Tuesday, October 4, 2022
It can be a challenge to control what we say. James describes the tongue like a poisonous and evil beast we can’t tame. He says that it’s a fire that sets the whole cycle of nature ablaze. That’s a lot of power to ascribe to one small part of the body. How can it be so powerful?
James gives us two potent analogies for how this works. You can put a small bit in a horse’s mouth and be able to steer them wherever you want, and you can steer a large ship with a small rudder. It’s the same with the tongue. It’s a small part of the body, but it has great “steering power.”
Have you ever met someone who is just always a positive thinker? It’s equal parts encouraging and annoying how they can always manage to put a positive spin on things. On one side, it seems like they’re not acknowledging the reality of the situation, but on the other, they might have a deeper handle on reality. There is something I can learn from this kind of person. Thinking and saying positive things is like a small investment in those truths. It signals that we are aligned with them and committed to them, and when that is the case, we’ve paved the road for positive actions.
The same could be true for negative thoughts, words, and actions. If you’re putting your chips down on your dismal predictions, you want to be right. Sometimes we want to be right more than we want things to be right, so we can say, “See, I told you so.”
The influence of your tongue goes far beyond just yourself. Imagine you are having a conversation with someone you care about. Somewhere along the line, you start interpreting each other incorrectly (which happens all the time), and one or both of you gets triggered by what the other says. In such a moment, especially when you are angry, it is like all control of the tongue goes out the window. You are suddenly saying hurtful things that you are wishing you didn’t say—even before you finish saying them. The tongue takes over and starts steering the conversation into a fiery disagreement. This is real. You know it’s real because you’ve experienced it. This is the wildfire James is talking about.
For moments like those, it is appropriate to remember to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry (James 1:19). When my pastor, Michael Hoffman, talks about this verse, he says that is why God gave us two ears and only one mouth. If only this was something I could remember more in the moments that count. When you really put effort into hearing people, you take some of the destructive ammunition away from the tongue.
These days, we have quicker and easier ways to cause wildfire than James could ever imagine. I’m pointing at social media. The internet is an amazing innovation and it’s hard to imagine my life without it, but we were clearly not ready for it as a species. Now we are dealing with a beast more ferocious than just the tongue. Now anger, polarization, fear, disillusionment, disinformation, and pure stupidity can be spread across the world in just a short moment with a comment, tweet, post, video, or what-have-you. Those who see or hear it will likely not react or filter themselves as if they are interacting with a real human, and their response will reflect that. It’s a terrible feedback loop. To make it worse, there are algorithms lurking in the background making sure you see the things that are most likely to trigger you. If the tongue is a wildfire, social media is uncontrolled nuclear fission.
Somewhere around 10 years ago now, I realized that social media was not a healthy thing for me, for various reasons. I imagined what would happen if I just quit using it. So one day I quit, and I’ve never missed it. I’m not saying you should do the same, but if you ever find yourself burdened or distracted by it more than you know is healthy, consider it.
The things we say really do affect us. They ripple out and affect our families and friends. They touch our communities and influence our world in ways we don’t even comprehend. This is the reality that James recognizes and wants to warn us about. And given how fast and wide technology allows our communication to spread, that means we have an even higher level of responsibility for what we say.
1. When was the last time you started a wildfire with your words?
2. Are there any strategies you could use to help tame the beast that is your tongue?