Because the land mass of the United States of America covers several million square miles, there is a considerable amount of variation in climate across the country. Many states in the union are temperate while others are largely dry, arid deserts. Still others, like the states of Florida and Hawaii, are generally warm and wet because of tropical and subtropical conditions.
For some years in the last decade of the twentieth century, however, much of the state of Florida endured a drought. Normal rainfall levels were far below average causing the foliage to become extremely dry. Restrictions were placed on outdoor burning in several counties because of the fear that one stray spark could cause thousands of acres to become engulfed in flames.
Today’s passage compares the tongue to the spark or small fire that can set ablaze a great forest (3:5b–6). It does not take very much to start a raging fire, just one match or one errant flame can destroy hundreds of acres of trees. So too can the tongue, though it is small in size, bring great destruction to human beings.
We have already seen the power of the tongue to direct one’s life for good or for ill. By comparing the tongue to a fire, James emphasizes the power of the tongue to cause evil. Few things can cause more harm than hurtful or evil words whether they are carefully planned or spoken thoughtlessly in the heat of an angry moment.
Moreover, the tongue itself can be a world of unrighteousness (v. 6). Here the tongue is personified as something independent of our control. Indeed, so hard is the tongue to master that James will despair of our own ability to be its lord in succeeding verses (vv. 7−8).
The tongue is able to destroy lives because it is empowered by the fires of hell itself (v. 6). Satan, for whom hell was chiefly prepared (Matt. 25:41), makes special use of the tongue when he tempts us to lie, slander, gossip, or speak in any other way that causes destructive and often irreparable harm to another’s reputation or life. We do well to heed Calvin’s warning that the tongue is specially fitted for “receiving, fostering, and increasing the fire of hell.”
In today’s passage, James reminds us that it only takes a small flame to cause a great fire. Oftentimes the most offensive and hurtful things that we say appear to be insignificant at the time. However, snide and subtle comments can be just as damaging as ones that are more directly spoken. Take some time to ask yourself if you are guilty of making hurtful comments or engaging in gossip. Ask the Lord to make your tongue an instrument of holiness.