So the tongue also is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how much wood is kindled by how small a fire! And the tongue is a fire: the world of iniquity among our members is the tongue, which defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the wheel of nature, and is set on fire by hell (James 3:5-6).
Those who live in the eastern part of North America can be forgiven for wondering why wildfire might be a great concern; most of the time the east is green and lush. In the West, however, wildfire is an almost ever-present danger. The land is frequently dry. It does not take much to start a wildfire that burns tens of thousands of acres: an unattended campfire. A car accident. Lightning. Wildfires are very dangerous indeed!
James, the brother of the Lord, understood the power of fire and how a great conflagration could start with a small catalyst. Parts of the Levant are not unlike the American West in that way. He speaks of fire in order to help his beloved fellow Christians to understand the great danger behind another element which can start great conflagrations with the smallest of catalysts: the human tongue.
James had begun by warning Christians about not having too many become teachers on account of the stricter judgment teachers will face (James 3:1); he continued by pointing out that the one who does not stumble in word is able to control the body (James 3:2). He explored that illustration further, speaking of how horses are controlled by a small bridle in the mouth, and also introduced the notion of how a large ship is directed by a small rudder (James 3:3-4). He then speaks of the power of the tongue despite its small size (James 3:5-6); he would go on to recognize that while humans have tamed all animals the tongue cannot be tamed, and pointed out that we bless God and curse man with the same mouth, and that such things should not be (James 3:7-12). James therefore has a strong concern with the dangers that come from the use of the tongue.
James does not mince words about the dangers involved. The tongue is small, but boasts greatly. Of all the members of the body it is the tongue that can defile the whole, can set the world on fire, as it itself is set on fire by hell; such is the only use of Gehenna outside of Jesus’ use of the term in the Gospels.
We today know all too well about the dangers of the tongue. We have seen many people whose lives and careers were ruined because of an ill-timed remark or the wide sharing of a thoughtless remark. One is reminded of the story of Justine Sacco, who before departing for Africa made a foolish joke regarding not getting AIDS in Africa because she was white on Twitter. During the flight her tweet was shared many times; when she landed she was informed of the outrage her tweet had instigated and that she had been fired. The Internet proved merciless to Ms. Sacco; people would be foolish for judging her and her character based only on one decontextualized statement. Nevertheless, her example illustrates just how important it is for us to give consideration to what we say.
The danger of the tongue comes from many different sources. It may be, as in the case above, with a poor joke that may reveal more about our thought processes than we would like to admit. It may be the insult or cutting remark uttered in anger; you can claim that you did not really mean it, and ask for forgiveness, and even receive it, but the scars from those words will always remain. It may be gossip spoken and spread, ultimately reaching its subject. As they begin the words may seem very small and insignificant, and perhaps on their own they would be. And yet such messages can take a life of their own; ask any politician whose not well thought out comment would ultimately dog him throughout the campaign and cost him the election.
We do well to recognize how our tongues are always a potential wildfire within us. There are some times and certain contexts in which a foolish or thoughtless word may not cause too much difficulty or distress, as a spark that falls after a wet period in the forest. On the other hand, there are plenty of times and situations in which the ground is dry and the plants desiccated, ready to burn long and hot with only the smallest of sparks; the wrong word in the wrong situation and your life as you know it can be destroyed, your soul in danger of hellfire, and you are left wishing you could just take those words back.
Unfortunately, you can never take back your words. But you and I and all of us in Christ can resolve to not say them in the first place. In many ways wildfire control is dependent on humans using fire properly, and the same goes with our tongues. We must use the tongue to glorify God and bless man made in His image. We must give thought to how we speak for and about others so as to build up and not gossip, slander, or tear down. Foolish jesting is not worth our reputation and standing. May we all seek to control the wildfire in our mouths and seek to restrain our tongues!
Ethan R. Longhenry