A couple of years ago, a forest service woman intentionally set a wild fire that became a huge destructive fire near Denver, Colorado that ravaged one of our nation's beautiful forests. Around the same time in Arizona, a part-time firefighter also intentionally started a wildfire that consumed half a million acres, destroying hundreds of homes along its path.
Both blazes cost several millions of dollars in property damage as well as in the efforts of thousands of firefighters. Each, however, started as a small contained fire that was purposely permitted to spread and reach gigantic proportions. And, to make matters worse, both arsonists were employed to protect the property from the very fires that they themselves set.
"See how great a forest a little fire kindles!" wrote James in his epistle (Jas. 3:5b). He wasn't just talking about forest fires, though. He was comparing them with something far more powerful: the human tongue.
In comparison with other muscles in the body, the tongue is very small. Comparing it with the bits placed in horses' mouths (v. 3) or the rudder on a great ship (v. 4), he states that "the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things" (v. 5). A horse or a ship is controlled by something comparitively tiny. It is like a fire that starts out small and then burns down an entire forest.
It is amazing how something so small can spread devastation so far and wide. Similarly, our tongues can spread insidious gossip like a forest fire, permeating a congregation of God's people and wreaking havoc for years to come.
To gossip is to talk behind someone's back. This sin is described by such words as "whisperer" (Rom. 1:29) and "backbiter" (Rom. 1:30) which are included in a list of other sins that cause one to be worthy of death (Rom. 1:32)! Often we broadcast gossip by saying, "I'm not trying to spread a rumor here, but did you hear about such-and-such?" Or we salve our conscience by prefacing what juicy details we repeat about someone else by saying, "Brother So-and So, bless his heart..." If someone begins a conversation with, "I really shouldn't be telling you this..." immediately finish their sentence for them by saying: "then just don't say it." That's easier said than done, I know, but it's the only way to put out the flames of gossip.
Consider also that words spoken cannot be take back. When a fire gets out of hand and becomes impossible to contain, it is again like our tongues that utter words we wish could be taken back (a lawyer will say a thing in the presence of a jury that is against the rules, when objected to by the other lawyer, will say I take that back. But he has already planted the seed intended in the minds of jurors, JWS). James goes on to say that the tongue "sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell" (v. 6b). When a fire is intentionally started, there is no wishing it away once it is out of control. The words we say that are intended to tear into others cannot be taken back. Remember the adage, "A friend is gained by many words and is lost by only one."
Your word is your bond, mean what you say and say what you mean "do not lie to one another" (Col. 3:9). When lying lips betray the trust of others, no manner of words will likely restore it. Liars, we are warned, will have their place "in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone" (Rev. 21:8).
Christians, of all people, should watch what they say. Those forest fires started in the western U.S. were intentionally set by people who had sworn to protect against such catastrophes. Similarly, how can disciples of Jesus utter words that are intended to cut down and destroy, rather than to build up and encourage? May our "speech always be with grace, seasoned, as it were, with salt" (Col. 4:6). Heed the words of James' epistle: "From the same mouth comes both blessing and cursing, My brethren, these things ought not to be this way" (3:10).
The tongue, like a little fire, is a powerful tool for good. But when it is misused or abused, it will set ablaze an unquenchable fire that may only be matched by the flames of hell. "See how great a forest a little fire kindles!" ----
By Marc R. Hinds via Gospel Power, Vol. 11, No. 43, Oct. 31, 2004.
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