James 3:5 -“So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of greater things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!” (ESV)
“Remember…Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires.” I don’t know about you but I rather like authoritative bears. Winnie the Pooh and Yogi are loveable but they don’t command respect like Smokey the Bear. I am simply more inclined to listen to a bear in a ranger hat who has enough sense to wear a belt with his blue jeans, than bears known respectively for theft (Yogi, being smarter than the national average doesn’t justify criminal activity) and subterfuge (you are not a little black rain cloud Pooh). However, despite his admirable (and imposing) efforts to prevent forest fires, Smokey has little to say about the fires started by the human tongue. Running the risk of having created a terrible sermon illustration but for the sake of introductory humour, I am going to pursue this theme a little further.
I don’t think it is too farfetched to build a metaphorical connection between human beings and trees. This association is already prevalent in colloquial conversation, as we make reference to “putting down roots,” and “acorns not falling far from the tree.” Sometimes we even get to play trees in elementary school pageants*. Most importantly, a precedent for this association has been set in the Bible. Psalm 1:3 states that the righteous man is like “a tree planted by streams of living water”(ESV). Isaiah 61:3 speaks prophetically that the Israelites will be like “oaks of righteousness” (ESV) that have been planted for the glory of God. So if human beings are like trees, we too are susceptible to the ravages of wild fires.
The only difference is that these fires come from the tongue.
In this manner, careless words have the same effect that cigarette butts do when they are tossed out of a car window and onto the parched edge of a forest. Upon finding a comfortable resting place, these words have the potential to smolder until unspeakable damage is caused.
In this manner, deliberate statements become acts of arson in which the speaker delights in the destructive power of his or her words. These words blaze up quickly and consume their target with searing heat. The speaker wants nothing more but to see the forest burn.
I have been unintentionally hurt by casual asides that were aimed at me like discarded cigarette butts. I have had lit matches dropped on the dry tinder of my soul. I have experienced tirades that were the verbal equivalent of being dosed with kerosene and set aflame. In short, I have been damaged by verbal fire.
Are these fires due to gross negligence on my part? Are others to be charged with the task of preventing fires in my life? My answer is yes and no.
Smokey is right in the emphasis he places on personal responsibility for preventing fires. We are responsible for our speech. We need to make an active choice to speak only in a manner that will edify others. We need to demonstrate Christ’s love for us through our verbal exchanges. We have to situate ourselves where our ‘root systems’ or innermost parts can be fed by streams of living water that will extinguish any pricks of flame before they engulf us.
However, we need to be aware that Jesus is the source of those living waters. We cannot manufacture them. When we become alienated from these streams, we are easily set ablaze. We cannot effectively fight these fires on our own.
Only Jesus Christ can prevent & extinguish the fires of the tongue.
*As it turns out in this grade school pageant scenario, EVERYONE hears if a tree falls in the forest.