The Tongue is a Fire
After cautioning Christians against becoming teachers for the wrong reasons, James then declared in 3:2 - "For we all stumble in many things. If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body." As humans we all stumble; in fact, we all stumble in many things. To "stumble" is to trip or fall; it is a reference to our mistakes, especially in regard to the use of the tongue. James makes a bold statement here by saying that one who does not sin with his tongue has reached full maturity; that is, he is perfect or complete. The tongue is the hardest part of the body to control. Man in general is so prone to use his tongue improperly that if anyone is able to restrain himself in his speech, then he is obviously disciplined enough to keep his whole body under control!

3:3,4 continues the thought - "Indeed, we put bits in horses' mouths that they may obey us, and we turn their whole body. Look also at ships: although they are so large and are driven by fierce winds, they are turned by a very small rudder wherever the pilot desires." Here we find two inspired illustrations for us to consider on this theme. The overall point is that to control one's tongue is, in effect, to restrain the whole body. A horse is very large in comparison to the small metal bit inserted into its mouth and attached to the bridle, yet the bit is effective in easily turning and controlling the entire body of the horse. This principle is also true for ships. Although they are exceedingly large and the winds are strong, the small rudder is what directs the ship wherever the captain chooses. The application for us is easily seen. Since we are able to control large animals and huge ships with very small objects, then we ought to be able to control ourselves in every way if we properly control our tongues. James' principle is true for inanimate objects like ships, it's true in the natural world of animals, and it's true for mankind.

"Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things. See how great a forest a little fire kindles" (3:5). Here is a third illustration with a warning. Although the bit is small and the rudder is small, they can be used to accomplish great things--likewise with the tongue. However, if it is misused, even though it is small, it can cause great damage. The tongue, in spite of its size is very powerful and influential. Perhaps you've heard this statement before: "Dynamite comes in small packages." That is true, and dynamite isn't bad, in and of itself. It can be used for much good if it is controlled properly. But, everyone knows that dynamite can also cause a tremendous amount of destruction if it is misused--just like the human tongue.

When you think about it, it's sad, yet amazing, that a forest fire that blazes for mile after mile got started by a simple spark. It's hard to believe that a single match has the potential to cause a fire of mass destruction. The tongue works the same way. Once a fire is lit, it must be supervised or it can easily get out of control. As soon as we speak without carefully supervising our speech, then it won't be long before a fire is blazing and out of our control! Tongues that gossip, lie, and tell things that don't need to be told are out of control and will soon turn into a furious flame that consumes individuals, families, and even whole congregations. Once you get a forest fire going, you don't have the power to stop the blaze. Once you speak a rumor or say something you shouldn't, the words are out. You can never take them back; the damage is done. You can apologize and seek forgiveness, but spoken words cannot be erased. Be exceedingly careful as to how you use your tongue! Let us all learn to speak only that which we need to and ought to.

Then in 3:6, James wrote - "And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell." When the tongue is used improperly, it is like a fire because of the pain it causes and because of the destruction it leaves behind. It's impossible to ever know beforehand how much damage our tongues can or will cause when used improperly.