Have you ever watched a match ignite? Without the benefit of modern photography it’s nearly impossible to see the actual moment when the phosphorous and other elements on the match head connect with the strip on the side of the box which gives it enough friction to light. But looking at photos which have captured the moment is quite fascinating- at least to me it is! The actual moment is most likely a millisecond or less, yet the result is instantaneous and the fire it causes spreads quickly. One popular song began, “It only takes a spark to get a fire going…” (Pass It On), and this fact is born out in many a wildfire that was inadvertently started by a careless camper. Matches are volatile and therefore a very apt illustration of one seemingly insignificant part of the body- the tongue.
James in writing to believers who were dispersed across the Roman Empire wrote very strongly about the effects of the tongue (Js. 1:26; 3:1-2). He likens the tongue to two different items. First, he says the tongue is like a bridle which steers a beast of burden, and secondly it is like a rudder which directs a ship. Both of these objects are rather small compared to the whole, but each one determines the path which will be taken. James also states that the tongue is “set” among the members of the body. The Greek word here indicates that whatever direction the tongue steers us stems from the body as a whole and James indicates that this is inherently evil. The “evil” spoken of here is not that of some horror movie where evil is almost beyond stopping or the epic battle between good and evil in a fantasy novel. It is instead related to injustice or literally “that which ought not to be”. What evil stands in contrast to is truth which occupies a place with justice. Whatever does not match God’s justice is not God’s goal for us and in the end what is wrong in man’s relationship to man, is also wrong in man’s relationship to God. James completes his thought with two more examples. The first, a fountain of water, is noted as only being able to produce one kind of water. It cannot produce both sweet and bitter. The second, a fig tree, only produces its own fruit. It produces figs. It cannot produce grapes. What James is indicating here is that the tongue can only produce what’s on the inside of a man. Whatever the tongue produces only reveals what is truly on the inside of a person. And it is as hard to tame or control as a fire.
Guarding the tongue is serious business. Whether it is watching your temper, your language, your attitude or simply minding your manners, how well you control it shows to others the level of your Christian maturity. James is not the first one to take note of this or to liken the tongue to a fire (see Ps. 12:1-4; 32:8-9; 140:3; Prov. 16: 24, 27; 26:20; Mt. 7:16; 12:34-37) and Jesus considered words spoken in anger akin to murder (Mt. 5:21-22). In a day and age where there are few filters on what people say to one another, the area of the tongue is one that testifies what life in Christ is all about. It seems that everywhere you go, a new voice rises to incite anger and unrest and sadly many times Christians get caught up in the thick of it. What kind of witness does this bear to those around us?
There is probably no better example in the New Testament concerning the tongue than Paul’s urgent plea for reconciliation with two women in the church at Philippi, Euodia and Syntyche. Apparently their disagreement and the ensuing “whisper campaign” threatened to destroy the unity of this church. Paul emphatically urges them to live in harmony with one another; not in tension (Phil. 4:1-3). Likewise Paul urged Philemon, a master who had every right to publicly humiliate his runaway slave, to speak with love and concern rather than anger and judgment (Philemon vv. 17-21). Like James, Paul says that words well-chosen achieve righteousness and that is God’s desire for us (Jas. 1:19-26). What is coming out of your mouth these days? Are you starting fires? Or is your rudder set on God’s course? Perhaps these verses will spur you on to use the tongue in a positive way (Ps. 19:14; Prov. 10:11, 19, 31-32; Rom. 10:14-15; Col. 3:15-17; Heb. 13:15).
Ann H. LeFevre, M. Div.
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