You’ve heard of Smokey Bear? I think his slogan has changed a bit since I was a child. I remember, “You, too, can prevent forest fires!” I guess somewhere along the way someone realized that fires aren’t limited to forests.
Since we’ve moved West, David and I have heard a lot about wildfires. We’ve seen the scorched earth from the window seats of airplanes and underneath our feet as we’ve hiked. Wildfires bring death and destruction. They leave you wondering, What if? How tall would that tree have grown? How many more families would have built cabins there?
Never leave your campfire burning. Never drop a smoking cigarette out your car window. One spark can cause a fire; that’s what Smokey tells us. That’s what the apostle James tells us too:
And do you know how many forest fires begin with a single ember from a small campfire? The tongue is a blazing fire seeking to ignite an entire world of vices. The tongue is unique among all parts of the body because it is capable of corrupting the whole body. If that were not enough, it ignites and consumes the course of creation with a fuel that originates in hell itself (James 3:5–6, The Voice).
James tells us this in the context of his caution to teachers in the first-century church. He warns his readers not to encourage a lot of people to become teachers because “teachers will be held to a higher standard” (3:1). Every time I write a blog or prepare for a podcast, I remember this verse. It terrifies me.
If you ever tell another Christian what to think or how to act, you are putting yourself in a teacher’s role. You may not be doing it consciously, but you are doing it. Before you presume to know anything better than your brother or sister, ask yourself two questions:
- Has the Holy Spirit gifted me as a teacher? (1 Corinthians 12:28; Romans 12:7)
- Will my words edify or corrupt the body of the church? (James 3:6)
I would argue that if you answer no to either question, you should keep your mouth shut. No matter how passionate you feel about something, don’t put yourself in the position of being “held to a higher standard.”
More often than not, a wildfire is started by accident. It was that smoldering campfire some hikers thought they extinguished or that idiot with the cigarette butt. No matter how innocently the fire started, the one with the spark is responsible for the destruction. How do you keep from starting a wildfire? Don’t ever strike a match.
Of course, not all fires are bad. Where would we be in winter without matches to start our heaters or light our candles?
This same tongue can be both an instrument of blessing to our Lord and Father and a weapon that hurls curses upon others who are created in God’s own image. One mouth streams forth both blessings and curses. My brothers and sisters, this is not how it should be (James 3:9–10).
James tells us that in the church, our tongues are the matches. When the one speaking is a teacher–whose words are truly motivated by the Holy Spirit–then the flame he or she starts is beneficial to the body. The words may be instructive for every member of the church, or better yet, they may be praising God.
Unfortunately we are more likely to burn the body of Christ with our words than to enlighten it. Knowing that Satan uses our tongues to “corrupt the whole body” with words that are “a fuel that originates in hell itself,” we must choose them wisely and use them sparingly. Always remember that
A fool does not think before he unleashes his temper,
but a wise man holds back and remains quiet (Proverbs 29:11).
Be the wise man. Hold back your words use them only to enlighten your church family, not to scorch them.