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James 3:6

ESV 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.
NIV 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.
NASB And the tongue is a fire, the very world of unrighteousness; the tongue is set among our body’s parts as that which defiles the whole body and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell.
CSB And the tongue is a fire. The tongue, a world of unrighteousness, is placed among our members. It stains the whole body, sets the course of life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
NLT And among all the parts of the body, the tongue is a flame of fire. It is a whole world of wickedness, corrupting your entire body. It can set your whole life on fire, for it is set on fire by hell itself.
KJV And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell.

What does James 3:6 mean?

James has been describing the amazing power of our words—our tongues. Like bits which control horses, or rudders which control ships, or sparks which start a forest-leveling fire, our tiny tongues—through the words we say with them—can do huge things, many of them greatly destructive.

Here, James stops comparing our tongues to others things and describes them as they are. The picture isn't pretty. He describes the tongue itself as a fire, meaning it can burn whatever we touch with our words. This is a good perspective to keep in mind before we use our words on or against another person.

James also describes the tongue as "a world of unrighteousness." In our natural, sinful state, our words don't just occasionally go bad. They come from a place that is completely bad in every way. The tongue isn't merely the one bad apple in the barrel. It is the member which corrupts all of the other parts of our bodies. An uncontrolled tongue is responsible for setting the course of our lives on fire, for burning down everything along the way.

But our tongues don't burn with their own fire. That fire of reckless destruction didn't originate with us. Our tongues, James writes, are themselves set on fire by hell. The word "hell" here is derived from the Greek name of the Valley of Hinnom. This was a well-known known place just outside of Jerusalem. Hinnom Valley had been used in the past for human sacrifice. At the time of Jesus' earthly ministry, it was a perpetually-blazing trash heap. Because it was associated with garbage, rejection, evil, destruction, and fire, this Valley of Hinnom was often held up as a picture of God's eternal judgment on sin: hell.

So what does all of this mean? Our tongues—the words we say with them in our lack of self-control—are powerfully evil and destructive. It's not a small problem. It's rooted in the fundamental spiritual problems all people have: pride and lack of self-control. In prior chapters, James pointed out how one's actions prove the reality of his beliefs. Here, James makes it clear that the way we use our tongues reveals our true nature. As fallen people, our nature is sinful and destructive. We must be changed.
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