In Part 1, we learned the tongue has the power to direct. Today, we will look at two more powers of the tongue.
Power to Destroy: the Fire and Animal (James 3:5–8)
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. 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 compares the damage a tongue can do to a raging fire. Like a fire the tongue can “heat things up.” David wrote: “I will watch my ways and keep my tongue from sin… my heart grew hot within me, while I meditated the fire burned; then I spoke with my tongue” (Ps. 39:1, 3). Have you ever had that experience? A hot head and a hot heart can lead to burning words that later we will regret. David had a temper and he needed God’s help in controlling it. No wonder Solomon wrote, “The one who has knowledge uses words with restraint and whoever has understanding is even-tempered” (Prov. 17:27). “Whoever is patient has great understanding, but one who is quick-tempered displays folly” (Prov. 14:29).
Fire burns and hurts, and our words can burn and hurt. One of the sorrows our Lord had to bear when He was here on earth was the way His enemies talked about Him. They called Him a “glutton and a drunkard” (Matt. 11:19) because He graciously accepted invitations to dine with people the Pharisees did not like. When He performed miracles, they said He was in league with Satan. Even when He was dying on the cross, His enemies could not let Him alone, but threw vicious taunts into His face.
Fire spreads, and the more fuel you give it the faster and farther it will spread. The tongue “sets the whole course of one’s life on fire” (3:6). All of life is connected like a wheel and therefore, we cannot keep things from spreading. A person’s entire life can be injured or destroyed by the tongue. Time does not correct the sins of the tongue. We may confess our sins of speech, but the fire keeps on spreading.
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.
As it spreads, fire destroys; and the words we speak have the power to destroy. Our own words may not have caused wars or wrecked cities, but they can break hearts and ruin reputations. They can also destroy souls by sending them into eternity without Christ. How important it is for us to let our speech “be always full of grace, seasoned with salt” (Col. 4:6). Fiery words can defile a home, a Sunday School class, a church. The only thing that can wash away that defilement is the blood of Jesus Christ.
Not only is the tongue like a fire, but it is also like a dangerous animal. It is restless and cannot be ruled (unruly), and it seeks its prey and then pounces and kills. My wife and I once drove through a safari park, admiring the animals as they moved about in their natural habitat. But there were warning signs posted all over the park: DO NOT LEAVE YOUR CAR! DO NOT OPEN YOUR WINDOWS! Those “peaceful animals” were capable of doing great damage and even killing.
Some animals are poisonous and some tongues spread poison. The deceptive thing about poison is that it works secretly and slowly, and then kills. How many times has some malicious person injected a bit of poison into the conversation, hoping it would spread and finally get to the person he or she wanted to hurt? As a pastor, I have seen poisonous tongues do great damage to individuals, families, classes, and entire churches. Would you turn hungry lions or angry snakes loose in your Sunday morning service? Of course not! But unruly tongues accomplish the same results.
The tongue cannot be tamed by man, but it can be tamed by God. Your tongue need not be “set on fire by hell” (3:6). Like the Apostles at Pentecost, it can be set on fire from heaven! If God lights the fire and controls it, then the tongue can be a mighty tool for the winning of the lost and the building up of the church. The important thing, of course, is the heart; for it is “out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34). If the heart is filled with hatred, Satan will light the fire, but if the heart is filled with love, God will light the fire.
Power to Delight: the Fountain and Tree (James 3:9–12)
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 fountain? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.
The fountain or spring provides the cool water that man needs to stay alive. In Oriental countries, the presence of a freshwater fountain is a great blessing to a village. Man needs water not only for drinking, but also for washing, cooking, farming, and a host of other activities so necessary to life.
We could not be healthy without water. Paul’s prayer was that he might “refresh” the saints in Rome when he came to them (Rom. 15:32). He often named Christians who had refreshed him (1 Cor. 16:18; Phile. 7, 20). Water is life-giving and our words can give life. “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Prov. 18:21).
Our words can help to shelter and encourage a weary traveler, and can help to feed a hungry soul. “The lips of the righteous nourish many” (Prov. 10:21). Jesus said, “The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life” (John 6:63). As we share His Word with others, we feed them and encourage them along the way.
Water also cleanses. There was a laver in the Old Testament tabernacle and temple, provided for the cleansing of the priests’ hands and feet. God’s Word is the spiritual water that cleanses us (John 15:3; Eph. 5:26–27). Our words to others can also help to cleanse and sanctify them. Our words ought to be like that river described in Ezekiel 47 that brought life to everything it touched.
The tongue is also delightful because it is like a tree. The most important thing about a tree is the root system. If the roots do not go down deep the tree will not grow in a healthy manner. If we are rooted in the things of the Lord, then our words will be the fruit of our fellowship with Him. We will be like that “blessed man” in Psalm 1 and produce fruit in due season.
One reason our Lord was able to say the right words at the right times was because He communed with His Father and heard from heaven each day. “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where He prayed” (Mark 1:35). If you and I are going to have tongues that delight, then we must meet with the Lord each day and learn from Him. We must get our “spiritual roots” deep into His Word. We must pray and meditate and permit the Spirit of God to fill our hearts with God’s love and truth.
If the tongue is inconsistent, there is something radically wrong with the heart. I heard about a professing Christian who got angry on the job and let loose with some swear words. Embarrassed, he turned to his coworker and said, “I don’t know why I said that. It really isn’t in me.” His coworker wisely replied, “It had to be in you or it couldn’t have come out of you.” When Peter was out of fellowship with Christ, he uttered some distasteful words; but he went out and wept bitterly and confessed his sins.
The tongue that blesses the Father, and then turns around and curses men made in God’s image is in desperate need of spiritual medicine! How easy it is to sing songs during the worship service, and then after the service get into the family car and argue and fight all the way home!
The problem, of course, is not the tongue; it is the heart. It is easy to have “bitter envy and selfish ambition” in our hearts (James 3:14). “The things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart and these defile them” (Matt. 15:18). “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it” (Prov. 4:23). As we fill our hearts with God’s Word and yield to the Holy Spirit, He can use us to bring delight to others, and we will be refreshing fountains and trees.
Yes, the smallest but largest troublemaker in all the world is the tongue. But it does not have to be a troublemaker! God can use our tongues to direct others into the way of life and to delight them in the trials of life. The tongue is a little member, but it has great power. Give God your tongue and your heart each day, and ask Him to use you to be a blessing to others.