James casts the tongue as an entirely malevolent force. James identifies the fire of the tongue with the fire of Gehenna, synonymous with hell.
If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man.
James is one of the few who knew the only perfect man – one who never stumbled in what he said. Peter too was among those few, and he wrote of Jesus, “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth” (1 Peter 2.22). Both James and Peter recognized that what we say with our tongues defines us, just as it defined Jesus. Jesus said as much himself: “I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt 12.36-37).
There is no question then about the seriousness of the subject of how we use our tongues. James has already broached it, warning against speaking too hastily (1.19) or without control (1.26). It is evident that unbridled tongues are doing harm in the diaspora churches to which he writes. He will go on to mention boasting, quarrelling, maligning, judging, grumbling, and swearing too.
Apart from parents, arguably no one has greater opportunity to do harm or good with their tongue than a teacher. Hence James’ warning against considering too lightly that calling. In the church context teachers are also leaders, shepherds of the flock. They need to be particularly wary of their power to do harm with their tongues, their capacity to make many mistakes, and of their accountability to God at the Judgment.
We are to be under no illusions about the sheer power of the tongue. Like the bit of a bridle or the rudder of a ship it has the power to steer the whole body. This is not to be taken literally, as if the tongue can set physical direction. Rather, it conveys (analogically) the impact which our tongues can have on our lives, an impact which is vastly disproportionate to their size. For example, they get us into trouble and make or destroy relationships. In this sense, they “stain the whole body”.
James casts the tongue as an entirely malevolent force (vv. 5a-12; cf. Rom 3.13). Like a fire it can do enormous damage, and like a fire it is beyond human control, even setting other forces into motion. Most alarmingly though, James identifies the fire of the tongue with the fire of Gehenna, the valley outside Jerusalem where rubbish was burnt, which became synonymous with hell.
Not only is it extraordinary that we can tame the wildest of animals but not the tongue, it defies nature that this organ can utter both blessings on the Creator and curses on the Creator’s image (humans). No tree can produce two types of fruit, and no spring two types of water, but the tongue can speak blessing and curse… “this ought not to be so”. To understand how it is, we need to know the pilot who turns the rudder (v.4), the rider who holds the reins – the heart that wags the tongue!
In what ways/areas do you need to take greater control of your tongue?
Merciful Father, I ask your forgiveness for those things I’ve said which have offended you or one of my brothers or sisters. Grant me, I pray, wisdom to think before I speak, and to speak only that which is pleasing to you; in Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.
Michael Hewat is currently serving as the Senior Minister at West Hamilton Community Church, New Zealand
Photo by Ryan Cryar on Unsplash