When a friend of mine leaked some unusually colorful language, an elderly man nearby interrupted with a rather quaint question, “Do you kiss your momma with that dirty mouth?” It was stunning. The truth is our mouths are quite dirty. According to scientists, our oral ecosystems contain a large amount of bacteria. In fact, one study suggests that a single mouth is home to more than 6 billion bacteria that largely gather to areas on your tongue. These little critters live usual lives as we might expect. They are born. They grow. They work, eat, and defecate. They mate, and they die. We have a world of lively microbes thriving on our tongue. Yes, we kiss our momma with our dirty mouths.
Continuing to look at the tongue, James is prompting us to examine our speech. We are to put the tongue to the test in order to determine whether our heart is truly redeemed by Christ. He began with a vivid picture of the dangerous power of the tongue which led to the startling reality that the tongue measures the maturity of our faith. Afterward, he gathered our attention to look upon two illustrations that show how a small member can determine the direction of the larger body. This prompts James to consider how frightening the kind of power the tongue has, “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!” (Ja. 3:5).
In May of 2009, USA Today reported statistics indicating that people were at fault for over 5,000 wildfires in Southern California the prior year. A week before publishing the report, the Santa Barbara area suffered a conflagration that destroyed 78 homes and about 13 square miles. Apparently the fire was caused by sparks from a power tool. Two years prior, a pipe grinder accidentally ignited a 240,000-acre wildfire in the same county. Another report mentioned that four out of five wildfires in the nation are caused by humans. From 1997 to 2006, these fires turned 57 million acres to ash. Small fires cause great destruction.
Fires kill and destroy. They spread without help. They burn without discrimination. And, what they cannot consume, they damage by contamination. Soot causes health, vegetation, and ecological challenges. This is the idea that James has in mind. To burn down a forest, you only need a small flame. It is like the tongue.
“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)
Wildfires were not difficult for Christian Jews to imagine. In their mostly dry land, fires were the norm. In fact, two decades after James wrote this, an historic wildfire swept through Rome. It occurred in AD 64 and lasted nearly a week. Only four out of fourteen districts of Rome managed to escape the fire. Those who evaded the destruction were furious. The emperor, whom historians believe started the fire, blamed the Christians. This resulted in widespread persecution which lasted over 200 years. We will never know the real extent of this collateral damage.
The Tongue is a Relentless Fire
I remember the smoke and ashes from a fire I once carelessly and unknowingly ignited. Many years ago, my pastor preached a message that I thought was askew of the biblical text. It burned me inside. I was livid. At the first opportunity, I sat down at my desk and wrote a blog post expressing my objection, using strong argumentation from Scripture. The invisible sparks flew as I tapped the keyboard. Thirty minutes later, I his “publish” and my thoughts were out for the world to read. It was a small fire.
Months passed as the fire spread behind the scenes. I was not preaching at the church and had forgotten about the small fire I posted. That is, until I was called into the office of an associate pastor responsible for having me preach. He lovingly brought the article to my attention and gently removed from ministry. I found out that day that a small flame I ignited turned into a large wildfire. It destroyed many in the church. Some lost their respect for the pastor. Others felt betrayed. Some were terribly angry. The fire was burning all around me and I didn’t know. Today, I can’t forget it. The stench of smoke and damage is forever burned into my memory.
I took the first opportunity I had to meet with the pastor I wrote about. He wasn’t angry, but disappointed. I sought forgiveness. He lovingly extended it. Our relationship was restored. He recognized that I was working through my own weaknesses and wrestling with things in my mind. He and I remain friends and speak openly to each other when occasions arise. However, the damage tends to reappear and I sharply reminded that my “tongue is a fire” (Ja. 3:6).
Aspects of fire make it a hot comparison to the tongue. First, our words cause indiscriminate, collateral damage. While we might intend to disclose our ideas to a select group, our thoughts will carry reach far outside the circle. A fire doesn’t discriminate. It burns everyone it touches. Even those close to the fire feel the heat. And, when it has burned, the smoke rises and falls as soot well beyond the fire.
Second, our words spread uncontrollably. Until an idea is resolutely doused by wisdom, it continues to disseminate. People don’t have to be within the reach of the fire in order to suffer its heat. Once a tongue sets something ablaze, it requires immediate and extreme action.
Third, the extent of damage is usually greater than imagined. The tongue hurts more than we think. Many times, we don’t see the end of it. Wildfires in one city can affect people in cities many miles away from it. The size of the tongue is never an indication of the size of the damage. It is always worse.
Fourth, the lack of bad intentions doesn’t imply a lack of sin. Jeremiah 17:9 reminds us of how deceitful our hearts can be. Jesus said, “How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34). Ouch. A big wildfire generally means there is a bigger evil lying deep within our heart.
James was right to compare the tongue with fire. Imagine the opposite. If you pour a cup of water, it does not become a flood. There is no growth or spreading. It finds the lowest point and leave or evaporates over time. Fire, on the other hand, gets hotter and bigger. It spreads until it is brought under control. Your tongue is a fire.
The Tongue is a Cosmic Darkness
If you that is bad, the tongue is also “a world of unrighteousness” (Ja. 3:6). It is a generator of sin. It can burn like a fire, because it is hot at its core. The Greek literally means “the cosmos of iniquity.” It carries the idea of a world or system of evil. The word “cosmos” refers to an endless span of space and stars where substance and life generates. This is what James pictures next.
How It’s Made marathons used to keep my son and me in front of the television for hours. We loved to watch the factories filled with seemingly endless rows of machines working together to make a single product. The fact that a bunch of meaningless pieces are carried through a series of mechanical arms, conveyor belts, and polishing liquids, and result in a complex unit of merchandise was fascinating. The warehouses were like giant robots consuming metal sheets and giving birth to computer motherboards.
The tongue is like a micro-warehouse, manufacturing evil. The word “unrighteousness” means injustice, iniquity, and plain wrong. When used to describe Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, the ESV translated it as “wickedness” (Acts. 1:18). When Simon the magician asked for the power Peter demonstrated in Samaria, the apostle rebuked him, saying that he was “in the bond of iniquity” (Acts 8:23). Other passages convey the same thing—utter evil. It is the absence of good. It is sin.
While production lines create a product for everyday living, the tongue generates a product for everyday killing. It is a killing machine. James is connecting the smallness of the tongue with the vastness of the world. John Calvin described it this way: “A slender portion of the flesh contains in it the whole world of iniquity.” The tongue is a cosmic darkness, the Big Bang of sin. It has all it needs to function as a death machine.
The Tongue is a Foul Pollutant
Furthermore, “the tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body” (Ja. 3:6). It burns. It kills. Now, it contaminates. This is scary. A wild animal is removed from the city because of the danger it can be to others. A violent criminal is removed from society because of the danger he can be to others. We understand that bad things will harm or worse, corrupt, other things around it. So, we separate them before it happens. James says that the tongue is positioned among the members of our body.
Placing the fiery, evil-generating tongue amidst the other members of the body should give us reason for concern. Being the manufacturer that it is, the tongue will actively produce evil that will burn and spread like fire. James says that it is constantly “staining the whole body” (Ja. 3:6). The Greek verb denotes ongoing action. It doesn’t stop. It stains and spreads to stain again. In fact, it works to stain the whole body.
The idea of staining refers to the soot that fire leaves behind. Whatever is not burned by the fire is stained by the smoke, dark and putrid. The Greek word is spilousa which means “to defile or pollute” and it reads coincidentally like “spill on you sir.”
When speaking on the matter of evil that is defiling to a man, Jesus explained that it is not what goes into a person that defiles him since it misses the heart and goes straight to the stomach. Food does not defile a man. Rather, a man is defined by what comes out of him.
“For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mk. 7:21–23)
The foul pollution of the heart eventually comes out of the mouth and spills into the body. It’s like vomiting on yourself. Sound gross? It should. An unwholesome tongue is cave containing the most vilest of diseases.
To drive this point further, the same word is used in a short letter written by Jude concerning false teachers. He tells us to “have mercy on those who doubt” and to “save others by snatching them out of the fire” and to “others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh” (Jude 17:23).
When rescuing others from false teachers, we have to be careful. To some, we are to show mercy because they merely doubt the truth of God. We need only to gently guide them to sound doctrine. Others, we are snatch quickly from the audience of false teachers before more harm comes to them. The third group, however, is contaminated with sin. Their garment is “stained by the flesh.” Therefore, we should be very careful that it does not contaminate us. This is the kind of evil James is referring to. The tongue is a foul pollutant that will spread all over you.
The Tongue is a Contagious Pestilent
When our family is only four, we encountered the contagious rotavirus. Our two children awoke in the middle of the night with tummy aches that resulted in unstoppable vomiting, diarrhea, and fever. They were both firing off at rapid paces, often short of the restroom. My wife had one child and I had the other.
In between bouts, which was a very short period, we would wash the towels and sheets. On the second day, the washer broke. The sickness, however, did not. This particular virus is very contagious. We couldn’t allow anyone in the house, nor could we risk using the washer elsewhere. So, we hoped for the best.
It was awful. There was an unforgettable odor. As the sickness spread, it affected the whole house—sheets, quilts, towels, clothes, wipes, floors, air, and the people within it. When the horror subside, our generous neighbors helped us recover. We spent nearly a full day and six machines at a local Laundromat to undo the damage.
This is how the tongue works. It burns. It kills. It pollutes. And, it spreads. James says that the tongue is “setting on fire the entire course of life” (Ja. 3:6). It continuously spreads. Here lies a rather humorous point. Do you remember Disney’s The Lion King and the words to its famous theme song? The phrase “course of life” means “circle of life” in the original language. It refers to your circumference of living. It is everything around you, including the people with whom you come in contact.
Our words reach far beyond arm’s length. They are distributed like bullets from an automatic gun. They travel through the air and over computer networks and through social media. Our words go everywhere and touch nearly everything. And, when they do, they infect people around us.
This is how it works. Our words carry meaning. When they are heard or read, they form thoughts in the minds of others who then draw conclusions and form opinions. Some of the ideas that are formed act as foundations for human behaviors and beliefs. A demeaning remark, a white lie, a prayerful gossip, a truthful accusation, a wrongful rumor, a distasteful joke will all destroy. The destruction can happen to families, communities, schools, churches, and more. We send. They receive. If the words themselves do not hurt or taint the world around us, the repercussions of those words will—even years later. The tongue is a contagious pestilent.
The Tongue is a Filthy Wretch
Just when you’ve had enough, James hits you with one more. The tongue burns, kills, pollutes, spreads, and is “set on fire by hell” (Ja. 3:6). I can’t think of a worse thing to say about anything than this. James does not hold punches. The tongue could not be more awful. The evil that incites the tongue to spread and consume is an evil that is ignited by hell!
Let it sink in. Contrary to what some believe, hell is not a clubhouse for Satan and his minions. It is a place of divine punishment for divine rebels (Matt. 25:41, 46; Rom. 6:23). No demon is warming himself by the fire of hell or lounging in the heat with a cup of joe plotting some evil missions. Everything in hell is being tormented forever.
The word “hell” in this verse is the Greek word Gehenna, a name for the valley known as Hinnom, that had a deep ravine southwest of Jerusalem. In earlier history, parents once sacrificed their children as burnt offerings to Molech (2 Kin. 23:10). Molech was large bull who sat on a throne with his arms outstretched. The parents would lay their children in his arms until they fell into the fire below and died. This terrible wickedness continued until King Josiah destroyed it in order to bring the people of Israel back to God.
Hinnom gradually became the city dump where garbage and dead animals were disposed. The fires burned day and night as waste was continuously fed into them. Thus, it produced an ongoing and hideous odor of garbage and burning flesh. It became the symbol of the everburning fire of hell for the ungodly. Jesus was the first person in the Bible to use this symbol. This would explain why James, His brother, used the term. While Jesus used “gehenna” to refer to the place where God would pitch the ungodly, James uses it to refer to the place from which ungodly arises.
It seems to convey that the ungodly filth that is cast into the fire is spewing and bubbling over to ignite the tongue. The tongue is inflamed by the filthy waste of human depravity. And, it will eventually make its way back to the burning pit. This is strong imagery.
Needless to say, this is the metaphoric reality of what the tongue is capable of when it is not bridled. These startling images ought to cause us to tighten our grip on the reins of our mouth. It should motivate us to carefully watch our speech in order that we do not destroy our surroundings.
In a lecture to his students, Charles Spurgeon said that sometimes we should “stop and take the word out of our mouth and look at it and see whether it is quite to edification.” He went on to make an excellent application:
“Brethren, far be it from us to utter a syllable which would suggest an impure thought, or raise a questionable memory. We need the Spirit of God to put bit and bridle upon us to keep us from saying that which would take the minds of our hearers away from Christ and eternal realities, and set them thinking upon the groveling things of earth.”
We should also use our ear regularly to help. The puritan preacher, Thomas Watson, said that God gave us two ears, but one tongue “to show that we should be swift to hear, but slow to speak” and there is no wonder why. He went on to say that 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.”
Let us not stir up the fires of hell, but the waters of heaven. The Oxford English Dictionary contains entries for more than 171,000 words. We have an immense arrangement from which we can borrow terms so there is no need to sell our listeners short. Being brief and hip is no excuse. As the proverb says, “Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life; he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin” (Prov. 13:1). Douse the flame in your mouth.