Words that Burn
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. James 3:6
Several years ago, while doing some outdoor spring cleaning, I started a fire in our yard to burn some brush. It wasn’t a big pile or a huge fire, but it was quite windy. As I bent down near the fire, to push some debris into the fire, a gust of wind came up, fanning the flames directly into the top of my head. It didn’t hurt, but I heard my hair crackle and a second later, I smelled it. Burning hair is not a pleasant smell. I ran inside to look in the mirror, discovering that it was as bad as I feared. I had to make a quick trip to town to get a haircut before I went to work that evening with a head full of singed hair. I was burned by my own fire.
This is similar to the metaphor James used in today’s passage describing our words. First, he compared the tongue to a rudder of ship. Though a rudder is so small, it alters the course of the entire ship. Then, he went on to call the tongue a fire that burns our whole body, setting the course of our lives on fire. He called the tongue a flame, set on fire by hell itself. Finally, he called the tongue poisonous. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God (James 3:8-9). James could not have worded his view more forcefully. Our words can be toxic and, if we don’t control them, they destroy everything.
It’s so easy for me to speak evil of someone and it’s such a fine line between being concerned about someone and just talking trash about them. Did you hear who’s struggling? You won’t believe what he did. What an idiot.
James said that when we speak evil of others, we start a fire that spreads out of control, burning everyone. When we say something toxic about someone, it often encourages others to do the same, fanning the destructive flames. We can create a profoundly toxic environment, simply with our tongue. As Christians, James said this must not be the case. We cannot live as disciples of Christ while expressing venom from our mouths. Daily, if we truly follow Christ, we must control our tongue, choosing to speak good instead of evil.