Originally published as “Only you can prevent forest fires: the destructive force of our words.” Originally published, February 20, 2017
I was in Florida several years ago and Florida was having wildfires. Some areas were evacuating. If a person smoked a cigarette, they were told that they couldn’t throw it on the ground or it would start a fire.
Something so small, such a small amount of smoke, could start a huge fire.
With our words, the tongue, a relatively small part of the body, can be hugely destructive if a person isn’t careful.
James uses fires as an illustration for the destruction that our words can cause. “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!” (James 3:5).
Verse 6 is pretty jam packed. Continuing with the imagery of the preceding verse, James says that the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. Here James is referring to the unworldly and unrighteousness of the language that we can speak.
The tongue stains the whole body, meaning that the tongue, the words we say can defile. “The tongue sets on fire the entire course of life and is set on fire by hell” (James 3:6).
And with what James is saying, that’s nothing new in the Bible. Read through the book of Proverbs, and see just how many Proverbs talk about the words that we use.
God desires for his people to use words for good and not for evil.
Proverbs 18:21 says, “death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.”
Back in our section in James, in verse 7 James talks about how animals have been tamed: “every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind,”.”
The point is not that people literally HAVE tamed every animal. But that there are many types of animals that have been tamed and domesticated. And while we can tame wild animals who have no sense of morality, the tongue is something we have not tamed.
The tongue is called “a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:9).
At least it can be if we’re not carful. The tongue can be like the venomous bite of a snake if we use our words for wickedness.
The words we say can be hugely impactful and destructive. We’ve all heard the saying “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
But words can hurt. Sometimes, they can hurt a lot more than sticks and stones. For some of you, the worst thing that ever happened to them, the most painful memory in life was something that was said to you.
We can push people away with words, we can ruin a person’s day with words, we can break a person’s heart with words. We can hurt our reputation with the words we use.
There are right ways and wrong ways to say things.
There was a popular internet story last year about a British woman who was dumped after one date. In the guy’s message, he talked about how amazing she was, how much he liked her personality, but then he began to go on and on and on and on about her weight. Really to the point of cruelty.
Some people defended the guy “well at least he was honest.”
But there’s a difference between being honest and being unnecessarily cruel. There’s a difference between honesty and being blunt as you possibly can. We can say truthful things but in a gentle way.
Proverbs 10:11 says, “the mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life, but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence.”
Some people make excuses for the words they use. “Well that’s just how I am.” In a world that likes to tear people down, that likes to insult people, we have opportunities to be positive and to bring blessing.
Proverbs 12:18 says, “there is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”
Some people are constantly getting themselves in trouble with what they say. Some people can be so abrasive and stubborn. Maybe you’ve known someone who seemed to be their own worst enemy because of their words, someone who was more concerned about being able to speak their mind even when it meant negative consequences?
Proverbs 10:14: “the wise lay up knowledge, but the mouth of a fool brings ruin near.”
And in Proverbs 18:7 it says, “A fool’s mouth is his ruin, and his lips are a snare to his soul.”
And with the words we say that bring blessing, in Proverbs 16:24: “Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.”
There is value in choosing to talk to people in positive, affirming, and life giving ways. I realize that’s not what we always hear at work, or at home. But as people who are walking with God, we are to influence others and not be influenced. To rise above the negatives of the world.
Even among people who are following God, this can sometimes be an area of sin that people hold onto. Talking in ways that don’t glorify God. Talking in ways that aren’t loving. For some of us, adapting our words would be more of a challenge than for others. But it’s something worth all of us doing.
Again, a great forest is set ablaze. Sometimes we can say something that makes others laugh but it’s not a nice thing to say. We should want to use our words to build people up, to be positive. What you say says a lot about what you believe.
Josh Benner is the associate pastor at Cornerstone Evangelical Free Church in Fergus Falls, Minnesota and has a Master of Divinity from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He enjoys writing about faith and culture. He lives with his wife Kari in Minnesota.