Verses: James 3:3-6 (ESV)
3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. 4 Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.

I don’t know about you, but I feel like James might be trying to make a point here. I imagine his thoughts when writing this passage went something like this:

“I think I’ll give them an analogy to explain what I’m trying to say. No, that feels too subtle. I know, a second analogy! Nah, they still aren’t going to get it. I’m just going to say what I mean, and mix in a THIRD analogy at the end, for emphasis. Hmm, I still don’t know if the fire bit got their attention. Let’s pour some gasoline on it!”

I think James could’ve had a career as a modern-day advertising executive.

But he got your attention, didn’t he? In verses 3 and 4, he makes the comparatively subtle point that small parts can exert big control. Then he begins to reveal where he’s really going in verse 5 – though the tongue is just a small part of the body, it can have a tremendous effect on the rest of the body, and the world around it. And unless it is controlled (like the rudder of a ship), that effect can be disastrous.

Now comes the sledgehammer:
“The tongue is a fire…” Not “can be a fire”. Not “is capable of producing fire”. Is a fire. As such, it needs to be constantly watched, maintained, kept away from things it might destroy. It is able to burn whatever (or whomever) it touches. “…a world of unrighteousness.” We are, by nature, unrighteous. And the tongue is the most obvious representation of that state, as Jesus described in Matthew 15:18 – “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart…”

“…setting on fire the entire course of life…” Another attempt to emphasize the scope of the damage that the tongue can do. If left unchecked, it can destroy not just our life, but the lives of those at whom we aim the fire.

“…and set on fire by hell.” The word translated as “hell” here is the Greek word ‘Gehenna’, which referred specifically to a literal place outside the city of Jerusalem. It was effectively the city dump, which was continuously on fire. Jesus regularly referenced it as an all too tangible approximation of what hell would be like for those who wind up there. In this case, it gave a clear image of the destruction and torment of which the tongue is capable.

So, what are we to do with this? Seems like one we don’t need to overthink. James wants us to be perpetually aware of how we are using our tongues. To think before we speak (not always my strong suit), and to consider the consequences of what we might say, not only on our lives, but on the lives of those around us.

Lord, help me to tame my tongue. Teach me to better use it to build others up and to guard against the temptation to use it as a weapon. Amen.

Author: Dave MacDonald