The Tongue Is a Consuming Fire

No, today’s post is not about the fiery passions you can stir up in the bedroom by putting your tongue to work on your spouse, though Lord knows that with some of my subject matter, that wouldn’t have been a bad guess. No, we’re going to talk about a little sentiment in the Book of James in the New Testament about the power—and danger—of our words. A lot of people might argue that “It’s just words” or “Words can’t hurt you” or some shit like that, but we know better in our hearts, even if we won’t admit it with our voices.

Of course there is the obvious example of shouting “Fire!’ in a crowded movie theater and the fear and injury—and perhaps even deaths by trampling—that words like that could cause. But it doesn’t have to be that dramatic. One of the reasons we talk crap about other people and gossip and spread tales, for example, isn’t just to entertain ourselves. Of course that’s often part of it, but often the ultimate aim is to hurt the person, either by them eventually hearing from someone else what’s been said or by harming their reputation with other people. Saying the wrong thing in the wrong tone at the wrong time can start freakin’ wars, you know, whether wars between individuals or between nations. Saying hurtful things to someone you love can wound them emotionally—possibly in ways that you can never fix—and can wreck relationships.

Anyway, the best known part (I think) about what James wrote about our tongues was that “the tongue is a fire.” Here’s the more complete passage, though:

Now if we put the bits into the horses’ mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well. Look at the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires. So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things. See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell. For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by the human race. But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water? Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs? Nor can salt water produce fresh. (James chapter 3, verses 3-12)

I’ve railed on about the Word of Faith movement a few times around here—yes, there is a point to this sudden shift in direction, trust me—and you can click here for my most prominent bit of ranting on that subject. The reason I bring this up is that the Word of Faith folks don’t have it all wrong; it’s just that they’ve twisted it up and corrupted God’s meaning as they play to their audiences and chase the tithes, offerings and book deals with their horrible and misleading message. What the Word of Faith folks will tell you is to “name it and claim it.” That is, through faith in Jesus and by the power of God, all you have to do is pray for something, say it’s yours and believe it, and it will come to pass. You broke? Well, you can be rich if you just pray that you’ll be so and have full and complete faith in that. You have cancer? You can be cured instantly if you just believe that the cancer has no power over you.

Mind you, I’m not saying that such miracles cannot occur because they can. But God doesn’t just answer every prayer exactly as a person wants it just because they demand it on faith. God isn’t an ATM in the sky giving us goodies on demand because we’re the faithful.

But what the Word of Faith people are tapping into has a core of truth. Our words hold power. It is possible through faith to bring things about simply by saying it should be so. I’m not talking magic here and I don’t mean that it always happens, but Jesus told us that with faith the size of a mustard seed, a person could tell a mountain to move out of the way. Problem is, none of us on this planet have enough faith to tap the power of God directly like that. We are wracked by too many doubts. Jesus walked on water; we don’t. But it is possible to put things into motion by speaking them.

Also, there is a “power of positive thinking” thing here too (or power of negative thinking). If we always say we are going to be losers, we will tend to be losers. If we get up, stay in our pajamas and don’t shower or go out because we feel shitty, we will probably continue to feel shitty, whereas a shower and some decent clothes might actually improve our attitude. On the other hand, if we say things like “I deserve to be happy” or “I can be a success” we cannot necessarily bring those things about immediately, but we put ourselves on the right path to do so.

Word have power for good or ill. We can seriously hurt people with our words. Or we can lift them up. We can help them see the wonder and power of knowing Christ with the right words. Or we can turn them away from Jesus by saying things that make us look like arrogant, self-righteous assholes. You get the message. At least, I hope you do. Written words have power too, and I’m hoping these ones are getting through.

Look at what James said above. The human tongue is an amazing thing, able to do good or evil with equal ease (though frankly, I think it’s easier to do evil with it; good stuff always takes more work and often isn’t as viscerally satisfying, which is why we humans have mucked up this planet something fierce). Most things in nature aren’t able to do two things that are so diametrically opposed to one another.

So when we say things, we have to be careful. Because when you get right down to it, a slip of the tongue can be as harmful as slipping a knife in between someone’s ribs.


5 Responses to “The Tongue Is a Consuming Fire”

  1. July 14, 2008 at 5:34 pm

    Jesus does tell us that whatever we ask for in his name will be given. I don’t know exactly what that means. It seems like a crap shoot. I gotten some pretty trivial stuff after prayer, but there are no coincidences… Right?. If you read some proverbs and psalms, there seems to be a direct cause and effect relationship between quality of life, and behavior. except for Job. And Me. And many of my friends. I heard the phrase “The Whole Counsel of GOD” used to illustrate the faultiness of a bad contextual interpretation, and I sorta get that. And perhaps there is a spiritual “Rain Man” out there who can comfortably hold “The Whole Counsel of GOD” in his head, and wander through life without being confused. Maybe. God in his Infinite wisdom chooses to have some periods of extreme suckiness go on in life for no apparent reason, and some people morally (or I would like to think) inferior to myself, seem relatively immune. So many human traits are the Thumbprint of God’s Image. You can Never completely figure out a human, but the deepest intimacy happens on an intuitive level, maybe. I think you could know God a thousand times better than me, and still barely know him. I think He/them are really un-figure-outable. Faith and doctrine begin for me where Peter says “to whom shall we go? you have the words of eternal life”. In other words, “that last sermon was deeply fucked up, Lord. Bread of life? Eat you?… But I have seen too much to write you off now…I still wanna be in the club.”

  2. 2 Deacon Blue
    July 14, 2008 at 11:40 pm

    You’re right, Jesus said something to that effect

    Gospel of John, chapter 14, verse 13:

    And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.

    Here’s what Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary has to say about chapter 14, verses 12-17

    “Whatever we ask in Christ’s name, that shall be for our good, and suitable to our state, he shall give it to us. To ask in Christ’s name, is to plead his merit and intercession, and to depend upon that plea. The gift of the Spirit is a fruit of Christ’s mediation, bought by his merit, and received by his intercession. The word used here, signifies an advocate, counsellor, monitor, and comforter. He would abide with the disciples to the end of time; his gifts and graces would encourage their hearts. The expressions used here and elsewhere, plainly denote a person, and the office itself includes all the Divine perfections. The gift of the Holy Ghost is bestowed upon the disciples of Christ, and not on the world. This is the favour God bears to his chosen. As the source of holiness and happiness, the Holy Spirit will abide with every believer for ever.”


    Now, my take on what that passage means, some of which is similar to the above, other of which is not:

    First, Jesus was, as I recall, speaking to the apostles during the Last Supper when he said these words, and they were about to be sent out to do some serious shit under dire conditions soon. Second, John’s gospel, much more so than the other three gospels, was focused on the spiritual side and spiritual teachings of Christ. In that sense, it takes an almost mystical tone at times. Both of these points are important in what I am about to say…

    The biggest thing to realize, and I’m sure you do, Chris, is that obviously Jesus wasn’t being super literal here. Because human nature dicates that most of us would ask for riches, no sickness, comforts, etc. Sure, we’d say “Lord, I need to be rich so that I can devote my time to your gospel and so that other people can see the glory of your blessings through my wealth.” But that’s BS of course; we just want to be comfortable. Jesus wouldn’t set up his Father to just grant every wish of every believer. The world goes to pieces if we all succesfully pray that all of our loved ones never die of their disease and all that. People would be wishing…er, praying…for contradictory things at times, and so how would God handle two believers wishing for opposite or incompatible things to happen to the world?

    The intent, I believe, was that Jesus was telling his inner circle that whatever they asked that served the work of God, he would make sure they got it: casting out demons, healing the sick, raising the dead when necessary, etc. The assumption was that they would let themselves be guided by the spirit and not by their own desires.

    To a certain extent, Jesus’ promise extends to other believers as well, but not to the same extent I think, because our work and our mission is different than what the apostles were called to do. And still, we aren’t going to get what we pray for under these “guaranteed circumstances” unless we are doing so for the good of God and the advancement of the gospel. Also, there is no promise that instant gratification is the order of the day. No one says prayers are answered right away even when they are answered.

    Anyway, that’s the take away message I have, for what it’s worth.

  3. 3 christina
    May 17, 2009 at 8:03 pm

    It doesn’t make any sense to me how you can talk about the tongue and then cuss. It grievd my spirit to hear you bash the faith people. The bible says the just shall live by his faith.(Habakkuk2:4) I don’t belive that you always see results right away either, but that does’t mean that God won’t answer. In 1 John5:14,15 it says: Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us.And if we know that He hears us, whatever we ask,we know that we have the petitions that we have asked of Him. We must know that God’s word is His will. If we can find a scripture that covers our case and pray in line with that God will surely hear us and answer our prayer. God does’t miss it or mess up,we do. Once we pray in line with God’s will which is His written word then we need to make sure our confession lines up also. We can’t speak contrary to God’s word and expect to see results. We must also mix our own faith in with it. God is so faithful! and He loves us so much! We just have to belive in that. God will come through for us as we do those things i mentioned. It may not happen right away, but as we keep doing it and giving thanks to God and saying the right things it will surely come to pass. Thanks for taking the time to read this. God Bless You!

  4. May 18, 2009 at 2:03 pm

    First off, christina, thanks for commenting.

    Second off, you’re not a regular reader, so you wouldn’t know that I’ve tamed my cussing a bit around here. Still, it’s part of who I am, so it crops up, and I’m not changing the title of my blog now, so there will always be at least one cuss word around here. It establishes the tone and attitude I need to project. Christians are also supposed to love each other, but it doesn’t stop some of them from waging wars against the wrong people and disdaining those outside the faith sometimes. Cussing is my imperfection.

    Third, I wrote this post a while back, and only just skimmed it now, but I assume I must have grieved your spirit with my comments about the Word of Faith movement. I stand by my comments. God does NOT grant everything we ask for all the time, not even in the long run. You make my point when you talk about our prayers and confessions not always lining up. The problem is that too many people pray for things they WANT and don’t do so in accordance with God’s will and purposes.

    I have met enough Word of Faith folks to know that there is a strong current among them that says, “if you are sick, or you have financial problems, or whatever else, it’s because your faith is lacking.”

    Sorry, but I don’t buy that. Too many loving and faithful and dutiful Christians have suffered through the ages for me to believe that success and health are the proof that God is favoring you and that you have pleased God sufficiently.

    I don’t bash the Word of Faith folks on whether they are born again or whether they even MEAN well. I bash them on a philosophy of reward that is not borne out by the Word of God. Some faithful will see no reward or peace or health on this planet, and will have to wait until the hereafter to get it. And many false Christians will propser greatly…that doesn’t make their salvation, confession or faith true.

  5. May 19, 2009 at 1:59 am

    “Behold, we put bits in the horses’ mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body. Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet they are turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth. Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth! …”

    Y’all can have whatever version you quoted above. Me? I’ll keep my battered old King James. If you’re gonna wade through the wisdom and fallacy of the Bible, you might as well enjoy the magic and beauty it can be at its best. I may not believe all I read, but at least I have fun reading it!

    “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; … I have seen the travail, which God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised in it. He hath made everything beautiful in his time …”

    I could go on, but you get the point… 😉

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Deacon Blue is the blogging persona of editor and writer Jeffrey Bouley. The opinions of Jeff himself on this blog, and those expressed as Deacon Blue, in NO WAY should be construed as the opinions of anyone with whom he has worked, currently works, or will work with in the future. They are personal opinions and views, and are sometimes, frankly, expressed in more outrageous terms than I truly feel most days.

Jeff Bouley


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