Wagging Tongues

James 3: 5 -6

 Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.

One of my former Elders used to be the officer in charge of the local chief fire station and every year he would give a talk to the BB and local Scouts and probably the Guides and Brownies about fire safety. He always started the same way laying out on the table before him a knife, a shotgun and a match. He would then ask the youngsters, which was the most dangerous? Most naturally plumped for the gun but a few would give the right answer of the match. The match he would explain could start even the smallest fire which within minutes could become a raging and deadly inferno.

I don’t suppose James ever addressed the BB but he made the same point about the tongue and how unguarded speech could have devastating effects. The figure of the burning fire is not uncommon throughout the Bible, the Psalmist, Isaiah, Zechariah and the writer of Proverbs all make use of it as do many others.

The effects of the tongue are wide ranging and unpredictable once uttered words cannot be retrieved they are out in the world where often they will do good but also where they could do irreparable harm. We might think what we are saying is innocent enough but it might cause others to be offended insulted or enraged. Occasionally of course that might be a good thing sometimes as the saying goes the truth hurts.

James though is talking of the evil one might say in an unguarded moment. The evil comment does great harm as Shakespeare has Iago say in Othello “Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing; ‘Twas mine, ’tis his, But he that filches from me my good name Robs me of that which not enriches him, And makes me poor indeed”.

What is more it is uncontrollable harm, just like the forest fire, but unlike the forest fire it cannot be brought under control or indeed burn itself out. An old Rabbinic saying has it thus “Three things cannot come back, a fired arrow, a lost opportunity or a spoken word”. Once uttered for good or ill it is out there forever.

The rumour is one of the most difficult things to quash, how often have we heard it said never let the facts get in the way of a good story? To use another analogy a lie is halfway round the world before the truth has got its shoes on.

James concern is not that we all sit around like one of the three monkeys saying nothing, but rather that we are careful in what we do say, as my Yorkshire mother-in-law would say “Think on”.

Think on what the consequences might be, how useful what is to be said will be, or how damaging it might be.


Lord God our loving Father in Heaven, we speak words of praise and use our tongues to express your glory, yet we confess we also sometime use our tongues to do you no honour and dishonour ourselves. Help us to be guarded in our speaking that we may not harm you or our fellow humans.

In your Mercy hear our prayer,