James 3:6 compares our tongues to fire. To understand this metaphor in context, we need to begin in verse 5: “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.” Fire can be either constructive or destructive depending upon its containment. So it is with the tongue.
Fire is one of God’s greatest gifts to humanity. With fire we cook food, heat our homes, and destroy garbage that would otherwise overwhelm us. Likewise, the gift of speech is of great benefit. With our tongues we communicate information, express affection, and praise God. A tongue under control can speak life and truth into our world, bless and discipline our children, and transfer the wisdom God has given us (Proverbs 18:21). But, like fire out of bounds, our tongues can also do great damage.
James 3:9–10 says, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.” A tongue out of control can tear down self-worth, destroy relationships, and order the execution of evil plans. Like a grassfire touched by a sudden breeze, our words can take off, spreading far and wide in ways we never imagined. Gossip, slander, cursing, and lies are all symptoms of a wildfire tongue (Exodus 23:1; Leviticus 19:16; Proverbs 16:27; 2 Corinthians 12:20). One has but to witness the rapid spread of a scandalous rumor to see that the tongue is like a fire.
James 3:8 warns that the tongue’s fire easily becomes unmanageable: “No human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” So what are we to do? If the tongue cannot be tamed, how are we to control it? The fruit of the Spirit includes self-control (Galatians 5:22–23), which is exactly what we need to put out the fire of the tongue. Colossians 4:6 says, “Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person.” When we consider the members of our bodies as instruments of righteousness (Romans 6:13), we know that our tongues belong to Him. Bitter words, hateful words, and foul words must be crucified with the flesh (Galatians 2:20; 5:24), or they will dominate our speech. Our flesh does not have the power to tame the tongue; only the Holy Spirit can.
Whatever good gift God creates, Satan perverts. The tongue is one such area Satan has corrupted, which is why the Bible says the tongue has been “set on fire by hell” (James 3:6). We defy Satan’s evil attempts to destroy our lives through the tongue when we commit ourselves daily to the lordship of Jesus. We can offer ourselves every day as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1), and we can specifically focus on giving our tongues over to the Lord. “Set a guard over my mouth, LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips” (Psalm 141:3). We can ask the Lord to make us more conscious of the words we speak and quickly repent of any comment that dishonors Him.
Our tongues can be compared favorably to fire when we use our words to warm hearts, spread truth, and destroy lies. To keep our tongues under control, we can start every day with the prayer David prayed: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, my rock and my Redeemer” (Psalm 19:14).