Meditations in James: 30 : Burnt by the Tongue
Jas 3:5,6 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 person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
There are two sorts of TV programme that don’t excite me. One is the morning TV where there is a studio full of people talking about a contentious part of life. The other is so-called soap operas. Imagine both of them without any sound. First of all imagine the contentious couples debate if they, and the other participants, were dumb. Nobody would watch it, would they, because it is the angry words spoken that stir people’s interests. Imagine soap operas as real life dramas and imagine again the people being dumb. Most of the ‘difficult situations’, that go to make up the interest of these ongoing television fillers, are what they are because of what the various people say.
Oh yes, the tongue is the instrument that has this devastating potential for causing upset and upheaval. Having just written about how the tongue guides our life, James now goes on to warn us of the tremendous power of the tongue. Solomon was aware of this when he wrote Proverbs: “With his mouth the godless destroys his neighbor” (Prov 11:9) and “Through the blessing of the upright a city is exalted, but by the mouth of the wicked it is destroyed.” (Prov 11:11) and “A fool’s lips bring him strife, and his mouth invites a beating.” (Prov 18:6) and “A lying tongue hates those it hurts, and a flattering mouth works ruin.” (Prov 26:28). Note the things in that short list that the tongue is capable of doing: destroying a neighbour (presumably by slander), destroying a city (presumably by lies, deceit, and generally leading into unrighteous business deals), personal strife (probably by rudeness and verbal attack which invites retribution), and general hurt and ruin by harshness and flattery which deceives.
If you are a watcher of these “sort out the problems” morning TV programmes or of soap operas, next time think about what all the people are saying. Observe where there are words that are attacking, words that are demeaning, words that are violent, and think how different the situation would be if the exact opposite sort of words were spoken instead. James says, Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark and so watch and see how a few words can ignite a situation and cause hostility and upset and division and hurt and anger and….. the list goes on! In families there are words that should never be spoken: “I hate you!” or “I wish I’d never been born!” or “You’re ugly” or “You’re stupid!” Each one of these is a small spark that has devastating effects. Once said they cannot be withdrawn and they set a fire of passion blazing which is not easily put out.
But James pushes it further. He says, The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. That sounds awful! Why is he using the analogy of a fire? Because a fire is something out of control and capable of spreading destruction. But why does he say that this fire is a world of evil among the parts of the body? Well we sometimes speak about how we ‘compartmentalise’ our lives, and he’s saying imagine our bodies like different compartments. If you imagine the tongue as one ‘department’ in the running of your life, it seems that in so many people it is a department that is evil. It may be the expression of the heart, but it is the visible, or rather audible expression of evil. The mouth is the propaganda machine of the human body, that is able to reach out and influence or harm others by the words that come out. It is seen in many people as evil, speaking out hurtful, harmful words.
But he goes on, It corrupts the whole person. If you corrupt something you spoil or mar it, you taint it or pollute it. Speaking out words is very influential, and tragically most of us don’t realise this, so that when we put something into words it’s like it strengthens something in us. While it only remains a thought, it is fairly powerless, but once we speak it out, it seems like it has the effect of spreading that negative right through us, so it is something that becomes more established in us. If our lives were like a glass of clear water, when we speak negative, unkind, hostile, impure, unrighteous words, it is like black ink is being dripped into that clear water and it is polluted and no longer clear. The words have the ability to change the life. The heart was wrong, but the words established that wrong in a deeper, firmer way.
But James then piles on further pictures: It …sets the whole course of his life on fire. If the tongue is a fire, then the words are like flaming pieces that soar up into the air and where they land they spread the fire. As we’ve just suggested, when the words are spoken they affect the rest of the life. We used the analogy of clear water; James uses the analogy of fire.
Then he finishes with a strange expression: and is itself set on fire by hell. Can I use an analogy that I use often, that of anger? A person may use anger to get their own way, but that is unrighteous. Now if a person uses unrighteous anger regularly, then they open themselves up to Satan’s influence and he can press in on that person so that their anger flares up and is completely uncontrollable. Now the same thing is true of the tongue. Some people use the tongue to put down others, as a means of having influence over them, but this is unrighteous. So what happens is that when they do this they make themselves vulnerable to Satan (and hell is just shorthand for ‘the powers of darkness and all that they bring’) and so Satan takes the fire (emotional words) that they have used, and blows on it so they become completely out of control. What this person finds is that no longer can they control what they say; they are motivated or driven by these emotions which are beyond their control, and the fire burns and burns and burns until the person is destroyed. Did you realise the terrible power that is there in the use of the tongue and the forces of destruction that can be released by it? Well think about these things.