Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.James 3:5-6, 9-12
God wants us to be careful with our words, not because our words are weak and meaningless but precisely because words are powerful. Proverbs 18:21 says, “The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.”
The apostle Paul talked about the use of language to the Ephesians when he was encouraging them to live a life of holiness. He said, “Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving”(Ephesians 5:4). Basically, obscenity, foolish talk, and coarse joking become the opposite of expressions of gratitude.
And I believe James takes this idea even further as he addresses language that becomes curses. Our harsh words toward people can be used by the enemy to curse their lives and give the enemy access to that part of a person’s life. The small spark of our careless words said in anger can become a forest fire in the life of the person we spoke against.
An unintentional curse works like an email sent to a person with a virus attached to it. If the person reads the email but doesn’t open the attachment, the email does little damage. But if the person opens the attachment, a virus is unleashed on the person’s computer.
In the same way, when a harsh word is spoken, if the person resists the word and decides to reject it rather than accept it as true, then the harsh word does little damage. But if the harsh word is spoken and the person receives it and believes it is true about themselves, the enemy unleashes destructive forces in that person’s life through that word. This same principle applies to harsh words we speak against ourselves. At some point, the curse has to be rejected, broken, and the power of that word removed from the person’s life.
The power of words is especially true for people in positions of authority. The words of people in authority over us (parents, teachers, coaches, pastors, etc) carry a lot of weight. So if a harsh word comes flying at us from them, it is even more difficult for it not to become a curse. This is why James starts chapter 3 with the warning, “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly”(James 3:1). And I believe this includes teachers of every kind in our lives, not just teachers in the church.
Words of blessing and encouragement are powerful too. They have creative power to bring life to a person. God spoke creation into existence in Genesis 1. Jesus is called the Word of God (John 1:1-5). When our words line up with the loving words of God that He is speaking over a person’s life, there is creative power in them to bring about God’s future for that person. Our words become like that parent that helps to get their child started as they learn to ride a bike. Our words of blessing can build stability and momentum until the person can start pedaling on their own.