How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. –James 3:5b–8
There’s no denying that the tongue is a crucial part of the human body. There are at least four important roles that it plays in our daily lives. First, it helps us taste the food that we eat, notifying us of whether our food is too sour, too salty, or too hot to be eaten. Second, it enables us to chew and swallow food, so that our body may benefit from the food and our hunger may be satisfied. Third, it helps form the words and sounds required for speech. Fourth, it can also be used to discern if we are in good physical health.
When visiting the doctor’s office, it’s not uncommon to be told to “stick out your tongue.” By looking at our tongue, the doctor can begin to determine whether more might be wrong with us. Virtually the same is true in a spiritual sense: the things that we say and the ways that we say them can reveal a great deal pertaining to the true health of our soul. None of us are in perfect health, though, for, as Karen Mains observed, “in the end our tongues always betray symptoms of soul sickness.”1
In this article, we’re emphasizing the fact that God’s Word has seven critical things to say about the tongue. So, let’s consider these seven descriptions of the tongue.
The Tongue Is a Fire (vv. 5b–6)
Our text begins, “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.” Figuratively speaking, our tongue is like a small fire which can set an entire forest ablaze. This reminds me of a recent wildfire in Southern California that grew so large that several buildings were destroyed and around six thousand people had to evacuate the area. As hard as it is to believe, that massive fire which caused so much destruction started with a single flame.
James compares our tongues with a small fire, just like the one in California, which has destructive potential and can quickly lead to devastating results. Proverbs 16:27 echoes this same warning by declaring that the speech of a worthless man “is like a scorching fire.” In fact, if even the people of God can’t learn to control our tongues as Scripture calls us to do, then entire congregations, communities, and even nations are sure to be burned by the spiritual wildfires that will ensue.
The Tongue Is “a World of Unrighteousness” (v. 6)
Our tongues are like small “worlds” where all kinds of evil and unrighteousness reside. In places like this, slander, blasphemy, falsehood, gossip, and arrogant boasting are all practiced regularly. When we knowingly lie, the deception comes from us and from our own tongues—not from anyone else whom we might wish to blame. In fact, there are at least three different ways that we’re prone to telling lies.
First (and perhaps most obvious), we lie to other people when we don’t tell the truth. Children lie to their parents. Employees lie to their employers. Some people lie to their government officials as they file their taxes each year, and in turn, we suspect that the government sometimes deceives us by not disclosing the full truth about certain things. In all of these ways, great damage is done, and the consequences can easily become devastating.
Second, we also lie to ourselves. If we fail to acknowledge who we really are before God—according to God’s Word—then we are deceiving ourselves. Scripture makes it plain that we are sinners who are in desperate, continual need for God’s grace. How foolish it is to attempt to deny this and to convince ourselves that we are good enough to enter heaven on our own merits. At the same time, we should be careful not to deceive ourselves into thinking that we are truly saved if, in fact, we are not, for as 1 John 2:4 warns, “Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him.”
Third, as we lie to others and to ourselves, we are also likely to lie to God. In doing this, we are disobeying God’s law directly to His face. How foolish it is to say things that aren’t true to the one who knows all things far better than we do! This is the supreme demonstration of human arrogance.
Telling lies about God is just as wicked, and 1 John 2:22 makes this clear by asking, “Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ?” Anyone who denies Jesus Christ is a liar. As you might imagine, God takes this kind of sin most seriously. Consider the words of Proverbs 6:16–19: “There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers.”
Truly, God hates a lying tongue!
Some may try to argue that the best way to keep from lying and offending God is to be quiet. However, in certain situations, we can lie with our tongue just as obviously by silencing it. Proverbs 10:18 has this in mind when it declares, “The one who conceals hatred has lying lips, and whoever utters slander is a fool.” We typically refer to this kind of sin as “silent abuse,” or as giving somebody “the silent treatment.” Examples of this include times when a husband and wife refuse to speak to one another because of an argument they had, or a parent is not talking to a troublesome child. In our churches, this can also be seen when members who are at odds with one another refuse to pursue reconciliation with one another.
Are there any of us who are abusively silencing our tongue in this way? If so, we must urgently repent and seek God’s forgiveness. God despises a lying tongue, and He declares that speech (or silence) of this sort is a “world of unrighteousness.”
The Tongue “Stain[s] the Whole Body” (v. 6)
Sinful speech can stain your personality in the eyes of others. It can defile your character—sometimes in permanent and irreversible ways. In some situations, “sorry” is not enough to undo the pain that you’ve already caused others, and the way that the injured person sees you may be forever changed as a result.
There is a story about a little girl who went to her mother and said, “Which is worse, Momma—to lie or to steal?,” to which the mother replied, “Both are sinful. I can’t tell you which is worse.”
The little girl sheepishly said, “Well, Momma, I’ve been thinking a good deal about it, and I think that lying is so much worse than stealing.”
“Why, my child?” came the mother’s reply.
“Well, because if you steal something, you can always take it back, unless you’ve eaten it—and if you’ve eaten it, you can pay for it—but a lie is forever.”2
There is some truth to the girl’s explanation. This kind of sin can stain us in significant ways and can make us desperately wish that we could retract some words that were spoken in the past. This is precisely why, earlier in the Book of James, we are told, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27).
We’re all likely to be familiar with the famous nursery rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” However, these words aren’t true. Words can hurt us deeply. In fact, sometimes it hurts us so badly that it can take a significant period of time for our emotional wound to heal. Let’s seek to avoid being stained in such a way because of the words that we say.
The Tongue “Set[s] on Fire the Entire Course of Life” (v. 6)
This strong phrase can be difficult to understand, but I appreciate the way that Albert Barnes explains it, by saying, “The idea here is, that that which causes the tongue to do so much evil derives its origin from hell.”3 In a similar way, the Easy-to-Read Version of the Bible translates this passage as follows: “The tongue is like a fire. It is a world of evil among the parts of our body. It spreads its evil through our whole body and starts a fire that influences all of life. It gets this fire from hell.”
So, we should recognize that an ungodly tongue acts as a fire and that this fire comes from hell. In other words, the power that our tongue possesses to destroy lives, damage communities, and harm our churches and even ourselves comes from hell. It comes from Satan, because the word hell in this passage comes from the Greek word gehenna, which means “the place of the devil.” To state it another way, a lying tongue comes from the devil, who is both a liar and the father of lies.
The Tongue Is Untamable (vv. 7–8a)
Generally speaking, even wild animals such as lions, tigers, elephants, birds, and snakes can all be tamed by people who have the skills to do that. In fact, it can be amazing to visit the circus or a theme park and watch trainers perform with the animals that they’ve trained. The Bible declares that God has given us dominion over the animals (Gen. 1:26, 28). Yet, Scripture also reminds us that while we may train the animals, nobody is able to tame their own tongue. We have no natural power to control our tongue. In fact, this is our biggest problem with regard to our tongue—we can’t tame it!
There are at least three reasons why this is so. First, as we’ve already seen, our tongue is like a wildfire that can burn out of control. The fire can burn so big that we can’t even begin to extinguish it ourselves.
Second, the fire comes from hell and from the devil himself. In our own strength, we are no match for Satan. Satan is powerful, but, praise be to God, “He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). James makes it clear that while we can’t defeat the devil ourselves, we can trust in God and in His Holy Spirit who dwells within every believer, and we can be confident that in Christ, we have eternal victory over sin and the consequences of sin.
Third, as both James 3:2 and Romans 3:23 remind us, none of us are perfect. In our sinful imperfection, we aren’t nearly capable of defeating the sin in our lives, but our perfect God is capable of overcoming sin, and we can trust in Him fully.
The Tongue Is a “Restless Evil” (v. 8b)
This same description is given to the devil himself in 1 Peter 5:8, which declares that “your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” Satan is a restless evil. He is active. He’s not lazy but is always working, trying to deceive and confuse as many people as he possibly can. In the same way, sinful speech intends to deceive its listeners and to keep them away from the truth. The natural tendency of the tongue is toward sin, but God calls us to fight against this tendency by coming to Him and by allowing Him to redeem our speech for His glory in ways that we could never do apart from Him.
The Tongue Is “Full of Deadly Poison” (v. 8c)
Here, James portrays the tongue as that of a poisonous snake. Psalm 140:3 explains, “Their tongues are like deadly snakes; their words are like a cobra’s poison.” Also, Proverbs 11:9 warns us that “with his mouth the godless man would destroy his neighbor.” Figuratively speaking, our tongues are filled with poison and have great potential to harm others. Ungodly speech is filled with venom and can poison those whom it seeks to harm as if it were a deadly snake.
After considering all of the ways that the tongue can harm others and ourselves, how should we respond? I have two helpful suggestions to offer. First, let us be more gracious to each other. We must be quick to forgive and to seek forgiveness from others. If your goal is to find mistakes, then you will easily find some, since we are all sinful and imperfect. However, before you condemn others for mistakes that they’ve made, it would be wise to remind yourself that you have similar tendencies in your own life.
In Ephesians 4:29, Paul instructs us to “let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29). Strive to speak to others in love, and to use words which will edify and bless rather than harm.
First Peter 4:8 exhorts, “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.” Are you gracious to others, or do you seek to be critical of others? Peter reminds us, though, that if we truly love others, that love will cover a multitude of sins. This does not mean that we will be accepting of the sins of others, but rather that we grow in patience, understanding, and love as we increasingly seek to demonstrate God’s love (which He has so graciously shown to us) to others.
Second, let us learn more about our tongue. We must continue reflecting on what God’s Word says about our tongue, especially in regard to how we can tame it with God’s help. James explains to us that if we can’t control our tongues, we can’t control our bodies either. How wonderful it would be to increasingly be able to master both our tongues and our bodies, and to live our lives in such a way that God is honored and people are blessed. We should desire to do this, and seek to live according to God’s Word.
The Puritan Thomas Watson famously wrote, “God has given us two ears, but one tongue, to show that we should be swift to hear, but slow to speak. God has set a double fence before the tongue, the teeth, and the lips, to teach us to be wary that we offend not with our tongue.”4 Oh, may God help us to use our tongues for His glory and for the good of others!
1. Can you think of practical examples in which the tongue has been like a fire? Has your tongue ever caused a wildfire?
2. What are the three ways in which we are prone to tell lies? Ask the Holy Spirit to show you in which area your tongue has been or is a “world of unrighteousness.”
3. Where does the tongue’s power to destroy come from? How can understanding the answer to this question help us resist the temptation to use our tongues for evil?
4. How did Christ resist Satan’s temptation to use His tongue for evil? Take a moment to praise and thank Christ for His perfect obedience.
5. Why is it important to strive, by God’s grace, to control our tongues? What steps, if any, have you taken to do this?
1. The Complete Guide to Christian Quotations (Uhrichsville, OH: Barbour, 2011), 446.
2. Spiros Zodhiates, comp., Illustrations of Bible Truths (Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 1991), 274.
3. Albert Barnes, Notes, Explanatory and Practical on General Epistles of James, Peter, John and Jude (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1850), 67.
4. Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (1692; repr., London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1965), 115.
Rev. Brian G. Najapfour is the pastor of Dutton Reformed Church, Caledonia, MI, and author of The Very Heart of Prayer: Reclaiming John Bunyan’s Spirituality (2012) and Jonathan Edwards: His Doctrine of and Devotion to Prayer (2013). He and his wife, Sarah, have two children, Anna and James. He blogs at biblicalspiritualitypress.org.