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 person… and is set on fire by hell. James 3:6
Did you ever smoke a secret cigarette when you were a teenager? Go on, admit it! You thought you were so grown up, so daring.
Well, I read some time ago of a 14-year old boy in the middle east who decided to smoke not a cigarette, but a hookah, one of those eastern water pipes. After getting it lit he absent-mindedly tossed the live coals he had used onto a patch of grass. All perfectly innocent, of course. And the result? 42 deaths, 10,000 acres of forest destroyed, 250 homes damaged, a bill for £50 million. The worst fire in his country’s history.
Every time we hear of a domestic house-fire we are reminded what a terrible thing fire can be. Properly tended and controlled, no problem, it’s a great force for good. But once out of control – well, its potential is appalling.
James, the brother of Jesus, tells us that each of us has a potential fire in our mouths. It’s called the tongue, and James tells us it can be nothing short of hellish…
What to us may seem a harmless and innocent remark can have repercussions far beyond anything we could have imagined. And so we are reminded to be very careful how we speak. No lies! No gossip! No backbiting! No rumour-mongering! None of that sniggering behind-the-hand “Hey, did you hear about…?”
When I was a child a teacher told me to apply three rules to anything I said. They came in the form of three questions: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? I wish I could say that I have carefully observed those rules ever since. They would have saved me – and, more to the point, a lot of other people – much pain and unhappiness.
Of course, we live in days when there are all sorts of new ways of speaking. Any Twitterers out there? Any Facebook addicts? Be careful! Do you really want your careless thoughts to be read by, potentially, millions of people? And should you be putting them on line anyway? Should you even be thinking them in the first place? Are they worthy of a follower of Jesus?
Shakespeare’s play Henry the Fourth, part two, has a character called Rumour. He appears on stage wearing a robe “painted full of tongues”. And what is his business? “Stuffing the ears of men with false reports.” He proudly boasts of how much hurt and confusion he causes.
On a rather more down-to-earth level, there’s a saying I really like: “A Lie can run halfway round the world while Truth is pulling his boots on”. I don’t know how old that saying is, but couldn’t it have been written precisely for the internet age?
We are to use our tongues to speak truth; to bless; to encourage; to build people up, not to drag them down. Just as a wrong word can do untold harm, so a kind and loving word can do untold good. Is that how we aim to use our tongues?
I know that regarding that fire I mentioned all our sympathies must be with the victims and their families. But I can’t help feeling also some pity for the boy who started it all. I imagine that the memory of what he did will blight him until the day he dies. Poor child! In the same way, though, every one of us who speaks an unguarded word has much to answer for.
And let’s not forget, by the way, that listening to wrong talk is pretty much as bad as speaking it – rather as receiving stolen goods is as bad as stealing them in the first place.
Every now and then somebody comes up to me and says “I know I shouldn’t really be telling you this, but…” To which there should be only one reply: “You know you shouldn’t be telling me? Well, don’t tell me, then! Keep that mouth of yours firmly shut!”
Dear Father in heaven, thank you for the gift of the tongue. Thank you for the great good that we can do through words of truth and kindness. But forgive me, Lord, that there are times I use my tongue for wicked and destructive purposes, thus playing into the hands of the devil, who is the father of lies. Cleanse, Lord, my tongue! Cleanse, Lord, my heart! Amen.