Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things. See how great a forest a little fire kindles! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and creature of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind. But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring send forth fresh water and bitter from the same opening? Can a fig tree, my brethren, bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Thus no spring yields both salt water and fresh. — James 3:5-12 (NKJV)
Over the past year, I’ve been profoundly saddened as I’ve watched people who claim to be followers of Christ [Christians] use the tongue to engage in some of the worst character assassignation I’ve witnessed in a long time. I’ve been equally amazed when these same people deny that their words have any causal effect on the actions of others. As a kid, growing up in a pastor’s home, being home schooled by a mother whose love for her children was only surpassed by her love for God, I was taught basic principles of the Bible and this attitude that disconnects words from actions just didn’t square with what I was taught.
As I took a little time to put the old year in perspective and look forward to a brand new year, I had opportunity to join some good friends around a pool surrounded by lush vegitation. As we talked about the year past and our hopes for the new year, I found my mind wandering back to some of the lessons I learned at the knees of my grandparents and parents, all of whom have a deep faith in God and practice that faith with an abandon that can only come from being completely sold out to God. As I’ve grown, I’ve learned to question things, but never some of those lessons that I learned at those prayer worn knees. As I mulled my various interactions and readings over the past year, I pulled out my trusty little phone, punched up my on-line version of the Bible and did a quick inquiry regarding the “tongue” and it didn’t take me long to realize that I had not been led astray as a kid.
As I read the above passage in James, it became increasingly clear to me that there is a segment in Christianity today that have decided that this scripture is irrelevant to today’s discourse and as such, they’ve discarded it. And yet the truth contained in the first part of James 3 is timeless and it serves as a warning, particularly as we start this new year.
We live in a world where God is used to bless all sorts of things from the making of obscene amounts of money to declarations of war against people who practice behavior that runs in a different direction from some who claim the name of Christ. As such, we have people like Fred Phelps or Peter LaBarbera who are adept at blessing God out of one side of their mouths and cursing people from the other. But it’s not just limited to people on the fringe like Phelps or LaBarbera. Many in mainstream, conservative Christianity have taken to engaging in very similar behavior. I read a comment recently by a gentleman who said (my paraphrase) that this phenonenom of believing we can saying anything, as a Christian, and that those words have no bearing on the actions of others is rather like tying someone to a stake, piling firewood all around them, dousing that firewood with a combustible liquid, loudly calling the person we’ve tied to the stake a witch (or gay) and then feigning surprise and “horror” when someone brings a match, lights it and the whole thing goes up in flames.
In the passage above, I believe that James directly addresses (i) the nature of the tongue; (ii) the destructive effects of the tongue; and (iii) our responsibility as Christians.
The nature of the tongue
The tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity.
The tongue is truly an unruly evil, full of poison. It causes all sorts of grief! It’s one of the smallest members on our body and yet causes the most harm. Here in Southern California we recently witnessed incredibly destructive wildfires. Night after night on the telly I’ve watched the incredible devistation. Hundreds and thousands of acres of land charred to a crisp, homes destroyed – often the result of a single spark.
The destructive effects of the tongue
…boasts great things…great a forest a little fire kindles…it defiles the whole body.
James is very clear here that what we say can have resounding effects. Even just a little word can cause results that far surpass anything we anticipated. As a Christian, this should serve to warn us that we must be careful of what we say. If we truly call ourselves Christians then we must take Jesus Christ as our example. He loved people; He treated them with dignity; He met them at the point of their need. He refused to degrade them! He refused to cast aspersions on them! He refused to disenfranchise them! His interactions ALWAYS had a positive, lasting impact. He refused to allow his tongue to defile his destiny. As followers of Christ, we truly need to be imitators of Christ here.
Our responsibility as Christians
Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be.
James goes on to say that a spring can not produce both bitter water and fresh water. What does he mean? Well, I believe he means that if we’ve had a life changing meeting with Jesus Christ, then we should have a well spring of fresh coming out of us. We should not have bitterness and anger coming out. We should not be cursing people or groups of people, because our nature has been, or is being, changed into the likeness of Him and because all people have been made in the “similitude” of God. I’ll be honest, that word “similitude” kind of threw me, so I looked it up. It means that ALL people have been created to resemble God (in His likeness). As Christians, we have no right to treat others in a manner that is anything less than creations of God…whether we agree with their actions or not!
James is very clear here that our words can and do have results…most often negative. We are to lead people to Christ…not bully them to our version of Christ. I wish more people understood that God is so much bigger than our little minds can comprehend. Because if they did, they would stop blessing Him out of one side and cursing His creations out of the other. The tongue truly is an unruly evil!
This year, I’m committed to placing my words under control. Otherwise I’ll just be out there starting destructive forest fires.