A Brother’s Wisdom 3 – The Tongue Can Spark a Forest Fire

Sometimes you just cannot make it up! Here we are reading through the book of James, something I planned months ago, and being challenged by the simple words to be “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger” because our “anger does not produce God’s righteousness” (James 1:19-20). No sooner has James challenged us with this wisdom and this week we had Congressman Joe Wilson yelling “You Lie” while President Obama was speaking to a Joint Session of Congress and Serena Williams verbally abusing a line judge at the US Open. They should have been worshiping with us on the Magic Mile!

This week we turn to the third chapter of James and let’s see if he might have another word for us this week.

Taming the Tongue
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2 For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. 3 If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. 4 Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5 So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! 6 And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. 7 For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, 8 but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters,d this ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters,e yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh (James 3:1-12).

James begins this lesson with a specific word to teachers, but moves quickly to the rest of his listeners. We must guard out tongues because they can do great damage in a few moments. Learning to bridle our tongues may be the finest thing we can ever learn – I am also convinced that this may be the hardest task any of us ever undertakes. James lays it on the line for us, the words we speak are a reflection of our heart. James is echoing here a brother’s wisdom. He may have remembered Jesus saying:

“Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. 34 You brood of vipers! How can you speak good things, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. 35 The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure. 36 I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; 37 for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:33-37).


“Are you also still without understanding? 17 Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? 18 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 19 For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander” (Matthew 15:16-19).

Jesus was no doubt connected to God as he grew in wisdom and stature (see Luke 2:52) and he probably paid attention to the Rabbis as they offered instruction like the following from the Wisdom Tradition (Proverbs):

The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence (Proverbs 10:11).

With their mouths the godless would destroy their neighbors, but by knowledge the righteous are delivered (Proverbs 11:9).

Rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing (Proverbs 12:18).

A fool’s lips bring strife, and a fool’s mouth invites a flogging. The mouths of fools are their ruin, and their lips a snare to themselves (Proverbs 18:6-7).

Then James twist the rhetorical knife in our hearts as he reminds us that we were all created in the image of God.

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them (Genesis 1:26-27).

Because of this, to curse another human being is to curse one created in God’s image (James 3:9).

Let’s return to the rest of the third chapter of James:

Two Kinds of Wisdom
13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15 Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16 For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace forf those who make peace (James 3:13-18).

James closes his words with a challenge to resist the accolades of those who might applaud our “earthly wisdom” and to choose to wait for the “wisdom from above.” Paul reminded his listeners in Corinth that the gospel we preach, Christ crucified and risen, is a stumbling block to Jews who demand signs and foolishness to the Greeks who demand wisdom. Hear again Paul’s words:

Christ the Power and Wisdom of God
18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

26 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29 so that no onei might boast in the presence of God. 30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

Proclaiming Christ Crucified
2 When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. 3 And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. 4 My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.

The True Wisdom of God
6 Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. 7 But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory (1 Corinthians 1:18-2:7).

James invites us consider the wisdom we receive from above, a heavenly wisdom that begins and ends with God:

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction (Proverbs 1:7).

Then you will understand righteousness and justice and equity, every good path (Proverbs 2:9);

Therefore walk in the way of the good, and keep to the paths of the just (Proverbs 2:20).

So I invite you in the coming week to pursue the wisdom from above. Consider this week how you might “hold your tongue” (literally if you have to) in conversations with others. I know in my journey that the practice I developed in my eighteen month sojourn in Kenya of writing all my letters in a journal before transcribing them into an aerogram produced more thoughtful words, especially when I had a difficult word to say to a friend. My writing teacher in seminary said that I needed to write twenty words in a draft for every one word in the final copy – maybe we need to think through twenty words we might say before we open our mouths to say the first word.

Secondly, I invite you ponder these words from James: “The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy” (James 3:17). Where in your life is God asking you to consider how to be pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruit, living and demonstrating no partiality or hypocrisy? Ask God for assistance in this task as you move through this week. May a harvest of righteousness be sown in peace in your life this week.