Editorial: Tongues of Fire

Just in my own country, over 7 million acres of land are destroyed each year by wildfires. The smoke itself from

these fires can travel hundreds or thousands of miles, affecting air quality for millions of people. These fires can disrupt critical infrastructure sectors such as communications, transportation and power supply. The magnitude of damage from a single wildfire can be astonishing. And the National Park Service has concluded that nearly 85% of those fires are caused by humans, often by an object as small as an unextinguished cigarette.

James tells us that we can cause wildfires that are even more disastrous. Although it may take years, land damaged by fire can be restored. Power lines, phone towers and roads can be rebuilt, but lives torched by the tongue may never recover. Rumors and gossip can spread faster than our ability to stop them. Countless individuals have been burned by slander, lies and belittling speech. Indeed, “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” (Jas 3:5-6).1

Growing up, I learned the little saying “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” How wrong that rhyme has turned out to be. Spiritual third-degree burns have been inflicted by just a few words from a tiny uncontrolled tongue, a tongue that has the potential to do the devil’s work, for James adds that it can be “set on fire by hell.”

Proverbs 18:21 reminds us that the tongue has power not only to harm but also to heal: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” Fire can actually be good, if properly controlled, burning out impurities, providing light in the darkness, and bringing warmth to those who are cold or a good meal to the hungry. So, too, the tongue can be set on fire not only by hell but also by heaven, supplying great blessing. With our tongues, we can spread the gospel rather than spreading gossip. Instead of running others down, we can lift them up in prayer to the Lord. We can read and quote Scripture, because there is nothing like the healing power of God’s Word. We can speak words of encouragement to one another that will edify. We can praise and thank God for His mighty acts. We can worship Him, offering the “fruit of our lips” (Heb 13:15). Indeed, both death and life are in the power of the tongue.

In a vision, Isaiah had his lips touched by a fire from heaven’s altar. A man afflicted with “unclean lips” (Isa 6:5) gave us some of the most life-giving words ever communicated (think Isaiah 53 here) after contact with that fiery coal. Perhaps we need to revisit the altar of Calvary today and ask the Lord to set our tongues ablaze by heaven. Fueled by the Holy Spirit within us, we can pray that those flames spread quickly to everyone everywhere.

1 Bible quotations in this article are from the ESV.