A small fire rapidly becomes a large conflagration that takes weeks and sometimes months to contain in the vast woodlands of California. It’s amazing how a small campfire or a cigarette carelessly tossed from a car quick becomes a large wildfire in our state. James said, “See how great a forest a little fire kindles” (James 3.5)! He then takes this illustration and applies it to the way we communicate with the tongue.
And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and creature of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind. But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison (James 3.6-8).
Proverbs 16.27 provides a good parallel to this passage: “An ungodly man digs up evil, and it is on his lips like a burning fire.” James calls the tongue an outright fire, namely a world of iniquity. Iniquity is unrighteousness. The expression “course of nature” literally means “the wheel of nature”.
What is this wheel of nature? Bible scholars have struggled to explain it, but it seems to refer to the broad sweep of past, present, and future human existence. The wheel is set on fire by Hell because Satan, a slanderer himself, energizes the world with gossip and slander in order to burn it down, defile it, and poison it. We use our tongues to cause strife, jealousy, and division. James will say, “For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there” (James 3.16).
I can think of no area of speech that needs to change more in Christian circles than in the way we gossip about one another. Matthew Mitchell characterizes people who gossip as spies, grumblers, backstabbers, chameleons, and busybodies. It is instructive for us to know well these characterizations and pray that our Father would keep us from their evil:
- The spy is an informer. Instead of concealing secrets he knows, he takes great pleasure in revealing them.
- The grumbler is the person who sows strife through complaining about others behind their backs. They complain about parents, teachers, pastors, bosses, and politicians. They complain about their jobs and paychecks. They are discontented.
- The backstabber desires not only to slander another; he desires to inflict great pain on that person.
- The chameleon fears men more than God. He doesn’t want to be left out so he passively listens to what he knows is wrong. He magnifies people over God.
- The busybody lives vicariously through the stories of others. Their own undisciplined lives allow them to squander away time by getting involved in matters which do not involve them.
Jesus said that “every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment” (Matthew 12.36). Mitchell wrote, “The foolish people of the world do not exist for my entertainment.” If we would simply be good fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, evangelists, and sons and daughters of God, we wouldn’t have enough time to revel in the sin of other people – on the big screen or otherwise.