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.