3 When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. 4 Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. 5 Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. 6 The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
Whoever came up with the phrase “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” was dead wrong. Words hurt and they are destructive. This is what Jesus was talking about in Matthew 5:22:
But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca, ’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
We kill people with our words. We tear them apart and dehumanize them and make them into something less than people who were created in the image of God. You do it and I do it. When we make people into something that they are not, we assassinate their character and who they are. It is the same as murder.
Our intent matters a lot with the words that we say. Jesus referred to several people as fools or foolish in His ministry. The difference was that they were fools. Jesus didn’t say those words to attack them but rather to point out that they were without wisdom. The words we use rarely have such intentions behind them.
James points out the damage that the tongue can do even though it is such a small part of the body. In recent years we’ve had a couple of high profile suicides as a result of bullying. These were made more prominent because the internet was involved and a couple of the victims were gay. But bullying isn’t anything new. And often it doesn’t involve the clichéd threat of physical violence such as taking someone’s lunch money. Instead it goes back to destroying someone with words.
If you’ve ever seen or have been involved in a fight – a real punches flying, fingernails scratching event – you’ll know that it doesn’t start with physical violence. I can recall a few that I witnessed in high school. They pretty much always took the same course. There were words spoken, often an accusation. And then more words thrown back. I don’t recall a single fight where one person tried to calm the other one down and avoid a fight. Instead there was verbal sparring before it came to physical blows. The tongue provided a spark that erupted into an eventual explosion.
7 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, 8 but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
This is just a bad news set of verses. James has just laid out the problems that the tongue causes and then states that the tongue can’t be tamed. There is no easy fix. When I read these verses, I think of the circus. There are people who train lions and tigers to perform tricks. Bears and elephants can do stunts. And if you brought these brave trainers a tongue and asked them to train it, they’d say no way. It’s too dangerous. It can’t be done. It might go off at any moment. The lions and tigers and bears are far less scary than a tongue because it can’t be tamed.
It is here that we should be reminded of verse 2 when James stated that we all stumble in many ways. Not that our mouth is the only thing that gets us in trouble, but it is one of the most likely causes of our trouble. If we can’t tame our tongues, we really have little to no hope of not sinning.
As a child you were likely told at some time or another that if you couldn’t say anything nice, then you shouldn’t say anything at all. This is sound advice as our nature compels us to say unkind things once we open our mouths. The only way to defeat this is to either say nice things or keep our mouth shut so that there is no opportunity for the tongue to cause so much trouble.