It was a Sunday night in September and most people were sleeping when a small fire broke out in Thomas Farriner’s bakery on Pudding Lane. Soon the flames spread from house to house and London was engulfed in the Great Fire of 1666. Over 70,000 people were left homeless by the blaze that leveled four-fifths of the city. So much destruction from such a small fire!
The Bible warns us of another small but destructive fire. James was concerned about lives and relationships, not buildings, when he wrote, “The tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark” (James 3:5).
But our words can also be constructive. Proverbs 16:24 reminds us, “Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.” The apostle Paul says, “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Col. 4:6). As salt flavors our food, grace flavors our words for building up others.
Through the help of the Holy Spirit our words can encourage people who are hurting, who want to grow in their faith, or who need to come to the Savior. Our words can put out fires instead of starting them.
My nerves fluttering, I waited for the phone to ring and the radio interview to start. I wondered what questions the host would ask and how I would respond. “Lord, I’m much better on paper,” I prayed. “But I suppose it’s the same as Moses—I need to trust that you will give me the words to speak.”
Of course I’m not comparing myself with Moses, the leader of God’s people who helped them escape slavery in Egypt to life in the Promised Land. A reluctant leader, Moses needed the Lord to reassure him that the Israelites would listen to him. The Lord revealed several signs to him, such as turning his shepherd’s staff into a snake (Ex. 4:3), but Moses hesitated to accept the mantle of leadership, saying he was slow of speech (v.10). So God reminded him that He is the Lord and that He would help him speak. He would “be with his mouth” (as the original language translates, according to biblical scholars).
We know that since the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, God’s Spirit lives within His children and that however inadequate we may feel, He will enable us to carry out the assignments He gives to us. The Lord will “be with our mouths.”
Napoleon's defeat in Russia 200 years ago was attributed to the harsh Russian winter. One specific problem was that his horses were wearing summer horseshoes. When winter came, these horses died because they slipped on icy roads as they pulled the supply wagons. The failure of Napoleon’s supply chain reduced his 400,000-strong army to just 10,000. A small slip; a disastrous result!
James described how a slip of the tongue can do great damage. One wrong word can change the careers or destinies of people. So toxic is the tongue that James wrote, “No human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8). The problem has increased in our modern world as a careless email or a posting on a social media site can cause great harm. It quickly goes viral and can’t be retracted.
King David tied respect for the Lord with the way we use our words. He wrote, “I will teach you the fear of the
My daughter has had a lot of ill health recently, and her husband has been wonderfully caring and supportive. “You have a real treasure there!” I said.
“You didn’t think that when I first knew him,” she said with a grin.
She was quite right. When Icilda and Philip got engaged, I was concerned. They were such different personalities. We have a large and noisy family, and Philip is more reserved. And I had shared my misgivings with my daughter quite bluntly.
I was horrified to realize that the critical things I said so casually 15 years ago had stayed in her memory and could possibly have destroyed a relationship that has proved to be so right and happy. It reminded me how much we need to guard what we say to others. So many of us are quick to point out what we consider to be weaknesses in family, friends, or work colleagues, or to focus on their mistakes rather than their successes. “The tongue is a small part of the body,” says James (3:5), yet the words it shapes can either destroy relationships or bring peace and harmony to a situation in the workplace, the church, or the family.
Perhaps we should make David’s prayer our own as we start each day: “Set a guard over my mouth, Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips” (Ps. 141:3).
What is the strongest muscle in the human body? Some say it’s the tongue, but it’s hard to determine which muscle is the most powerful because muscles don’t work alone.
But we do know that the tongue is strong. For a small muscle, it can do a lot of damage. This active little muscular organ that helps us eat, swallow, taste, and begin digestion has a tendency to also assist us in saying things we shouldn’t. The tongue is guilty of flattery, cursing, lying, boasting, and harming others. And that’s just the short list.
It sounds like a pretty dangerous muscle, doesn’t it? But here’s the good thing: It doesn’t have to be that way. When we are controlled by the Holy Spirit, our tongues can be turned to great good. We can speak of God’s righteousness (Ps. 35:28) and justice (37:30). We can speak truth (15:2), show love (1 John 3:18), and confess sin (1 John 1:9).
The writer of Proverbs 12:18 spells out one of the best uses of the tongue: “The tongue of the wise brings healing” (niv). Imagine how we could glorify the One who made our tongues when He helps us use it to bring healing—not harm—to everyone we talk to.
From Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs to Siberian foxes, humans have learned to tame wild animals. People enjoy teaching monkeys to “act” in commercials or training deer to eat out of their hands. As the apostle James put it, “Every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and creature of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed by mankind” (3:7).
Former US President Harry Truman had a rule: Any letters written in anger had to sit on his desk for 24 hours before they could be mailed. If at the end of that “cooling off” period, he still felt the same sentiments, he would send the letter. By the end of his life, Truman’s unmailed letters filled a large desk drawer.
God gave you two ears and one mouth for a reason,” the saying goes. The ability to listen is an essential life skill. Counselors tell us to listen to each other. Spiritual leaders tell us to listen to God. But hardly anyone says, “Listen to yourself.” I’m not suggesting that we have an inner voice that always knows the right thing to say. Nor am I saying we should listen to ourselves instead of to God and others. I’m suggesting that we need to listen to ourselves in order to learn how others might be receiving our words.