James now returns to a theme he announced in 1:19–26, the use of the tongue. There he told us to be slow to speak and quick to hear. He went on to say that mere verbal profession of the Gospel, unaccompanied by good works, is demonic (2:19). Now he says that we should resist the temptation to be teachers. Only those who are recognized by many in the church and who have received training should become teachers, because teachers are subjected to a higher standard of evaluation by God (3:1).
He talks further about the tongue and its use. A man who uses his tongue properly, says James, being slow to speak, is a man who has his whole life under control (3:2). Animals and ships are controlled by bits and rudders, and the whole life of a man is controlled by his tongue. Men have tamed animals, but no one has tamed the tongue (3:3–8).
The tongue, he says, sets the world on fire and is full of deadly poison (3:6, 8). In context, James is thinking primarily of false doctrine and worship. He has spoken of teachers, and now points to the use of the tongue in the praise of God (3:9). False doctrine poisons the church and the world and gives rise to false worship that blasphemes God. God's gift of speech, which is man's ability to speak God's words after Him and to praise God, is the central gift of all, yet the point at which man becomes the most perverse.
Since James is also concerned with how we treat other people, especially the poor and the weak, we cannot exclude other evil uses of the tongue from consideration here. How often an unkind word or a harsh explosion of anger does great harm not only to human relations but also to the self-image of the person who is the object of the abuse. Everyone can readily remember the times when they have been verbally abused and how low they felt. Many people labor their whole lives with feelings of worthlessness and inferiority because of cruel things said to them when they were young. We should rather, James exhorts, use our tongues to build one another up with encouragement and kindness. Cursing men through vile harshness should have no place in the life of the Christian (3:9).
On Pentecost, God gave His own tongues of fire to set the world aflame as a holy sacrifice to Him. When James criticizes our tongues as evil fires, he implies that we have made ourselves gods. Take a careful look at how you use your tongue today and this week, and evaluate yourself. Is it your own fire or God's that you are spreading?