The Tongue Is a Fire

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. (James 3:5–6, NIV)

Talk is not cheap — not according to James, anyway. It is rather a powerful force in the Christian life. Why else would James warn us so plainly about its misuse? We know that words can wound… they can oppress and discourage — and hey — they can even kill! Yet words can also build people up. They can energize and encourage. But it is the same mouth that produces these opposites, so we have the choice over what we say — whether it be for good or for evil.

If you still think talk is cheap, revisit today’s passage. A book of matches is cheap, too… but an entire forest can be destroyed by only one. James also used the image of a horse and bridle. A horse is big and much more powerful than us, yet we control that animal by putting a small bit in its mouth. He also used the image of a ship and its rudder. Ships can be very large and their rudders are relatively small, yet the rudder steers the huge vessels… and so it is with the tongue: it is a little member in our bodies, yet it can steer our lives.

James was a church leader, and he was writing to believers. So apparently, “getting saved” does not automatically change our behavior. Oh, it changes much… like our citizenship (from earth to heaven), our family (God is now your Father, and believers are brethren) and our destination (from hell to heaven). But how we walk-and-talk while still here on the earth, that’s where all the work is!

So, what doesn’t change at salvation… not necessarily anyway? Our bodies, for one. We don’t look any different than we did before conversion. And what else? Our demeanor. A congruent born-again believer will endeavor to look like Christ, but that process takes time.. and I’m only interested in the instant after conversion. What else has not changed?

How about our culture, our personalities and our earthly relatives? These remain the same — and I should also note that we have not become any smarter… although we have exercised extreme wisdom by listening to the Christ. But wisdom is a different commodity than intelligence, education and acumen, so these remain the same… and our habits, too, are resistant to change — by definition!

But what else is the same… something more personal, perhaps? The tongue — and especially as we use it to speak evil against people. Salvation gives us an ally in the fight to bridle our tongues — the indwelling Holy Spirit. But salvation does not give us instant success in any earthly endeavors. In fact, the Bible describes our lives after conversion as warfare.

So, the war is on… and we have three enemies — the world, the flesh and the devil. But of those three, there is only one we readily control — the flesh… and the spokesperson for the flesh is the tongue.

James presents this as a winnable fight. Controlling the tongue will help to build us up, and it gives glory to God. How so? If we say we belong to Christ we should at least look like we are Christians… and if we say we belong to Christ we should sound like Jesus himself. 

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