Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth! — James 3:5
On October 8, 2017, wind blasted through northern California, spreading a series of wildfires at an alarming rate. Flames raced from tree to tree, and then house to house, faster than a car could drive. What was once a few small, contained blazes became collectively the most devastating wildfire in the history of the United States, burning nearly 245,000 acres and causing at least $9.4 billion in insured damages.(1)
In our text, James compared the devastation of fire to the devastation that can come from uncontrolled words. How many times have words wounded a heart, damaged trust, or caused a person to stumble in his or her faith? Although James was specifically addressing teachers and spiritual leaders in this portion of his letter, his words should remind us all how important it is to control our tongues.
Catherine Marshall, an American inspirational author and wife of twice-appointed Senate Chaplain Peter Marshall, discovered through personal experience the importance of controlling one’s words. She had drifted into a habit of being critical of others, justifying her tendency toward negative speech by telling herself that God gave us intelligence to analyze and evaluate. However, she felt the Lord dealing with her about this, and eventually decided to try a one-day experiment — just for one day, she would refrain from criticism.
Within a few short hours, she realized this was not going to be easy! She was surprised to realize just how much of her daily conversations had been judgmental in nature. It took real effort to hold her tongue, and eventually she found herself simply sitting silently through a good portion of the day. However, through that experiment, God helped her learn a valuable lesson about the importance of being careful how she spoke.
Words can also be written, and a less-than-kind comment on social media can have just as much impact as a thoughtlessly spoken jab. Conversely, a quick email or text message of encouragement to a friend can be just as much of a blessing as a quietly voiced word of comfort or appreciation.
The key is control. If we control fire, we can use it to cook our food, warm our bodies, and light up a dark night. If we control our tongues, we can use that power to honor God and to benefit others. So let us purpose to be careful with our words! They have great power to affect others, and could lead to eternal consequences.
The third chapter of James can be divided into two sections. Verses 1-12 deal with controlling the tongue, and verses 13-18 address the topic of genuine wisdom, or wisdom from above.
The Apostle began by specifically addressing leaders in the ministry. The word masters in verse 1 is the Greek word didaskaloi; it could also be translated as “teachers.” James knew these spiritual leaders had great influence over the followers of Christ, and for that reason, they would be held more accountable, facing greater judgment for careless words. James was not suggesting they refrain from becoming teachers but rather that if they became teachers, to do so knowing they would have a higher degree of accountability.
James continued with a common Jewish literary device of attributing fault to a specific member of the body; in this case, the tongue. In verses 3-4, he used two objects to illustrate his point: a bit and a rudder. A bit is a relatively small device, but when put into a horse’s mouth, it can control the animal. The same is true of a ship’s rudder. While insignificant when compared to the size of the ship, it dictates the direction of the vessel, even in a strong wind.
In verses 5-6, James likened the damage the tongue can do to that of a fire. The tongue’s unrighteous words or “world of iniquity” can spread devastation swiftly. The “course of nature” refers to the whole course of life.
James mentions a variety of living creatures in verse 7, asserting that while these could be tamed, no man could tame the tongue. This was not to imply the tongue cannot ever be tamed; James understood that God can tame it. The word “tamed” occurs in only one other New Testament passage, which was when the demoniac of Gadara was healed (Mark 5:4).
The Apostle pointed out in verse 9 that human beings were made “after the similitude” or in the image of God. This gives the reason for his assertion that the tongue should never be used to curse another human being — because doing so would essentially be cursing the image of God.
In verses 10-11, James spoke of a moral contradiction — that the tongue is capable of both good and bad speech. His point was that in Christians, “these things ought not so to be” because such contradictory words are unlike God, evil or deliberately injurious words being the fruit of an evil or corrupted heart.
In verse 13, James began his description of genuine wisdom that comes from above by making the case that true wisdom can be measured by behavior. In verses 14-16, he described the wisdom that is carnal, and condemned “bitter envying” and “strife” as being “earthly, sensual, devilish.” “Bitter envying” indicates a harsh, resentful attitude toward others. “Devilish” (diamoniodes) refers to something that proceeds from Satan and is characteristic of the spirit of demons. Earthly wisdom reflects the deception of Satan and is foolishness in the sight of God. It is self-seeking, of this world, and demonic, and ends in confusion and strife.
Then James contrasted this earthly or carnal wisdom with the wisdom that is from above (verses 17-18). The eight characteristics of godly wisdom that he listed align closely with Paul’s fruit of the Spirit (given in Galatians 5:22-23). The first characteristic is “pure,” which in this context means “unmixed with evil.” Godly purity is a result of inward cleansing. Combined with the following manifestations, these two verses provide a picture of wisdom that resembles and patterns after the nature of God.
(Hannah's Bible Outlines - Used by permission per WORDsearch)
VII. Faith and the tongue (3:1-12)
A. The misuse of the tongue (3:1)
B. The control of the tongue (3:2)
C. The description of the tongue (3:3-12)
1. Its power (3:3-4)
2. Its destructiveness (3:5-6)
3. Its untamableness (3:7-8)
4. Its inconsistency (3:9-12)
VIII. Faith and wisdom (3:13-18)
A. The principle (3:13)
B. The nature of earthly wisdom (3:14-16)
C. The nature of heavenly wisdom (3:17-18)
We want our speech and behavior to be controlled by the Holy Spirit and used in ways that are pleasing to God.
1 Gorman, Steve. “Probe finds PG&E power lines sparked deadly 2017 California wildfires.” Reuters, June 8, 2018. www.reuters.com.