The R-Rated Tongue

The tongue is highly inflammable; it is easily ignited with the smallest spark

In other words, sinful tongues are burning tongues, burning tongues that damage the whole person, and the whole course of a person’s life. Isn’t that the truth. Turn around and look back down the road of life. What do you see? We see the scorched and charred remains of many people our tongues have burned, of many relationships we’ve torched. We are spiritual arsonists and our tongues of fire are the matches.

 

The Motion Picture Association of America assesses and rates movies for American audiences. Their rating system is based on the amount of bad language and images in each film, resulting in a letter code to enable viewers to decide whether they should watch it or not. An “R” Rating is saying that this film is only appropriate for adults — it contains so much bad language or images that it should not be watched by children and even adults should seriously consider the wisdom and morality of watching it. An “R” means “likely to harm or damage the viewer.”

I entitled this post “The R-Rated Tongue” because I wanted to warn you that the Bible’s teaching about the tongue is full of scary language and frightening images. However, unlike the MPAM “R” this is a biblical “R,” meaning that although the images are horrendous and the language horrific, yet even the youngest child is called to view and hear for their good. Let’s look at the first of these graphic and scary images in James 3:5-6, where we are told that the tongue is a dangerous inferno.

The Tongue is Highly Inflammable

The tongue is highly inflammable; it is easily ignited with the smallest spark. In 1871, a fire started in a small cow barn in Chicago. Within three days 100,000 of Chicago’s residents were homeless, 300 were dead, 17,500 buildings were destroyed and the damage totaled $400 million. The reason it spread so quickly and devastatingly? All the houses were made of wood, one of the most easily ignited materials.

Although it’s never been established for sure what started the Chicago fire (some say a cow kicked over a lantern), we know for sure what ignites the tongue. It is “set on fire by hell” says James. The word for “hell” here is “Gehenna.” Gehenna was the garbage dump in Jerusalem that was kept burning day and night in order to get rid of dead bodies, animals carcasses, and the city’s trash.

James is saying that Hell is full of hideous burning rubbish that sends sparks into our mouths, quickly and easily igniting our tongues. Whenever we burn and roast people with gossip, slander, lies, backbiting, misrepresentation, etc., the initial spark came from hell.

We’ve all seen vehicles with these warning signs on the back, alerting other drivers to the possibility of the van carrying dangerous chemicals, etc. One of the most common signs is “Highly Inflammable.” Our tongues should carry the same sign. How much more carefully we would travel through life if we had such a sign tattooed on our tongues.

The Tongue Is Highly Inflammatory

The tongue does not only catch fire quickly, it spreads fire quickly too. Although it starts small, it can so quickly become a major conflagration. As James said, “See how great a forest a little fire kindles!” When we use our tongues to lie, gossip, slander, misrepresent, etc., we “defile the whole body, and set on fire the course of nature” (v. 6). In other words, sinful tongues are burning tongues, burning tongues that damage the whole person, and the whole course of a person’s life.

Isn’t that the truth.

Turn around and look back down the road of life. What do you see? We see the scorched and charred remains of many people our tongues have burned, of many relationships we’ve torched. We are spiritual arsonists and our tongues of fire are the matches.

James heaps up the illustrations to remind us that although the tongue is small, yet it can have a massive impact. Just as a little piece of metal can turn a five hundred pound stallion into a dancing show horse, just as a little rudder can turn megaton tankers even in the midst of hurricanes, so the tongue, though tiny, can “boast (accomplish) great things” (vv. 3-5). Great things for evil; but also great things for good.

Because just as the tongue can reduce good reputations to ashes, it can also burn up sin by speaking the truth about God and speaking good to and about others.

To illustrate, compare Adolf Hitler’s tongue to Winston Churchill’s. Hitler used his tongue to incinerate millions of people. Churchill used his tongue to inspire and encourage Great Britain, to build coalitions with the USA and other brave nations around the world, and thus saved millions of lives in the long run.

See what just a few inches of fatty flesh can do.

Resisting Gossip: Winning the War of the Wagging Tongue by Matthew Mitchell is a great fire extinguisher. We worked through it in our adult Sunday school over a number of weeks. A study guide has since been added.

David Murray is Professor of Old Testament & Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. This article first appeared on his blog, Head Heart Hand, and is used with permission.