Summary: Do the words you speak build-up or burn-down?

In the summer of 2000, more than a thousand firefighters battled a wildfire for two weeks in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The fire started on August 24, and continued until September 8. When it was over more than eighty thousand acres of federal forest was burnt.

Forty-six-year-old Janice Stevenson was convicted of starting the fire. She was sentenced to 10 years in federal, and 25 years in South Dakota state prison. Her fines top $250,000 and may include the cost of fighting the blaze, which authorities say are more than $9 million.

Federal investigators filing charges against Ms. Stevenson say she admitted stopping along the road on August 24, lighting a cigarette, and tossing the still-burning match on the ground. "Instead of putting out the fire," an affidavit said, "she contemplated it and decided to leave the area." Eighty thousand acres destroyed by a single match.

James likens the tongue to a fire that consumes a person–and ultimately, a community. Rumors, half-truths, grumblings, caustic remarks, hurtful things said in the heat of anger—all these smoldering matches have the potential for burning down acres of office morale, family peace, and church unity.

[Do your words buildup or burn-down? OYBT James chapter 3.]


1. The book of James is a powerful treatise on the Christian life. Specifically, the practice of the Christian life. James writes to encourage believers to move faith from principle to practice. Readers of James recognize very sensitive subjects early on in his writing; issues of class distinction, the relationship of faith to good works, and others that cause people to squirm.

2. Among the most sensitive are his thoughts on how Christians speak to and about one another. Nothing divides a community of faith more than bickering and abuse, particularly when its teachers participate in the sniping.

3. There is within the church an order of teachers (didache) of which James is a member (notice of his use of we in v1.) The third chapter suggests that people unworthy of the office are infiltrating the ranks.

4. James suggests the evil behavior demonstrated by those whose words burn-down instead of buildup indicates their inspiration may not be of the Spirit.

[Let’s turn our attention to the characteristics and liabilities that James makes on the believer’s use of his tongue. His words, though directed specifically to those who teach, serve all believers equally.]


1. It is small but powerful (5); this tiny muscle controls a man as the bit turns the horse and the rudder steers the ship. It controls things much larger than itself, including mankind.

A. In many ways, words control us. The words we use define us; the way we speak to (or of) others reveals our character. My mother wanted her children to have a strong vocabulary, proper grammar, and most especially, speak well. She taught us that people would always judge us by our speech, even when they said otherwise.

B. Ever castigate someone who stood directly behind you? Wonder why you felt so badly? It’s the shame of exposing a character flaw; not only did I speak poorly of that person, but they caught me in the act! How embarrassing!

2. It corrupts the whole person (6); those who labor in gossip, never have an encouraging word for another or who sees the cloud in every silver lining eventually become miserable people. You cannot avoid the lasting effect of caustic words.

A. The unguarded tongue in a believer is like the unguarded campfire in a forest. The Body, with its basic instincts, is like the forest in a dry season; the smallest spark sets it ablaze.

B. So it is with the tongue; the spark that incites the body to action as the match of Janice Stevenson lit the forest. James warns against the slightest infraction, it may be a spark that sets the body in flame.

[Given the characteristics of the tongue, it seems logical that James would list the liabilities those characteristics bring with them. Let’s look further, and see . . .join me at verse seven]


1. It is unstable and out of control: James notes that all kinds of animals, birds, reptiles, and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but none has tamed the tongue (7).

A. People in the ancient world are proud of their ability to dominate the animal kingdom. It demonstrates their intelligence and virility better than anything else they accomplished. They are particularly proud of the twin facets of their dominion over the animals; i.e. (1) what they chose to hunt, kill, and eat, versus (2) what they chose to domesticate for food, milk, hair, etc. Hearing James say that no man can tame the tongue is an insult.

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