Where I live people are pretty familiar with wildfires. This summer, multiple factors, such as high temperatures and minimal precipitation, created perfect conditions for dozens of fires to rage not only in Oregon, but throughout the Pacific Northwest. However familiar we are with wildfire, it’s fairly rare for most residents to actually see a wildfire. This summer, we became very familiar with the effects of these fires, as smoke and ash obscured our skies and choked our lungs for weeks on end. This year, one single lightning strike in Southern Oregon smoldered as a relatively small wildfire for a full month before quickly swelling into a massive conflagration that torched over 190,000 acres, forced thousands to evacuate, burnt several homes, and cost over $61 million to fight. All from one single spark. And this paled in comparison to the loss of property and life caused by the recent fires in Northern California.
So when we read of “how great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!” and, “the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness” (Jas. 3:5b-6a), the words not only hit home, but cause me to step back, look at the destructive and noxious capacity of these fires, and say, “My words can be like that?!”
As physically devastating as a fire might be, our words carry even more destructive capacity. Unlike wildfires, words have an inherent moral element: a capacity for right or wrong in their form, content, and effect. Our words have eternal significance because they influence, shape, and impact, not just mere mortals, they affect those who are made in God’s image.
Like fire, the effects of our words aren’t just direct and immediate, but long-term and wide-ranging. Hurtful words may smolder for days, weeks, even years—affecting a root of bitterness that slowly grows into hatred, branches into aggression, blooms into rage, and eventually bears the toxic fruit of relational destruction. Like smoke that chokes and blinds, the effects of our words can be far-reaching and noxious.
TONGUES OF FIRE
The tongue is a “world of unrighteousness.” Not a thimble-full or an ant-farm, but a world—literally, a “cosmos” of unrighteousness. There is a cosmic abundance of sin, iniquity, and unrighteousness that awaits entrance into the world through the gate of the human tongue, which taps into this wicked cosmos like an electrical cord into an outlet, allowing vileness and iniquity to flow through us and into the world.
The tongue, then, is a kind of gate; a gate through which the fires of hell itself make their way into our world. And we are the gatekeepers.
Also inherent in the phrase “world of unrighteousness,” is the inordinate capacity of the tongue in proportion to its relatively tiny size. As John Calvin wrote: “A slender portion of flesh contains in it the whole world of iniquity.” What other part of the body has this kind of influence and wide-ranging effect: “staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life and set on fire by hell” (Jas. 3:6)?
We not only unleash hell into the world through our tongues, we also unwittingly place ourselves in the path of the flames. In the end, each of us will, as Jesus said, “give account for every careless word [we] speak, for by [our] words [we] will be justified, and by [our] words [we] will be condemned” (Matt. 13:36b-37).
“For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue” (Jas. 3:7-8). The Message translation puts it like this: “This is scary. You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue—it’s never been done.”
The picture is getting more and more desolate and hopeless. How will we ever be able to live a counter-cultural life of love and obedience to Christ if we can’t even get our mouths under control? It seems impossible.
HEART SURGERY IS THE CURE FOR A HELLISH TONGUE
The best move might just be for all of us to go ahead and cut our tongues out. Which reminds me of one of Jesus’ starker and oft-ignored commands. And, I would add, one of the places where he talks about hell, as well:
"And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.” (Matt. 18:8-9)
Replace “hand,” “foot,” or “eye” with “tongue,” and you get the point.
Curiously, I have yet to meet a believer who is missing a hand because they are prone to violence, or who is missing a foot or an eye because they can’t seem to keep themselves out of adult bookstores. But I don’t think this is a sign of disobedience as much as a sign of Jesus’ true intentions in these verses. The point here isn’t that we should be hacking off body parts in order to be saved from hell. Jesus is using hyperbole—a form of exaggeration—to make the point that it isn’t these body parts that make us sin. Rather, it is our sinful hearts, for “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt. 13:34b).
And this really is the issue: the “cosmos of unrighteousness” which the tongue taps into is the cosmos of the human heart. The tongue, as Jesus makes clear, doesn’t control itself. Rather, the tongue is controlled by the heart, the moral seat of our desires, will, and emotions.
So, left to ourselves, it seems we are out of luck. Left to ourselves, we will destroy one another with our tongues, and eventually destroy ourselves. Left to ourselves, we will light the world on fire and die in our self-made inferno.
But let’s remember one important gospel truth: We are not left to ourselves.
Yes, we are rotten to the core. Yes, our tongues are often out of control. And, yes, when our tongues are out of control, we can bet that underneath it all our hearts are out of control. The Scriptures are clear that none of our hearts are right, so the answer isn't that we need to have our tongues cut out. The answer isn’t even that we need to work really hard at controlling our tongues.
The answer is that we need someone to cut the sin out of our hearts. We need a heart surgeon.
A SKILLED AND FAITHFUL SURGEON
Thankfully, there is a surgeon who can and does specialize in transforming dead, sin-drenched, hateful, slanderous, deceitful hearts into hearts that can submit to God and overflow with love. So verse 8 of James chapter 3—“no human being can tame the tongue”—is not a sad descent into a pessimistic fatalism, but an invitation to confess our dependence and need. A way out is implied, and it’s a path requiring God-driven, Spirit-empowered heart change. As God promised:
“I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” (Ezek. 36:26-27)
When my dad had open heart surgery several years ago, the procedure didn’t affect the way that he spoke or chose to use words. It didn’t affect the clarity of his speech or clean up his language. In modern medicine, brain surgery is much more likely to have these kinds of effects on speech. What his surgery did do for him was to give him a new perspective on his own mortality, which has had effects on different areas of his life, including his relationships.
The heart surgery God desires to perform on each of us will be no less painful or invasive than a surgeon cracking open a chest and rearranging arteries. But the effects of this kind of Spirit-led, transformative surgery will bear fruit in deeper and more eternal ways—including a tamed tongue that spends less time sparking wildfires, and more time being a balm for burnt souls.
Mike Phay serve as Lead Pastor at FBC Prineville (Oregon) and as an Affiliate Professor at Kilns College in Bend, OR. He has been married to Keri for 20 years and they have five amazing kids (Emma, Caleb, Halle, Maggie, and Daisy). He loves books and coffee, preferably at the same time.