Title: Tongues of Fire
Date: September 13, 2009
Texts: James 3:1-12
“The tongue is set on fire by hell” (James 3:6). That’s what James says. Are we really to believe that our words have so much power, the power of hell’s fire? I know that words can hurt sometimes, but it seems like it’s a little much for James to compare our words to fire, and hell.
I’ve seen some fires, never the fires of hell, but some impressive earthly fires. One Fourth of July in Tucson, AZ, a few stray fireworks from the city’s festival set fire to A-Mountain. Actually, this happened quite often—maybe every other year. After a few years of catching the hill on fire, we actually started to look forward to it. That was the real show. The fireworks were only the opening act. The glowing mountain was the main event.
That fire wasn’t so bad. No one lived on the mountain. They just let it burn itself out, and we hoped for enough re-growth for next year’s Independence Day celebration to see it all go up in flames again. When I was in college in Santa Barbara, California, I saw a fire that was much more serious. From my doom room, it looked like the ocean was on fire. But we quickly found out that the pier was on fire. It started in a kitchen in one of the restaurants. The pier burned down to the ground—I should say, burned down into the water. No one was hurt, but a lot was lost and it took a long time to rebuild the pier.
Last year a friend in Santa Barbara lost all his possessions in another fire. This one blazed through my college campus and burned up a bunch of faculty houses. My friend’s house was one of them. His family and his dog were OK—but they were still devastated.
I could keep on going with fire stories. But you probably get the point. Fires destroy. They start small enough, but quickly get out of control and really mess up lives. James is saying that our words do the same sort of thing. Our tongues have the power to destroy lives, and maybe our own. If you’re spewing the fires of hell in your mouth, I’m sure you’ll get burned in the process.
If I say bad things about someone behind their back, people will begin to worry about what I say about them to others when they aren’t around. I get burned as I do the burning because I cut myself off from relationships. Why would you want to be vulnerable with me, if you hear me talking bad about other people all the time? I might expose your faults to someone else. When I burn someone, I get burned. I cut myself off from relationships. I singe my friendships. I burn a hole between you and me.
That’s why I think hell is a good way for James to talk about the tongue’s destruction. There are lots of ways to think about hell. But traditionally, hell is thought of as the ultimate separation. Hell is separation from God and from all the goodness of creation. Hell becomes a place of endless desire without any chance of satisfaction. It’s like being eternally hungry or thirsty, and as much as you eat or drink, you are still hungry and thirsty. This also goes for relationships, for friendships, for love. In hell, you are always separated from the one you love, from the one you want, from your friend, from your lover, from relationship. Hell is separation.
That’s why it makes sense for James to talk about the dangers of what we say, of how we use our words, of how we speak to each other—“the tongue is set on fire by hell,” he says. The tongue has the power of hell, the power to divide, to separate, to break apart fellowship. But the funny thing about it, is that we use words to communicate, to commune, to create a link with someone, a point of connection, a relationship. So when we speak behind someone’s back, we are trying to build a relationship with another person. Two people are united through their bad words about somebody else. By talking behind someone’s back, they create a relationship. Somehow, it’s our desire for relationship, for camaraderie, for fellowship, that leads us to talk behind someone’s back. As we burn that other person with our words, we are bound together. It’s twisted logic, and it makes for a twisted relationship of two bad-mouthing people.
The tongue has the power to create a community of hell on earth. I imagine that’s a pretty good description of U.S. politics these days—a bunch of people who sit around all day and figure out the most effective ways to bad-mouth someone else. It sounds like hell on earth—people with tongues of fire, burning and being burned. I imagine that a main reason why communication gets so nasty in D.C. and political talk shows is that saying bad things about someone else is a cheap way to get power, to get noticed, to feel meaningful. If we can tear someone else down, then we set ourselves in a position of power over them. We establish ourselves as someone with authority, someone worth listening to, someone with meaningful opinions. But it’s all cheap power and cheap significance, purchased at someone else’s expense. The less they are worth, the more your stock goes up.
This is the way it goes closer to home as well—with our friends and co-workers. At work the last thing in the world you want to do is talk about your own personal lives with a co-worker, so you figure out how to talk about other people’s personal lives or character flaws.
Church is probably the perfect context for this kind of hell on earth. We see one another all the time, and we try to be vulnerable with each other, to let down our defenses, to ask for help and confess our sins. So we have lots of dirt on each other, and there are plenty of reasons to be annoyed. We are set up to talk behind each other’s backs. It’s bound to happen. “The tongue [is] a restless evil,” James says, “full of deadly poison” (v. 8). And that can easily shape church life.
But the way we talk about one another, the way we talk to each other, is how we talk to God. How we treat each other with our words is also how we treat God. For James, human and divine communication is interconnected. The two come at the same time. All the words you use, even the nasty ones, echo into the presence of God. James says it this way in verse 9: “With [the tongue] we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.”
One way to think about it is that God overhears our conversations and takes them personally, because God’s presence flows through every human being; we are all in God’s likeness. God doesn’t separate the words we use for worship, from the words we use with each other. God hears them all as a single word.
The hope of God’s grace is that our lives may become God’s word, God’s grace-filled speech, God’s life-giving communication—that God’s life may flow through our lives, that God’s words may flow through our words. We commune with God when we use our words to draw us together.
If hell can be a place on earth, then so can heaven. God’s eternal life can flow into our lives and heal our separations through our words. Jesus, God’s word made flesh, becomes our flesh and speaks through our words. Our communication leads us into communion with God, which is heaven, where we become a single word of grace, a word of love, God’s eternal word of blessing, not a curse.