As a boy, I grew up the son of a fireman. I spent time hanging out with my father at the fire station, climbing on the fire truck, and hearing stories about my dad’s line of work. I was made to respect the power of fire from an early age. I had heard the stories about homes that had been completely destroyed, belongings that had been forever lost, and lives that had been taken by destructive blazes. Fire is one of those destructive forces that utterly destroys everything in its path.
When we read James, we hear the force of Old Testament proverbial language as he describes the destructive power of the tongue. According to James, the tongue is “a fire, a world of unrighteousness” (James 3:6). He goes on to say that the tongue is “setting on fire the entire course of life” and is itself “set on fire by hell” (James 3:6). Just as James points out, a little fire can set a great forest ablaze—so it is with the power of the tongue. We must respect the power of the tongue and fear the evil that can come if it’s not kept in check. Below are two dangers of an uncontrolled tongue.
The Tongue’s Deceptive Power
Think back to the Garden of Eden—paradise on earth. Adam and Eve were living the dream, until Satan entered the scene. Satan didn’t sing a song to Eve or draw her a picture with chalk art. He spoke directly to her with the slithering and deceptive tongue of a serpent. It was with his deceptive words that he led both Adam and Eve astray—and the result was that death entered the world (Rom. 5:12). According to Proverbs 26:28, “A lying tongue hates its victims, and a flattering mouth works ruin.”
How many times have you heard of people being harmed because of a lying tongue? It happens in the world of business, and then the world shattering end of Proverbs 21:6 comes to pass. The harmful effects of a lying tongue causes much trouble—and that’s why you hear the Psalmist pleading with the LORD to deliver him “from lying lips, from a deceitful tongue” (Ps. 120:2). God hates a lying tongue, and we must guard ourselves from becoming the victim or the deceiver—both deliver frightening consequences (Prov. 6:17).
The Tongue’s Divisive Power
Not only did Satan, with deceptive words, separate mankind from God—but time and again throughout history people have been divided because of the power of the tongue. According to the wise words of Solomon, “death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Prov. 18:21). Consider how many marriages have fallen apart because of the divisive words. Those are words that were used like a sword in disagreements that escalated to separation or deceptive words from a harlot who brought a marriage to an end. In Proverbs 5:3-6 we find this warning:
For the lips of a forbidden woman drip honey,
and her speech is smoother than oil,
but in the end she is bitter as wormwood,
sharp as a two-edged sword.
Her feet go down to death;
her steps follow the path to Sheol;
she does not ponder the path of life;
her ways wander, and she does not know it.
The power of the tongue, when used inappropriately, can bring much ruin to this world. It can destroy marriages, create division between parent-child relationships, create church splits, and at every juncture Satan laughs. Think on these warnings the next time you’re tempted to slander someone in a conversation. The next time you’re tempted to talk negatively about a pastor—consider the effect it could have. John MacArthur rightly stated, “The effects of slander are always long-lived. Once lies about you have been circulated, it is extremely difficult to clear your name. It’s a lot like trying to recover dandelion seeds after they have been thrown to the wind.” 
Some Practical Considerations
- The next time you feel an eagerness to speak back to someone with sharp words (spoken word or written word), take a short time to consider the outcome. You may need to follow the 24-hour rule before responding—to be sure your intentions and words are carefully chosen and biblically accurate.
- If you are friends with someone who finds it a hobby to gossip about others, you may need to lovingly confront this person with the danger of the tongue. Is this person a member of your church? Is this person seeking to harm people in your life or your church? Are you enabling this person to sin by receiving gossip and slander?
- Remember the Lord knows every word you’ve spoken and every word that you have yet to speak, and we will all give an account of how we have used our tongue (Psalm 139:4 and Matthew 12:36).
- Remember the one who keeps his tongue in check is one who stays out of trouble (Proverbs 21:22).
Whatever we do—whether in word or deed—let it all be for the glory of God. Be careful in how you use your words, whether in spoken word or written word—on social media or in conversations over coffee—the power of words to deceive people’s minds and destroy relationships is clearly laid out for us in the Scriptures. Just a cursory evaluation of the word “tongue” or “lying tongue” in the concordance of the Bible will reveal much about the destructive nature of the tongue.
Just like a forest is set on fire by a small spark—so can a church be divided by a simple conversation. Be wise in how you speak and in how you receive words online, privately, through books, blogs, and sermons.
James 3:5–6 — So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!  And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. (ESV)
- John MacArthur, The Book on Leadership, (Hampton, VA: Nelson Books, 2004), 128.
The Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus and instructed them to “put on” the new man which is created in the righteousness of God and true holiness. As he instructed them in their Christian walk, he provided them clear instructions on what types of sin to avoid. In the listing of corrupt sins that Paul condemned, several of the actions are related to evil speech. As we consider the words of Paul to the church at Ephesus, it would do us well to consider our own lives in light of Holy Scripture and make sure that we are not guilty of these sins of the tongue.
Ephesians 4:24-32: And that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and truef holiness. 25 Wherefore putting away lying, speak every man truth with his neighbour: for we are members one of another. 26 Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath: 27 Neither give place to the devil. 28 Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to giveg to him that needeth. 29 Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good toh the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers. 30 And grieve not the holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption. 31 Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice: 32 And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.
Sins of the tongue are like “fast food” sins. They are convenient, easy to commit, and often seem very satisfying at first. However, the effects of such sins can often harm entire families and linger in the minds of people for many years. Sins of the tongue sting. As Christians, we should guard ourselves to make sure we are not guilty of these horrible sins. Unfortunately, many churches are holy in many areas but filthy to the core when it comes to sins of the tongue. Many churches boast about their evangelism and wonderful ministries, but they are living loosely with their tongues. To the world this is not only hypocrisy in the highest, but it does not demonstrate a genuine love for one another or a love for the world. As Paul writes to the church at Ephesus, the sins of the tongue are exposed and condemned.
1. Lying – To lie about someone is a harmful thing. It not only hurts the individual, but it tarnishes their testimony inside and outside the church body. Since Paul is writing to a specific church, consider the truth of how this plays out in your own church body. If you lie against someone, it creates a lack of trust regarding that individual in the hearts of people for years to come.
2. Corrupt Communication – From gossip to anger filled screaming matches, corrupt communication is always condemned. It does not matter if the communication is from lay persons toward staff persons or staff persons toward lay persons – corrupt communication is a sin. Paul instructs the church at Ephesus to speak words that edify (build up) as opposed to that which tears down.
3. Evil Speaking – Often times people who have been wronged hold grudges and speak evil against people in private or even in public settings. Paul condemns that type of behavior. Even those who have been wronged should be willing to forgive – just as Christ has forgiven them.
Each Christian should examine their own heart and remember that each individual Christian will stand before God and give account of every idle word that they speak (Matthew 12:36). This humble truth should be a constant barrier that prevents the stinging sins of the tongue. The church of the Lord Jesus Christ should speak words that edify – all for the glory of God.
Pastor Josh Buice
In the famous sermon preached by Jesus widely known as the “Sermon on the Mount,” He warned that people would speak evil against Christians. According to Jesus, “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you” (Matthew 5:10-12). When someone gossips, lies, and speaks evil against you – it is extremely difficult to rejoice in that moment. However, the Christian life will be full of opportunities to learn this behavior that Jesus teaches. In fact, those in the ministry will have a double dose of opportunities.
Recently it was made known to me that someone was speaking evil against me – even behind my back. I knew that it was untrue and that the intentions of the person were not pure, but the ability of my heart to rejoice in that moment when I received the phone call was very difficult. When evil speech comes from a critic on a website or anonymous letter – it hurts – but not near as bad as when it comes from someone that you know and once trusted. The flesh wants to strike back. The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked – so it desires to get even. Just when I felt my blood pressure starting to rise, the Holy Spirit brought to my memory a verse of Scripture that I had been soaking in and meditating upon in my study as I had been preparing to preach it. It was found in the text cited above when Jesus warned that people would speak evil against the children of God. However, not only is there a warning, there is a command to find joy and rejoice in that moment. Often when the Holy Spirit brings these things to light it has a tendency to reveal how much sanctification is needed in my own life.
I found myself going out on a run that afternoon and I found myself thinking about the evil speech that had been spoken against me. It was ringing in my ears. Although it had an opportunity to bring harm to me, during my run, as I pounded the pavement around the country roads near my home, I became convinced that the birds that fly through the air and peck on the ground in the fields near me as I pass by do not worry. Therefore, my God is much larger than those who seek division, speak evil, or gossip behind my back. He is the mighty God. He is the faithful Creator. He is powerful. He is the Lord of Hosts. He is the Sovereign King. If a blue bird is not going to worry – neither will I. Furthermore, the words of Jesus also soaked into my heart and mind and as I rounded the corner on my run, I realized that I should be happy that people would speak evil against me. That means that I am actually doing what my Christ has saved me to do. I am fulfilling my purpose. If I must suffer evil speech for doing what Christ has called me to do – than so be it.
Although the daggers of evil speech do hurt (especially when your heart is pure and innocent) – they are nothing compared to the sweet satisfaction and sufficiency of God’s Word. It is amazing how God always has His Word there and ready to bandage up the open wounds that are inflicted by the world of sin. God’s Word is sufficient to every Christian – even those who preach it on a weekly basis.
To God be the Glory!
Pastor Josh Buice