw the power of the tongue. Now we see from whence that power proceeds, and it’s not pretty. Not only does the tongue have the potential for great evil, its natural inclination – the factory setting, if you will – is downright evil.
First, James gives us another small/big analogy – this time of a little fire and a great forest fire. While the bit and rudder could be considered productive, James makes it clear here that the power of the unchecked tongue is highly destructive.
Just what is the extent of the destruction? James gives us three specific answers to that question.
1. The tongue defiles the body.
Here James is reflecting what Jesus taught us in Matthew 15:11.
Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.
How can this be? How can words be so defiling to the person who says them? Once again, Jesus, in the book of Matthew:
For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.
In both of the above cases, Jesus is reacting to opposition from the religious leaders of the time. In essence, He is telling those around Him “The Pharisees are saying these things because their hearts have been defiled.”
Don’t miss this: Corrupt speech reveals a defiled heart. This principle is helpful to remember in conflicts (family, church, work) where a loose tongue is at work. The first victim of evil speech is the speaker, because his or her heart is evidently already defiled.
2. The tongue sets the course of nature on fire.
The phrase translated “the course of nature” is an interesting one in the original Greek. A literal translation could render it “wheel of existence”. We might think of it as “the fabric of the Universe” or “the space/time continuum.” Here’s the point I believe James wants to make here: The untamed tongue can destroy absolutely everything around us.
And I’m sure the observant reader needs no convincing on this point. We have all seen vicious, or even careless words destroy friendships, marriages, workplaces, even (or especially) churches.
3. The source of the tongue’s corruption is Hell itself.
This point is for all those who say “Listen, I know I’m outspoken, but it’s just the way I am. I say what comes to my mind, I call it like I see it, and let the chips fall where they may. It’s just me.”
Well, congratulations, because according to James, your “gift of gab” comes straight from the pits of Hell. This is no benign personality trait, no minor sin, to insignificant peccadillo. Your out-of-control mouth muscle is doing the Devils work.
And lest we forget, this section on the tongue started out as a warning to those who would be teachers in the church. The danger of putting an unprepared, unqualified person in front of others to teach is not that they might get their doctrine wrong here or there. No, the very real danger is that their unbridled tongue will do the Devils own work, within the church.
These words should send every Christian man or woman to their knees, imploring God to bring their tongues under the control of His Holy Spirit.
And James isn’t done with the tongue yet.
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