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The Epistle of James Chapter 3 – Tongue of Fire

James in this chapter confronts a problem that we often overlook.  This is the problem of our tongues, our speech.  We tend to focus on more overt sins, murder, stealing, and adultery.  Yet James warns us that the tongue is “a fire.”  Indeed, it is set on fire by hell itself (v. 6).  As opposed to this, James calls us to the wisdom from above, a wisdom that is marked by gentleness.


  1. “For All of Us Make Many Mistakes”– 3:1-12


James begins with a serious warning about teachers.  What he says would certainly be applicable to anyone exercising authority in the church, deacons, elders, Sunday School teachers, youth workers, etc.  He makes what almost seems like an off handed comment that we all make many mistakes (not just a few).  There are many mistakes he could list.  We misinterpret things.  We are forgetful.  We don’t always pay attention.  We ignore people in need.  These are all “mistakes.”


James however is focusing in on something that is beyond the realm of a simple mistake.  In unflinching terms, he describes the problems we all have with our tongues, with how we speak especially how we speak about other people.  He begins by noting that the tongue is a “small member.”  Yet it is capable of “great exploits” like a bit guiding a horse or a rudder directing a ship.


James then goes on with a devastating list of what the tongue can do and indeed often does.  He calls it a “fire” ignited by hell itself.  It is a “world of iniquity.”   It “stains the whole body.”  It is a “restless evil, full of deadly poison.”  It is incapable of being tamed.  Is he kidding?


James however is not kidding. He is deadly serious. One of the most untruthful sayings we learned in childhood is the refrain, “Sticks and stones can break my bones but names will never hurt me.”  This, as we know now, is false.  Words can wound.  They can be more painful than any physical injury.


He adds that the tongue cannot be tamed (v. 8).  It is in effect a deadly weapon that we can all use very easily and very quickly.  Scripture is hardly silent on this subject.  What James describes here includes cursing (Ps. 10:7), slander (Prov. 16:27), gossip (“A gossip’s whispers are tasty morsels swallowed right down.” Prov. 18:8 Revised English Bible) and boasting (Ps. 12:3-4).  To emphasize how serious this issue is Jesus tells us that we will have to give an account “for every careless word” we utter (Matt. 12:36).


James points out the obvious contradiction in the fact that “blessing and cursing” can come out of the same mouth.  We praise God with our tongues but then we can in effect curse other people, all of whom are made in the image of God (v. 9).  James uses several examples from nature.  A fig tree cannot produce olives nor can a grapevine give figs.  Water can’t be both fresh and salt.  What he is saying is that how we use our tongue, how we speak, reveals who we really are.


This is one of the great unacknowledged failings of Christians.  We can easily listen to gossip and all too easily also spread it.  We can mask this by pretending to ourselves that we’re just sharing a “prayer concern” or passing along some “news.”  It doesn’t take much to begin a sentence with “Have you heard . . . .?”


James is not saying that we shouldn’t speak the truth or testify to things of which we have direct knowledge.  However, we are reminded that we need to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15).  We need to remember that our tongues can be expressions of hate rather than love.


  1. Wisdom From Above – 3:13-18


James has no illusions about the failings in Christian communities.  Twice in this brief passage he mentions the danger of “selfish ambition” (vv. 14, 16).  To this he also includes “bitter envy,” being “boastful” and “false to the truth.”  In effect we are presented with two forms of wisdom, so called.  The wisdom of the world is essentially little more than the craftiness which Satan demonstrated in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:1).  In the world many times “selfish ambition” is the pathway to success.  This is the wisdom of the world which in God’s eyes is “foolishness” (I Cor.1:20).


James contrast this with “the wisdom from above” which he describes first of all as being pure.  What does he mean by “pure?”  For James this contrasts with what he described earlier as being “double-minded” (1:8).  To be pure in this sense is to have a single focus.  This is what Jesus calls being “pure in heart” (Matt. 5:8).  It is being unstained, unmixed with other things, like “pure cane sugar.”


James goes on to speak of being peaceable, gentle, willing to yield and full of mercy.  The opposite of this is showing partiality and hypocrisy.  This brings us back to the issue of the tongue. Those who engage in gossip are neither gentle nor merciful.  To the extent that they condemn others whom they regard as inferior to themselves, they are showing both  partiality, and an absence of mercy.  Such people finally are hypocrites.  They practice a selective morality which excuses their own behavior and condemns that of others.  This is the term that Jesus uses to describe the religious leaders of his own time, especially the Pharisees (Matt. 23:13).


The three things that non-Christians find most objectionable about us Christians are the issues that James raises here.  The first is gossip, the abuse of the tongue which quickly leads to character assassination.  The second is partiality where we make distinctions among people.  We easily condemn those who are different from us.  The third is hypocrisy which is evident to everyone but ourselves.


James, rather than opposing Paul actually shares much in common with him.  As Paul condemned the legalists of his own time for their “different gospel” (Gal. 1:6), James warns of those who are unkind, judgmental and hypocritical.  We need to take these criticisms seriously.



Questions for Discussion –


  1. Why is our tongue so hard to manage?  How often do we say things we regret?  How can we avoid the “fire” of our speech?


  1. Have you been wounded by what someone has said to you or about you? How did you handle those situations?



  1. What can we do to help us avoid “selfish ambition,” “partiality” and “hypocrisy?”



Next Class May 17 (no meeting on Wednesday, May 3) – James chapter 4 – “Warlike Cravings”