James began by speaking about teachers whose words had influence noting they will be judged more strictly. This serves as a reminder to take care with our speech. Jesus taught, “… everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.’” (Matthew 12:36–37) Our words are important, and we will be held accountable for what we say and how we say it.
James then focuses on the tongue warning us of the harm unguarded words can cause. It seems the people he was writing to were not speaking to each other with love. He began this theme earlier writing, those who “… do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.” (James 1:26) Do we keep a tight rein on our tongues? There have been times when I have been speaking, then part way through a sentence my mind suddenly engages and I think to myself, should I be saying this. I am sure we all have regrets because at some time we have said the wrong thing. The Psalmist understood this problem and spoke of putting a muzzle on his mouth. At times putting a muzzle on it, being slow to speak will serve us well.
James knows that like a spark in a tinder dry forest, the tongue can spark a blaze in our lives. Like a forest fire, our words can burn a destructive path, quickly destroying a reputation, ripping through relationships and leaving us with embers and hotspots we will spend years dampening down. More serious than a natural blaze, here James is speaking about a flame, ignited by the fires of hell. To James the tongue can be a flame thrower kindled by the fires of hell. This is an awful picture of hellfire being fanned to flame as rumours and gossip spread like wildfire. Because of this hellish destructive fire, James also speaks of the tongue as a restless evil, full of deadly poison which corrupts the whole body.
Very sadly, in our present day, we hear the venomous lies of President Putin painting Ukrainians, and especially their country’s leaders as neo-Nazi drug addicts. It is not hard to imagine such vitriol being sparked by the fires of hell. Our words will never have the worldwide impact of a national leader, but we know they can damage the lives of those close to us. Perhaps with this in mind we should pray the prayer of David, “Set a guard over my mouth, Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips.” (Psalm 141:3) James highlights the problem we face saying, “Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.” (James 3:10) This should not be – we know this. The Apostle Paul wrote we should bless and not curse. It is fitting for a mouth that praises God to also be used to bless others, not to curse them. This serves as an encouragement to use our tongues to praise God and bless others.
I am sure James knew the teaching of Jesus who said, “For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” (Luke 6:45) Our hearts should be full of goodness so that our mouths may speak wholesome uplifting words. King David summed this up well saying, Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer. (Ps 19:14). So let us, rein in the tongue, tame the tongue and make it obedient. As Christians let us seek consistency of heart and speech so what we say reflects our new nature in Christ. And let us endeavour to follow the advice of Paul who said, let your speech always be full of grace. In this way our words will edify others and glorify God.
- Why do you think those who teach will be judged more strictly?
- Identify from James the six images he gives to illustrate the tongue – what is he trying to convey through each image?
- Why do you think James linked a fiery tongue to the fires of hell?
- What difference might it make, if just before we spoke, we remembered we will have to give account to God for our words? (Matt 12.36-37)
- How do you react to David’s prayer to guard his speech by having his mouth muzzled? (Ps 39.1)
- Compare and contrast the ideas found in Luke 6.43-45 and James 3.9-10. How are our inner values linked to what we say?
- What can you take away from this study that you could apply to your life in the week ahead?
Rev John Malcolm