The Tongue Is a Fire—Musings on James 3:6-10

The Tongue Is a Fire—Musings on James 3:6-10

6The tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. 7For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, 8but no one can tame the tonguea restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.10From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.  James 3:6-10 NRS

Absent physical violence and mayhem, our tongues are our deadliest weapons. Please note that in this essay tongue is a synecdoche: As appropriate, substitute “fingers” (used to type documents), cameras, or microphones (used to record/broadcast speech), etc.—anything used to communicate.

How much more benign our existence on this planet if we all followed the psalmist’s declaration in Psalm 39 (NRSV):

               I will guard my ways that I may not sin with my tongue; I will keep a muzzle on my mouth. . .

This essay addresses inappropriate speech in general—e.g., gossip, backbiting, attempts to impress others, grumbling, criticizing. Such speech is not unique to churches or Christian fellowships. It is universal. That it exists at all within Christian circles is sad, because followers of Jesus ought to know better.


For the record: the Greek word that is translated gossip (or something similar) in English New Testaments is ψιθυρισμός psithurismos. It occurs only once, in II Corinthians 12:20. Since the basic meaning of the word has to do with whispering, the connection with gossip is self-explanatory. That term is preceded, in Paul’s list of sinful behaviors, by the word καταλαλιά katalalia, often translated both in Paul’s passage and in 1 Peter 2:1 as slander. This Greek word occurs only in those two passages. Its basic meaning is to speak against.

 I fear that perhaps I may come and find you not what I wish, and that you may find me not what you wish; that perhaps there may be quarreling, jealousy, anger, selfishness, slander (καταλαλιά katalalia), gossip (ψιθυρισμός psithurismos), conceit, and disorder.  —2 Corinthians 12:20 RSV

Because there is no major reservoir of either term to permit significant biblical analysis, this essay is theological rather than biblical/analytical.

Gossip: We all do it. We just call it something more acceptable. That claim merits repeating, because most of us don’t understand it: Most of us engage in gossip. And we almost invariably excuse it by giving it another name that we deem respectable or even virtuous.

Nearly every church or Christian fellowship with which I have been associated has experienced merciless gossip from time to time. Here are some variations.

•Getting there first. Gossip provides a heady thrill. Most of us feel our pulses accelerate when we discover an opportunity to be the first to share a juicy bit of information. It need not be slanderous—the information may be absolutely true. It need not be secret or private—it might even be information that, willy nilly, everyone will know within a few hours because if we don’t spread the news immediately, others will beat us to it.

The key is that we want to be first to break the news. That slight adrenaline rush is a telltale mark of gossip. Even when the news legitimately needs to be passed on, it’s healthy for us to take a few deep breaths and ask ourselves, as we’re reaching for the telephone or starting a fresh email or Facebook post, whether we’re doing it out of genuine love for all concerned, or if we’re more interested in that subtle, enticing desire to play the “venerable messenger” game.

The entire experience arises out of a desire to appear important or wise or clever in the eyes of the person(s) with whom we share our breathtaking news.

Immeasurably more dangerous and destructive, of course, is the situation where we pass on news that is not necessary for others to know! That can be catastrophically harmful.

•Conversations that should never happen. A major offense is participating in conversations (verbally or in print or online) that dwell on and parse and rehash items about which no one has any business talking. I have participated in many long conversations that, in retrospect, should never have happened. The subject matter was such that, if certain persons had been present, they would have been highly distressed. It’s easy to be seduced into such activities. I have been guilty on more occasions than I can remember.

Discourse of this kind appeals to us in large part because of our fundamental lack of trust in God, our failure to comprehend and accept the depth of God’s love. For if I bathe continually in the liquid, cleansing love of my Savior, why in the world would I prattle on about inappropriate matters in order to elicit brief admiration from other broken mortals? Why would I care?

•Me, me, me. The focus of such activity is me. That is true even though the subject is theoretically another person/situation. I claim to be concerned about the person/situation whom we are discussing, but the unspoken focus is me. I seek recognition by participating in blather that ought not to be uttered. Although I rarely admit it, I am eager to call or email or speak with someone before anyone else does, because I want to be the first person to break a piece of news. Or I’m willing to engage in useless, captious conversations because I imagine they will make me look cool in the eyes of other people.

If I genuinely “loved my neighbor,” however: (1) From the beginning I would do my best not to be the recipient of inappropriate information. If it is juicy and salacious, I may be strongly tempted to hear or read information about others; but my first responsibility is to turn away from anything if it is in fact none of my business. Avoiding this temptation can be challenging. (2) Once I am in possession of potential gossip, whether or not by design, I should coolly determine if this piece of information is worth passing on at all, or if the subject is worth addressing within my group of friends—or if it rather is something that should be kept private, and therefore I should keep my mouth shut even if I know others will not follow my example. (3) If I genuinely care about the person or the group with whom I am sharing “news,” I will consider whether it is helpful or hurtful for them to possess this information. Do they really need to know this stuff? My focus should be the good of my target listeners as well as the subject(s) of the news, not my own transient glory.

Much of the gossip among “lay” Christians (that’s such a bad term!) targets church leaders. And it should not happen. Professional ministers are not immune to the seductions of gossip, however. Some years ago an emotionally disturbed person presented the pastor of a church in our city with a spiritual maelstrom of outrageous and demonstrably false accusations against a woman in his church who had befriended him. A few days later, this pastor also heard from the accused woman a genuine and private confession of sin that had zero relationship to the accusations. In private conversations and even via email, the pastor shared both the spurious accusations and the sincere confession with a number of people in his congregation—paid staff as well as “lay” people—with disastrous results. The pastor’s reasoning, I’m told, sounded quite sensible: He wanted people to “pray for her” as well as for himself so that he would have wisdom in dealing with the matter; and he was “concerned” about both individuals involved. Some of the recipients of this gossip are close friends of mine. They still cannot see this pastor’s actions as constituting gossip, however, because they insist he was “genuinely seeking guidance in how to handle the situation.”

Ah! But that, you see, is virtually always the excuse among Christians! We have a built-in pretext for gossiping: loving concern about the relevant individual(s), and a reasonable request for the recipients of our gossip to pray for the person/situation.

Yet gossip is wrong! It is destructive. It kills. Our God is powerful enough to bring healing and salvation into any situation without our having to share confidential information. If prayer is needed from mortals, God is quite able to respond to my prayers without my having to enlist a crowd to pray—for often my motivation in asking for prayer is as much a desire, even if it is unconscious, to pass on juicy news as to enlist prayer warriors. Ditto for wisdom: If that pastor needed wisdom, he needed only to ask God for it (cf. James 1:5).

I know this sin intimately, because I have indulged it on many occasions. As long as we couch our gossip, our breach of confidentiality, even our backbiting, in pious language (“I’m really worried about Jack. . .”), and especially if we accompany our ethical breach with a request for prayer (“I feel awkward sharing this, but I’m very concerned about this situation, and I want you to join me in praying for Nora. . .”), we can get away with the most egregious gossip.

Over the decades, a number of people—male and female—have confessed to me in confidence that they have been sexually unfaithful. In every case, my sharing such information with any other person—whether spouse or pastor or friend or whomever—would have been counterproductive and destructive. I rarely have learned whether any of these people ever confessed to anyone else, including their spouses. But I know that it is not my place to share it. If God wants to do something about such situations, he is free to do so. It is not my calling to play God. It’s a question of how much I trust God. He calls on me to trust him with this person’s life—to trust that my intercession alone, if necessary, is sufficient to bring his power and healing into a person’s life without my having to blab their sins to someone else so that they can pray about it (or whatever). God really is powerful enough to do that!

“Hear no evil?” If someone offers to share with me information that is none of my business, then it is up to me to refuse to listen to or read such information. On a couple of occasions I have told people in my church, “I’m sorry, but I don’t need to know what you are trying to tell me,” and I was dismayed at the response—which generally ran along the lines that the person was sharing the information with me so that I could “pray about it.” No. Not really. In the large majority of such situations the underlying concern isn’t prayer, but prurience.

All of us are more sinful than anyone can imagine. It is not our calling to receive or to share information about the sins of others. It is no trivial matter to follow Paul’s injunction “to speak evil of no one, . . . to show perfect courtesy toward all people”  —Titus 3:2. That is hard to do! It requires strong discipline and constant vigilance. It requires us first to identify and then to reject temptations to share or even to listen to information about others that should not be public. I dare say that for most of us, if we claim we’re not tempted to listen to gossip and to pass it on, we’re not paying attention.


It is woefully easy to fall into backbiting, especially if we have learned to couch our contumely within socially acceptable formats. Bald, unambiguous slander does indeed occur within the church:

“She is terrible with the kids! They don’t like her! I can’t understand why they hired Marian to be our youth pastor!”

Such venomous speech is inexcusable, but not uncommon. Much more familiar is backbiting in the guise of loving concern. More subtle people may offer socially acceptable criticism that makes the same point:

“Marian is a really talented woman, and I like her a lot, but I’m concerned about her long-term effect on the church’s youth. When I watch her interacting with the kids, it seems like they don’t really respond to her, and she doesn’t have much ability to bond with them. I’m wondering if in the long run the youth program may not go so well with her in charge. Do you know if the church’s leadership looked very deeply into her qualifications before they hired her?”

The essential message is the same in both accounts: “Marian is incompetent”; and, “The church’s leadership is incompetent for hiring her.” The second version, however, reeks hypocritically of deep concern and altruism, of “mature” inquiry about potential problems within the church.

If I am meeting with a group of leaders charged with assessing Marian’s performance, then—after prayer and cautious attempts to hear what the Spirit is saying, and after having spoken personally and frankly and lovingly with Marian—I may need to say something similar to the second quote above. Under everyday circumstances, however, such criticism would rarely be appropriate no matter how altruistic it sounds. It is still speaking critically of another person behind her back, with no practical goal in mind other than communicating to other people my displeasure with—and, by extension, my superiority to—that person. Better in the large majority of circumstances to hold my tongue—for what good would such a statement accomplish? An important restraint in such situations: would I say the same thing if Marian were present?

Most backbiting probably lies between the two extremes of belligerence and gentility. Whatever its guise, it is destructive and should not happen. I have been part of churches where people in significant positions of leadership have left their congregations because of chronic criticisms levied against them. They bore it for a long time, but eventually couldn’t bring themselves to continue living under a barrage of negativity. This should never happen among the people of God!

Seeking to impress others

Research using functional magnetic resonance imaging has demonstrated that in ordinary, day-to-day conversations, most people spend more time thinking about what they are going to say next than they do actively listening to other people. Once again the focus is on me, whether I’m discussing a scientific principle or how to make the best salsa. Or even discussing a biblical text. Blathering heedlessly within a friendly conversation tends to arise from the same spirit as gossip or backbiting—i.e., wanting to impress other people. I want to demonstrate my intelligence, or my experience, or my knowledge, or my good taste, or my clever sense of humor.


Try an experiment: For an entire day, consciously note what percentage of the speech that you hear (including your own) is negative. You may be in for a dismal surprise. You’ll hear it at home, over the phone, at work, in the marketplace; you’ll read it on the internet and in the newspaper.

In no way do I espouse Thumper’s semisuperficial dictum in Disney’s Bambi: “If you can’t say somethin’ nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.” There is significant truth in that approach, but it’s hardly foolproof. Our Lord wasn’t given to being nice when he walked this earth. God is not nice. He is a consuming fire. And although his infinite love is at the center of that fire, it cannot be said to be nice (e.g., see Isaiah 1:10ff).

Nor do I suggest that we guard against ever using strong words, even harsh words. Sometimes they are needed (e.g., see Matthew 23:13-35).

I am rather attempting here to shine light on the mindless, day-to-day grumbling and negativity that lead to no changes in anyone’s heart, and that generally arise from the unthinking depths of our minds.

I can’t believe how cold it is in here.

Are we having oatmeal again?

With my luck, ______ [fill in the blank].

I can’t wait for this rain to stop.

When are they going to fix these potholes?

That’s the third time we’ve sung that hymn this month.

I hate mosquitoes.

That driver is a moron.

Our waiter must be taking a nap.

Republicans are so stupid.

That woman ought to control her obnoxious kid.

Wintertime is such a drag.

Doing homework sucks!

If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a dozen times. . .

If I hear that commercial one more time, I’m going to scream.

What a stupid billboard.

Democrats are idiots.

That’s unfair!

No one understands me!

I hate ______ [fill in the blank].

Don’t you just hate it when ______ [fill in the blank].

I’m sick and tired of______ [fill in the blank].

It’s not that thought or speech of this ilk is deeply sinful in the traditional sense of that term—i.e., that it totally offends God and makes him mad at us. This kind of activity, rather, is destructively banal. It eats away at the joy that should be ours minute by minute as children of the Most High. It spreads a shadow—so subtle that we rarely notice it—over our hearts, robbing us of our ability to commune intimately with our Lord. (But that, of course, does in the end make these thought patterns deeply sinful—see the essay “Incomprehensibly Sinful.”)

Most often, our negative speech is addressed to a friend or family member, not to the “offending” individuals (or to the offending situation, when we complain about things such as weather). Which means that, from the logical standpoint, such complaints are useless. They accomplish nothing good. Even when we complain directly to individuals, however, it tends to be in language that is belittling or arrogant, not constructive.

Criticism can be good if it is true and is given in love and is inspired by and guided by the Holy Spirit. Nitpicking, perfunctory faultfinding is evil.

Speaking truth to power can be good when it is true and given in love and inspired by and guided by the Spirit. Most of the angry denunciation and carping and disparagement we encounter daily, however, is just us being self-centered jerks.

This almost universal sin of jaundiced speech manifests itself differently in each of us. I will say little more about it except this: The key to living in Light and Life rather than in the darkness of verbal depravity is to fix our hearts and our minds on Jesus, to listen for what he is saying, and to make a firm commitment to keeping our mouths shut unless/until what we say seems to glow with his life-giving grace. If my words are not something I am willing for anyone on this planet to hear, if they do not convey Life, then probably I should not speak them. That doesn’t imply that our speech must be laden with religiosity. We can participate in Life-affirming conversation while going about our duties at work, while speaking with neighbors about planting tulips, while evaluating bathroom sinks with a plumbing contractor, while discussing investments with our brokers, while talking about fairies or monster trucks with our children. If we practice the presence of the Holy Spirit, our speech will increasingly carry his blessing.

The best response

The ultimate solution to all such broken behaviors is to live in the Spirit. It’s not easy to do. God’s plan for us, however, even in this fallen world, is that we are so filled with his Holy Spirit that every word leaving our mouths will flow through the “filter” of our Lord’s love and wisdom—the result being that what we say arises not only from our own brains and emotions but also from the heart of our Lord. I can’t tell you what that looks like for you, but I can say with near certainty that for most of us it means speaking much less often than we usually speak. That is certainly true for me. When my tongue and my mind are in cruise-control mode, I tend to talk a great deal. It’s not necessarily bad stuff—I am well educated, and it’s not at all uncommon that I know more about a topic of conversation than most people in the room, and when there is no filter on my speech I can talk indiscriminately and at length. But on those (unfortunately rare) occasions when I remember to check my impulses and to submit my entire being to the guidance and blessing of the Holy Spirit, I find myself speaking very little—even when I know cool stuff about the conversation topic that no one else appears to know. It’s always a good idea to listen to the Spirit!

Our motivations can stem from selflessness, or they can be insincere. I can say the exact same words in a righteous way or in an unhealthy way. In discussing the weather, for example, I might volunteer a statement about the putatively monstrous El Niño that is developing, because I honestly suspect my friends may not be aware of it and because I feel they probably would want to know about it; alternatively, I could mouth the identical words because I want to impress these people with the breadth and depth of my scientific knowledge.

Hint: One way to be pretty sure you’re acting in line with the Holy Spirit is that, although you have important items you could contribute to the conversation, you feel complete peace in remaining silent, listening with interest to what others have to say.

We need to attend constantly to three things: (1) The most important question is, “Lord, where are you in this conversation? I want to hear what you’re saying through these people, and I want you to place a guard on my mind and my heart and my mouth so that I feel what you feel and think what you think and speak as you would want me to speak.” This does not suggest that the Holy Spirit wants to be a puppet master and that I should speak only words that God gives me to say. God never intended his creatures to be puppets. He loves it when we think for ourselves, when we are creative. The secret to being in the Spirit when conversing with others is simply “flowing” with him, as it were, constantly checking our thoughts and our feelings, checking the words we’re about to speak, to be sure they are pleasing to him, that they are informed by love rather than by self-centeredness. (2) I should actively be listening to what my companions are saying, loving them, genuinely caring about them and about their ideas—not constantly considering how I might respond in the cleverest way. (3) Finally, if I am being honest as a participant in a conversation, I should attend to the subject, genuinely trying to learn as much as I can and trying to benefit from (not impress) the others.

May the words of my mouth and the thoughts within my heart be pleasing to you, Yahweh, my rock and my redeemer.  –Psalm 19:14 (transl. BCM)