"6 And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell. 7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature can be tamed and has been tamed by humankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue-a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brethren, this ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening fresh water and brackish? 12 Can a fig tree, my brethren, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh."
In the previous section, James indicates that one aspect of the perfection or
completeness that God is leading us to is the ability to never err in what
we say. God intends to transform us so that what comes out of our mouths is
always a reflection of the goodness, the peace, the presence of our living
heavenly Father. He tells his readers that how they use their tongues has a
huge impact on how they live their lives. One can guide a horse by the bit
in its mouth and steer a whole ship by the use of the rudder. James does not
want them to be deceived by the power and influence of such a seemingly small
thing like the tongue. In verse 5 James states "So the tongue is a little
member and boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small
fire!" In the examples of the horse and the ship, James is pointing out
the positive influence the bit and the rudder have over things much larger
than they are. In verse 5 however, he speaks more of the tongue's destructive
He continues to describe the evil that the tongue is capable of in the beginning
of this section. In verse 6 James continues to speak of the tongue in terms
of fire. In fact he calls the tongue itself "a fire," giving us a
picture of something that is spreading destruction and is out of control. Later
he says the tongue sets "on fire the cycle of nature." I looked at
various commentaries for help on this term. The point is that this fire spreads
through all the cycles of life, it has continuing destructive influence in
the circle of our lives. You can couple this picture with the one right before
it, that the tongue stains "the whole body." Our speech is like a
poison that spreads throughout our lives, and the lives of others. He calls
it an "unrighteous world." Righteousness is right relationship, having
everything straightened out that was bent, living according to what you were
created to be. The tongue though, James says, is often the member of our lives
and our relationships that is unrighteous, spreading distrust in God, bending
and twisting things to be less in line with their created purpose.
As I said in the previous study, I think that when we are under pressure,
when we find ourselves in trials that test our trust in the goodness and presence
of God, we are tempted to use our tongue to vent our doubt and frustration
through unkind comments, a rash angry word, gossip, grumbling, coldness, manipulation,
etc. We try to justify all of this by telling ourselves that words are "no
big deal" and that we are under strain and so we need this outlet. Sometimes
we try to hide behind the idea that "I was just kidding." I remember
being teased for being chubby and then when I was hurt by the comments I was
upbraided for taking the person's words so seriously. It seems we want to indulge
our tongues but not to carry responsibility for what we say, so we try to convince
ourselves that "they were just words" or "I didn't mean anything" so
that makes it okay.
James' words are very sobering, aren't they? And we know the truth of them.
We have all been deeply hurt or affected by a thoughtless word tossed our way.
And we have seen the long-term results of some of our own comments towards
others. When we look around, we see a tremendous outpouring of thoughtless,
unhelpful, critical, and undermining words. We have had to toughen ourselves
up against the deluge and maybe this is partly why we tell ourselves it is
no big deal--we're tough so we can take it. But James says it has deep scarring
effects and is easily passed on, spread like poison or fire.
So James wants to be clear first of all, that the tongue, small and insignificant
as it might seem, is capable of tremendous destruction, the worst of which
is the misrepresentation of God as the One who "gives to all men generously
and without reproaching." We don't misrepresent God just when we speak
directly against Him. We misrepresent Him in our grumbling because that does
not reflect our counting on or trusting Him to be our source of real life in
the midst of whatever we are dealing with. We misrepresent Him whenever we
tear down each other for we are all made in His image and beloved by Him, our
Father in heaven. Our words reflect (betray!) our relationship with God.
Secondly, James wants to point out to his readers that the tongue is very
hard to tame. James describes the tongue as being "an unrighteous world
among our members" and "set on fire by hell." We are very easily
tempted to sin with our words to one another. Our lack of trust in God, our
frustration with Him over our present circumstances, our jealousy or anger
at others, are easily expressed by our tongue. It is so easy to speak without
thinking first. Our mouths, it would seem, often bypass our brains! We are
usually far quicker to speak than to act so the potential for sinning with
our mouths is that much greater. As James said earlier in this chapter, "we
all make many mistakes."
James goes on to make the comparison of our ability to tame the animals of
the earth, both great and small, and yet "no human being can tame the
tongue." It is "a restless evil, full of deadly poison." We
are so quickly ready to unleash with our tongues. Is it possible that James
is being too harsh? After all, aren't these just words, without substance?
Apparently not. Apparently we are not as impervious to the comments we receive
as we might hope. Words do have an effect, change the picture, affect the behavior
and future of others, for good or ill.
With our mouths we can both bless and curse. It is interesting to note that we
can bless. With these little tongues of ours we can be a blessing to another.
Our little words can offer praise, comfort, life to another. That is amazing
if you stop and think about it. Our words can make a wonderful, real difference
in another's life. I have thought of this often when I consider appreciation.
It is wondrous to me how much difference it makes when someone stops to appreciate
something I have said or done. I am humbled and amazed that God let me have a
good impact in the life of another. What a gift that is! I am so glad when I
consider this--that they aren't "just words." To claim that what we
say "is no big deal" is to rob ourselves of the great good news that
we can participate in giving God's life to others by simple things we say.
James last point in this section is that we are double-minded with our mouths.
We allow blessing and cursing to come from the same tongue. "My brethren,
this ought not to be so." Why? James goes on to give several illustrations.
Can a spring, he asks, give forth two kinds of water? Can a fig tree produce
olives? A grapevine, figs? Can salt water yield fresh? No, all these things
were created with a particular nature and purpose. They cannot go against their
created nature. When we use our tongues to curse, we are going against our
created nature. We were created to be a blessing, imaging God.
Our double minded tongues reflect our double minded minds. We are not yet
fully mature, complete, perfect. We still find ourselves at times in two minds
about God and about ourselves and this finds expression through our communication.
To mature is to participate with God in His slowly healing and perfecting us
so that we are all one thing, one way, one person with one nature--His complete
beloved child. We see our need for Him as we consider our battles with our
The great good news is that God's word to us is all one thing. God is not
double minded about us and His word to us is always life, peace, love in Him.
It is always Jesus Christ. We never need worry that God will change His loving
words to us, that He speaks of us to others differently than He speaks to us.
His word truly can be counted on for it is at one with His nature. He can and
will make us more and more like Himself. Trusting Him to do this, we can happily
and daily hand over our tongues to Him and rejoice when we see our ability
to be a blessing grow. Thank goodness it is not His intention to leave us in
our double-mindedness or under the poison of twisted words spoken to and heard
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