by the Rev. Larry Wilson
5b How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! 6 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.
If you don't control your tongue, then your religion is rubbish. "If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person's religion is worthless" (1:26). Ah, but therein lies the problem. "For we all stumble in many ways, and if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body" (3:2). Who can control the tongue?
The sinful tongue is small. How can something so small do so much damage? But the tongue doesn't have to be big to do a lot of damage. "How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire…." When I was a boy, I was amused one day to return home to fire trucks and a big hubbub. It seems that my younger brother and some friends—very young at the time—had managed to sneak off to play with matches. While they were enjoying the little pretty sparks, they accidentally set a field on fire. "It only takes a spark to get a fire going…." Likewise, "The tongue is set among our members … setting on fire the entire course of life…"
The first time I did my own laundry, I quickly discovered that I hadn't paid close enough attention to my mother's instructions. I threw in one red shirt to fill out a load. I thought it was measly and insignificant, but as a result I wound up wearing pink underwear. That one little shirt stained the whole load. Similarly, "the tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body…." You never sin without your tongue being involved, even if you don't talk to others. You talk yourself into every sin you commit. Your tongue stains your whole body.
In fact, your tongue is even "a world of unrighteousness"—more literally, "the world of unrighteousness." It's a double-agent; it serves the purposes of the unrighteous world. And not just the unrighteous world! It is "set on fire by hell" itself! The tongue even serves the purposes of the devil. How much devastation is inflicted on churches, on families, on the world, by tongues that belong to the Lord but serve as agents of the world and the devil.
"Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips…" (Isa. 6:5). How desperately we need the grace of God in Jesus Christ! How we need his grace to forgive our guilty failures! How we need his grace to liberate us from the worldly, hellish use of our tongues and to empower us to consecrate our tongues to him.
"Take my voice, and let me sing,"
Always, only, for my King.
Take my lips, and let them be
Filled with messages from thee" (Francis R. Havergal, 1874)†
†Click here for the full hymn and tune.
Click here for background on the author of Are You For Real?: Meditations in the Epistle of James for Secret or Family Worship.