The largest church fire in modern history was the destruction the Church of La Compania in Santiago, Chile, on the night of December 8, 1863. The service was to be the last of a month-long celebration; and the walls, ceiling and altar were decorated with thousands of yards of muslin, gauze and tinsel and illuminated by 2,000 long candles and 20,000 oil lamps, the latter being strung from pillar to pillar throughout the building.
A moment before high mass was to begin, a bit of the flimsy material swayed too close to the flame of a candle, it ignited and, within three or four minutes, the whole interior of the church was an inferno. As the terror-stricken people frantically struggled in the aisles, the lamps fell and sprinkled them with blazing oil and those who managed to reach the doors and exits found them blocked with tightly wedged bodies. Of the nearly 3,000 worshippers in this congregation, some 2,500 perished in the fire or died from their injuries. Entire families were wiped out. The clean-up of the bodies took about ten days, and since most of the bodies were burned beyond recognition, they were placed in a mass grave at the Cementerio General de Santiago.
James 3:1 -12
Tongues and Fire
Fire can be a very dangerous thing. As I just read you can see that even a tiny spark or flame can be very dangerous and deadly if it is not properly contained. Parents may say to their children, “Do not get too close to the fire or you may get burned.” Since fire has the potential to cause a great deal of pain, damage, and death it is no wonder why James uses fire as his example to describe the destructive powers of the words we speak. Improperly used words have been responsible for starting wars, causing abuse, breaking up marriages, tearing people down, and dividing or destroying relationships.
James uses the tongue as an analogy of the potential harm our words can cause. The tongue of a human is considered to be one of the smallest muscles in the body, and yet it has the potential to cause some of the greatest of damage or destruction if left unchecked and unfiltered.
James 3:1 – 2
Today we will talk about the power of the tongue or the words we speak. Before James tackles this subject, he first gives a warning to his readers. He cautions about becoming teachers. According to commentator and scholar Douglas Moo, “Teachers were prominent in the life of the early church from the beginning… the teacher had the task of expounding the truth of the Gospel on the growing Christian tradition… The teacher in the early Jewish Christian church would have considerable prestige.”
James informs his readers as to why they should not be eager to become teachers; and it is because those who teach will be judged more harshly and notably for the words they speak. I have heard people say that being a preacher would be an easy job; since all we must do is preach a sermon on Sunday, tell people how to live, and guilt people into attending and giving to the church. James tells us differently. The job of a Pastor is to be discouraged (unless one is clearly called by God) because he (I) will be judged more strictly for the words they speak.
Vs 3 – 5: James now gets to the point he is trying to make… the power and danger of our tongues or words. Keep in mind, James is not only speaking to leaders and teachers; he is talking to Christians in general. The tongue is analogous for the words we speak. In this passage, he is talking specifically about the power of words. He compares our words to fire. A fire, if used irresponsibly, or without care will cause great destruction. It’s safe to assume that we all know the power of negative or hurtful words as we probably have, at one time or another, been on the receiving end of some hurtful words. Throughout my 27 plus years of ministry, I have had some hurtful things said to me personally and as a pastor. Hurtful words sting and they stick with you for a long time. The words we use can cause great pain and suffering if not used properly.
Proverbs 18:21: “The tongue can bring death or life; those who love to talk will reap the consequences”. This is true! The words we use have the power to leave everlasting positive or negative impact on someone. Evangelist and author Leonard Ravenhill says, “Our words reflect what’s in our hearts. If a man loves sports, he talks about sports. If he loves money, he talks about money. If he loves art, he talks art… Our speech shows where our hearts are.” You tell what kind of person someone is by his or her words. It doesn’t take too long to find out what a person values, or what they are like just by engaging in a casual conversation with him.
Vs 6: James does a good job talking about the potential damage words can cause to others. He equates words with fire, unrighteousness, and hell. He knows and understands our human nature and the tendency to take something beautiful and wonderful and use it for harm and destruction.
When I read this passage, I am often convicted, because I often forget the power my words have. There may be times that I lose my cool with my kids or may speak harshly to my wife and not consider the potential negative impact of my words. I have spoken unkind words and know that I cannot take those words back.
Vs 7 – 8: James says wild animals, reptiles and sea creatures can all be tamed by humans, but the tongue cannot be tamed by any human being. We say what we say because we have no control over that little 20 oz. muscle in our mouths. Can we use this as an excuse though? Can we justify using hurtful words or cursing others simply by saying we have no control over our tongues? Or we rationalize by saying, “I have to say what I say otherwise I wouldn’t be true to who I am.” regardless of who I am harming in the process… I call this as verbal regurgitation. No, we are responsible for every word that comes out of our mouths.
Vs 9 – 12: Our words have the potential to be positive, affirming, and glorifying to God. We go to church, we sing praises, and we proclaim the wonderful love of God to one another. We pray for one another, and we lift each other up for the edification of the body. We tell someone you love them Etc. Yet in the same way we curse our fellow brothers or sisters through gossip, slander, abusive language, and harsh tongue lashings. It is not rare to hear things like “Did you hear what so and so did? I can’t believe she would do that. What a _________.” You fill in the blank. Or we say, “He did what?! What a jerk! I can’t believe he would even call himself a Christian. I hope God gets him in the end.” Or the ever so famous “but” statements, “She’s a nice person, but she annoys the heck out of me. I just walk away from her when I see her walking in my direction.” Then there is the always helpful, “I’m not trying to gossip BUT did you hear what she did?” Some of us have been on the receiving end of some of the harshest words ever spoken, “I hate you!”, “You are worthless!” or “I wish you were dead!” We can say the sweetest of things to one another, but we can also speak venomous and vile things as well.
With our mouths we praise God and with the same mouths we speak evil of those around us. James says, “This is not right!” And I concur. It does not make sense. How can something so wonderful be capable of being so harmful? He writes, “Can a fresh spring produce fresh and salt water? Can fig tree bear olives?” No. These things are not natural. A fig tree should produce figs. A fresh spring should produce fresh water. James is saying “The words we use should be a reflection of the God we serve.” If God gave us tongues, then we should use them for his glory and edification to his children. Or let me put it the way I would have written it had I written this verse…” If you are a Christian then you should not gossip, slander, curse, abuse, or tear people down with your words. You should speak well of one another, be kind to each other, lift your brother or sister in Christ with words of encouragement and blessing.”
So, if I cannot tame my tongue then who can? Only God can give us the power to use our words positively. We need to submit our mouths to Him, and He will give us the power to be disciplined to use our words positively and for His glory.
In Acts 2 the Holy Spirit fell upon the people and tongues of fire were present over each person speaking in other languages. These tongues of fire were evidence of the people being filled with the Holy Spirit. The words they spoke were Spirit driven Words spoken for the glory of God and the edification of the body of Christ. So, to answer the how question, I suggest we pray for the tongues of fire to be present in our speech instead of using the tongue as a fire. The difference between these kinds of tongues is the tongue of fire is driven by the spirit and the tongue as a fire is driven by man.
In Psalm 141:3 King David prayed, “Take control of what I say, O Lord, and guard my lips.” And in Psalm 19:14 he prays, “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” Let these be your prayers as well as you consider how you use your words. The king of Israel knew the power of his words and he also knew the potential of harm his words could cause. He knew that his tongue could not be tamed so he prayed that God would be the watcher of his words. He prays that God would help him to speak no evil words that would bring harm or destruction to anyone. Ultimately, he wanted his words to be pleasing to God and acceptable to Him as well.
The challenge for us today… Gossip, negative talk, criticism, and back biting are present around us all the time. I know it exists in the church… It is present in any church. However, as believers we have the responsibility to stop harmful speech in the body of Christ. The intent of the church is to glorify God, worship Him and edify one another in Christ.
The big challenge is for us to be conduits of change here in this body of Christ. Let’s begin by putting a stop to the use of harmful words against one another or against others in general. If gossip, negative talk, criticism, and back biting come up then let us put a stop to it. Let’s be honest, the reason it is present is because we allow it to be present. God has given us voices, he has given us intellect, and he has given us new hearts so let us use all these God given gifts for his glory and not the tearing down of the body.
Determine today, will you use your words as bombs of death and destruction, or will you allow the Spirit to be present in your speech to be a balm of comfort to those around you and for praise to God?
 Moo, Douglas: The Letter of James. Grand Rapids, MI/Cambridge UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing
Company, 2000, p.
Jeff has been in ministry for well over two decades. He currently serves as Campus Pastor at West Bradenton Baptist Southside Campus in Bradenton, Florida.
Jeff Has authored an Advent Devotional (The Advent of Jesus) and a devotional on the book of James (James: Where Faith and Life Meet). Both are available on Amazon.
He is married to Carrie and they have four children, Micaiah, Gabe, Simon, and Berea.
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