James 3: 5-9
So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.
How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!
And the tongue is a fire.
The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.
For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue-a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.
The author of James is not kidding around, after making several metaphors of how the human tongue sets the course and manages our behaviors he compares the tongue in these verses to a fire. And not just a small campfire, no he’s talking about a wild and uncontrollable forest fire, an all consuming hellish fire…
James does a great job living into the negative aspect of this metaphor. As many of us have experienced, whether it has been our own tongue that has gotten us in trouble or another’s that has been used against us, the fallout of such an experience does seem to spread like a wildfire burning out of control doesn’t it?
On the other hand, we know that fire can be the light in the darkness that guides us home. That a well tended fire can sustain and nurture us, it can produce heat for food and warmth on a cold night. A fire burning brightly on the tip of a candle wick can symbolize an attitude of prayer, peacefulness, even celebration.
James is warning his people of the danger of words that are cast about with the intention of hurting another, of putting someone in their place. He warns of the danger of using words to paint an image of ourselves that is unrealistic or deceptive. He warns us to be careful as people of faith not to say words about who we are and about God that we aren’t willing to live into. He speaks not as an outsider but as insider, one who has experienced first hand both the blessing of words spoken in genuine love and the pain brought forth by words used carelessly or destructively.
I remember when my children were small and first learning to speak. Speaking words was an effort, it took time, thoughtfulness and intention. When they would get frustrated they would resort instead to crying or yelling and we would say to them, “use your words.” We wanted them to use their words to describe what they needed, what they were thinking and how they were feeling.
We learn at a very young age that words are the secret to communication, words give us a way to express ourselves, to tell our stories and to speak up for ourselves. We live in a world of almost constant communication, words are being emailed, posted, blogged, texted, spoken, sung, written, yelled, whispered and spelled out, back and forth between us, constantly filling up all the spaces between us.
What are the quality of the words you exchange in the length of a day? How often are you exchanging information, telling your story, asking for help and offering to help another? How often do the words you speak to others mirror the words you speak to God in prayer?
James invites us to be intentional with our tongues. To match our words about God and to God with the words we send into the universe all day every day.
May your words be a warm fire that sustains another,
May the words of your family, friends and community nurture you,
May you refrain from using words that will destroy another,
May you listen as often as you speak and
May your words be a blessing to those who have long been silenced,
May your words encourage them to speak up and tell their own story,
And may all our words together honor God forever.
(Yesterday the image wasn’t working in my reflection post, I’d love for you to see it because I drew it for just that occasion, you can find it if you click here!)