Saint James says that we can control the entire body with our tongues, like the bridle of a horse or the rudder of a ship. Taming the tongue can tame the body. We are going to stand before Jesus one day and give an account of what we did while in our body, whether good or bad (2 Cor. 5). And if our speech is so closely tied with the rest of how we discipline our bodies, how are we not more concerned with the impact of what we say?
In his letter, James addresses a church that simply is not loving one another. They are worried about money and social status, ignoring the true needs of each other and those outside of their group. And when they sensed tension and strife within the church, they are speaking harshly toward one another, only fanning the flames of contention and pride. They are destroying each other with their words, burning each other’s wounds and fears with salt.
Who hasn’t been both blessed and burned by the words of someone trusted? Who hasn’t experienced the immense power of speech? James says that uncontrolled, they can start vicious fires, turning the life of entire forests into ash–just from one.small.spark. How many forests have we seen burned down by a careless confrontation or two? How many sparks have we thrown into already choking thickets of uncertainty?
The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body…It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
Great. Not only is my tongue a match. Now it’s a flammable toxin itself. (And those, I guess, destroy the ozone layer and will melt and suffocate the entire earth into ultimate extinction! Flaming, poisonous tongues, oh no!)
I don’t think that James is saying that we shouldn’t talk because our words have no potential or goodness.
But he wants us to know the weight and the potential of our speech.
Words can kiss. Words can kill. They can warn and save, and they can sleep and coward.
The proverbs are all about wisdom and showing where our talk comes from and that they can hurt and they can heal. The prophets were called to ministry through their words alone – what they said would often be a bridge between the wrath and the mercy of God (hello, Ezekiel 33).
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring…neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.
What we say has to come from more than just a whip of our tongues. When our words just happen to spew in every direction without any care for the depth they should come from or the ground they should fall on, flames are kindled, only a slight fan away from a merciless, uncontrollable fire. To praise God and to love our neighbors, our hearts have to be filled with what is true and eternal. What is this pool of refreshing goodness – the Word of God. Fill yourself with goodness and your words will be like the sweet rain falling on a parched land. Fill yourself with shallow thoughts and empty pursuits and your words will spark the same hopelessness wherever they are cast.
Jesus says it best, when confronting the fancy-talkin’ Pharises:
For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.
Store goodness within yourself!