For years, I read these scriptures, and I always thought, "I'm not starting forest fires with my words. I'm not viciously devouring people like a roaring beast. I can take this in stride and not worry so much about examining this. After all, these examples are for the extremes: the Adolf Hitlers, the serial criminal minds, the hardened and bitter sinners who retreat from humanity. This isn't me!"
God sometimes focuses our minds on the things we are guilty of by allowing us to experience the same behaviors from others. David did not see himself as he was behaving and affecting others until Nathan described to him another man's behavior (II Samuel 12:1-4). David was so outraged by the man's gross actions and attitude that he, as king, declared the death penalty on him (verses 5-6). Had this been an actual individual, chances are David would have pursued the matter to see the man brought to justice! However, the man he judged as worthy of death was none other than himself (verse 7).
We experience similar lessons. We are at times brought into the company of people who are offensive to us, whose behavior hurts us, and whose words can cut us and wound us, because something in the experience will teach us what we need to learn. God is allowing us to experience ourselves.
We chuckle at times, observing how someone known for gossiping will howl in dismay when he is gossiped about, or how a person often critical of others is intolerant of criticism directed toward himself. We say about teasing, "Don't give it unless you can take it!" Similarly, we enjoy people who are warm and friendly, and we feel warm and friendly when we are around them. Happy people tend to attract other happy people, while bitter or angry people often find another unhappy person with whom they can share their complaints.
A deeper principle can be employed here: If we look at others' behaviors, we can learn to see ourselves. Job's friends had this opportunity. They saw Job going through his calamities, how miserable he was, and in their care for him, they did their best to find his fault and help him solve his dilemma. In the end, God simply dismissed these three friends and all their long-winded speeches because they failed to recognize the very thing God gave them opportunity to see: They failed to see themselves in Job.
Job was not singled out for this experience because he was Job. He represents mankind, blinded by himself and unable to see the reality of God. Even today, many centuries later, we examine the life and thoughts of Job in an effort to see ourselves in his shoes; we try to learn from his experience by exposing the same faults within us. This aids us by allowing us both to see what we might miss and to change what is incompatible with our Creator.
How often do these opportunities emerge for us to see ourselves in the actions of others? In the past decade, we have had many opportunities to witness the effects of deceitful men upon trusting and unsuspecting people. We have seen people shift allegiances and loyalties but deny doing so by their words. We have seen couples speak words of lifelong devotion only to cast them aside for a new attraction. We have seen friends and family who expressed the deepest of commitments to one another both deny those relationships and turn against one another. We have seen hearts broken by sarcasm and neglect. We have seen the crushing effects of criticism upon those needing reassurance and encouragement.
Most of us do not escape life without being deeply touched by such actions from others. But how incredibly sobering it is to see ourselves in these actions of others, to realize that we are guilty of the very things that may have hurt us deeply! We, too, are responsible for spreading the flames of a fire that devours and destroys all in its path. The evil of our tongues is as limitless as the evil James describes.
A sharp tongue is a weapon, no less as effective as a pointed spear or a sword honed to a razor's edge. A sharp tongue has no place among the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). It does not express love, spread joy or promote peace. It shows no patience, kindness or goodness in its words. It betrays faithfulness and gentleness, and most of all, it shows no measure of self-control.
My sharp tongue has been a contradiction to the convictions I have expressed nearly all my life. I never saw it until I had to come face to face with the jabs, slices, and pricks of other sharp tongues, and to feel the fires they started within me. I would beg the Father for understanding, of why such communication should exist and why I should receive it with such bitterness—until I finally saw, as David did, that I am the guilty one.
Are You Sharp-Tongued? (Part One)
What hope do we have as men if "no man can tame the tongue"? Mothers once washed their children's mouths out with soap for using bad language or expressing verbal disrespect. The entertainment media have made such words part of our households, schools, and workplaces. James' admonishment is not a soap-and-water application or a fatherly reprimand. His statements are blunt instruments: The tongue is as a vicious animal, whose words are capable of causing ultimate destruction, and it is as a creature of such monstrous character that no man can tame it.
As a kid, I loved to play "Cowboys and Indians," and when I heard "no man can tame the tongue," I imagined a tongue running around like a loose calf, with a cowboy on horseback riding frantically, trying to rope it down and tame it. It is a silly scene, but even now when I think about it, how accurately it pictures the feeling of trying to run after my own words and tame them after I have let them loose!
Are You Sharp-Tongued? (Part One)
James warns that the size of the tongue is no measure of the power it wields. Just as the tiniest of sparks can ignite a great forest fire, the smallest of words, unwisely spoken, can cause immeasurable harm.
Uncontrolled and untamed, without interference, a fire can spread to leave absolutely nothing untouched, unscorched, and unaffected. It is startling to think that fire, of itself, could erase all life from the earth! Were it to burn and spread unaffected by rain, wind, or the efforts of man, it could conceivably cover the earth and burn all life and all oxygen from our world.
Anyone who has witnessed a forest fire and seen flames leap from one treetop to another can grasp the traveling power of fire. James wants us to capture this graphic vision of the potential destruction our words perpetuated in sin can achieve. The iniquity created and perpetuated by words can spread to the ultimate of all damages: death. Solomon writes, "Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit" (Proverbs 18:21). Does man have any other ability that can cause such a degree of devastation?
Are You Sharp-Tongued? (Part One)
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing James 3:6: