Having discussed why our words are important I will next discuss the nature of the tongue, which we can wield for good or evil.
The Nature of the Tongue
I believe the power of the tongue is explained well by the Lord’s brother James. “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire [that is, the tongue]!” (James 3:5 ESV). I think it is worthwhile to pause and consider this sentence before moving forward. What forest? This may be stating the obvious but the forest represents a person or persons who are within the hearing of the speaker who sets them on fire with the words of his mouth. This forest fire grows with the hearing as the original message is conveyed from one person to another (similar to the game of telephone). If we were to think of words as a spark then they would kindle a fire within the hearts of all that hear them, alighting from tree to tree until a whole forest (i.e. community/workplace/church/etc.) is set ablaze.
The Gale of Gossip
James implies that there is some force that carries this message along as winds carry along a flame. If I asked you what sin equates with this force, or that is the sin that manifests itself in this atmosphere, I believe you would respond “gossip” (or perhaps also slander; they often go hand in hand). Proverbs is peppered with warnings about the dangers of gossip and how destructive it can be. So we see that there is a force that serves to augment or amplify what we say, that spreads whatever is spoken about as a wind carries a spark. So we see how powerful and dangerous the tongue can be. Yet this magnifying force that amplifies what we speak and carries its way through a community can also be used in service of the good, as evidenced frequently in the way word spread of Jesus’ ministry. People flocked from all the surrounding areas to be healed by him and to hear him speak (as they also flocked to John in the wilderness to be baptized). One interesting thing to note is that a consequence of this spreading of the word (be it the Word or any word) is that it has results in the building of a reputation which can present itself as fame or infamy. So in a sense the forces James speaks about can be used for good or for evil.
“And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness.” (James 3:6 ESV). A world of unrighteousness. The word “world” really strikes a chord with me because when I think about it the tongue is a member of tremendous power. Our legs only carry us as fast as they can run, our arms are limited in their movements, our hands in the things they can hold, our eyes in the range they can see and our ears the range they can hear. However, our tongue is only limited in what it can say by what we can imagine. This member is truly a world unto itself and serves as a bridge between our internal world, that is our thoughts, feelings and emotions, and the world outside of us (as discussed in part 1). But if our internal world (or heart) be evil then our tongue is a world of unrighteousness. And what are the consequences to us of an unbridled tongue? James continues on.
“The tongue is set among the members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.” (James 3:7 ESV). I had heard it mentioned before that our sins are stains on our soul and I believe this is true (though more for the purposes of poetic expression as we are cleansed by the blood of Christ). We are (in our own righteousness) unclean. This image of the tongue staining the whole body strikes me though, almost as if I could imagine if we were to be tattooed on our skin with every foul thing we had ever said, then perhaps we would understand and be able to appreciate the consequences of careless speaking. James continues on, stating that the tongue burns up our life’s path (destroying fruitful and pleasant ones). The things we say now will have consequences in the present and oftentimes in the future. A careless word can destroy careers, friendships and marriages. It is not for nothing that James says the tongue is “set on fire by hell” (id). Let us not forget it was by a beguiling tongue that the course of destiny for the entire human race was plunged into darkness. We should be appreciative of its destructive potential.
James continues and charges us with double-mindedness. “From the same mouth comes blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.” (James 3:10 ESV). James implicitly charges us to use our mouths to uplift and bless and not to curse (which is blasphemy because all people are made in the image of God). We have to decide who we are fundamentally. If we are in Christ Jesus then we must produce good fruits with our speech. “Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.” (James 3:12 ESV).
——————————- End of Part 2
*ESV=English Standard Version