You have surely heard news of wildfires in the Amazon, but a recent CNN article reported that there are 50 different wildfires burning in 12 different states in the US. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, Alaska is battling eight wildfires; Texas 7; Arizona and Idaho six each; Montana and Utah five each; Oregon and Washington three each; New Mexico two; and California, Oklahoma and Wyoming one each. Forest fires are a necessary evil for long term forest health, but it certainly hurts to see it. In Alaska the McKinley fire has devoured over 80 structures and 4300 acres of forest. These fires cause respiratory difficulties for humans living in the area, not to mention the devastation upon wildlife. And how were these fires started? Roughly half of all forest fires reported in Alaska this summer was started by human carelessness.
One area of human conduct the apostle James wishes the church to embrace is the discipline of holding one’s tongue. He begins by holding himself accountable. Not everyone should be teachers, for teachers, like James, will be held accountable by God for the souls they instruct. Consider a similar teaching in the book of Hebrews.
Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. (Hebrews 13:17)
James encourages the church to understand the power of the human tongue. Just as a massive sailing ship is controlled by a small piece of wood called a rudder, so the tongue influences one’s life. Jesus taught that out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks. (Matthew 12:34) His opponents often revealed the wickedness in themselves by the judgmental things they said. What you say reveals what’s in your heart, and what’s in your heart is eventually acted upon.
James calls the tongue a world of iniquity. The Greek work for world is kosmos. It’s the word we use to describe the universe. But the word can also mean government or adornment. The uncontrolled tongue is like a fifthly, stinking rag hung upon a Christmas tree. It stinks up the whole house and ruins what would otherwise be beautiful. The unbridled tongue is a realm of evil, according to James.
If I were to record everything I say, what would I find? How does my tongue reveal my prejudices, fears, parochial and privileged attitudes, cynicism and shallowness? I must be careful of prejudice, shortsightedness, and cynicism seeping into my words.
The tongue reveals attitudes of self-importance. Boasting, James says, is unspiritual and of the devil. Instead we ought to practice humility. Think before you speak. Do not speak at all unless what you are going to say builds other people up. Paul encouraged the church in the letter to the Ephesians…
Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. (Eph 4:29)
When we consider the kind of language we experience on social media, or in the news, it’s clear that we could use a healthy dose of humility. It seems Americans think that if you don’t share my opinion, you are evil and a fool! Newscasters are always dispensing gossip and scandal, tragedy and turmoil. Sensationalism is the order of the day. And we tend to fall in line with the direction the rudder turns.
James acknowledges the problem this way. Every species of wild animals are subdued by humanity, but no one has tamed the human tongue.
If we would be mature in our walk with Christ, then we will learn to be self-disciplined. We will recognize the power of language, and we will take care to control what we say and how we say it. God’s love is given to us to drive sin out of our hearts. Before you speak, ask yourself, “Am I seeking to glorify myself or God?” “Am I seeking to build up or tear down another person?” “Is what I’m thinking about saying an expression of the unconditional and merciful love of God?”
How can we tame the tongue?… First, by holding our tongues, and then by turning our thoughts inward in godly reflection. A disciple will build a discipline of prayerful conversation with God throughout the day. If you would tame the tongue, you will make it a daily exercise of reflecting upon your encounters with others. John Wesley practiced the Daily Examen. As late as 1781, Wesley published a list of questions like this one in the Arminian Magazine.
- Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I really am? In other words, am I a hypocrite?
- Do I confidentially pass on to others what has been said to me in confidence?
- Can I be trusted?
- Am I a slave to dress, friends, work or habits?
- Am I self-conscious, self-pitying, or self-justifying?
- Did the Bible live in me today?
- Do I give the Bible time to speak to me every day?
- Am I enjoying prayer?
- When did I last speak to someone else of my faith?
- Do I pray about the money I spend?
- Do I get to bed on time and get up on time?
- Do I disobey God in anything?
- Do I insist upon doing something about which my conscience is uneasy?
- Am I defeated in any part of my life?
- Am I jealous, impure, critical, irritable, touchy or distrustful?
- How do I spend my spare time?
- Am I proud?
- Do I thank God that I am not as other people, especially as the Pharisees who despised the publican?
- Is there anyone whom I fear, dislike, disown, criticize, hold a resentment toward or disregard? If so, what am I doing about it?
- Do I grumble or complain constantly?
- Is Christ real to me?
A wildfire is raging in America. According to CBS News, as of September 1, which was the 244th day of the year, there have been 283 mass shootings in the U.S.
These shootings are a symptom of a much deeper problem in our society. There is murder in our hearts when we think ill of another and we are killing one another with words. Our tongues need to be speaking peace to our neighbors, acknowledging the value of talking to strangers, and encouraging one another with hope. May the Lord save us from our unbridled tongues and restore peace to our hearts and our communities.