The tongue is like a spark. It is an evil power that dirties the rest of the body and sets a person's entire life on fire with flames that come from hell itself.
-- James 3:6
Did the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 start—as the legend says—when Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lantern? Or did it begin when a one-legged man slipped on Mrs. O’Leary’s wet barn floor and dropped his lit pipe into some hay or wood shavings?
Except to history buffs and insurance agents, the answer doesn’t matter. But the aftermath – whatever its cause – was indeed horrific: nearly $200 million in property damage, 300 people dead and another 100,000 homeless. And all it took was a single spark.
James—the half-brother of Jesus—taught much the same lesson in his New Testament book written to some of the earliest Christ-followers. But instead of the destruction wrought from a tiny flame, James described the incredible power of the human tongue. Although it’s only a small part of the human body, our tongues have the power to change lives: to uplift and destroy, and to bless and curse.
We know this all too well through our life experiences. How many times have we uttered something inappropriate—or maybe downright mean-spirited—that seemed to come out of nowhere? Saying the wrong thing at the wrong moment to the wrong person has cost people their careers, marriages and reputations. And the sad fact is that our words reveal what we really think deep down inside. They’re a reflection of our heart.
Not only can our poison tongues inflict damage at any time, the damage can take several different forms. Whether it’s through gossip, lying, sarcasm, cursing or taking God’s name in vain, we don’t lack for words we wish we could take back.
Back in World War II, the U.S. Government printed posters with the headline, “Loose Lips Sink Ships.” The message was that spies can pick up careless—although seemingly innocent—gossip about Allied troop movements, ship launches and other secret information. And when such information reaches the enemy’s ears, the result is often carnage, death and destruction. Likewise, all Christ-followers must watch their tongues to avoid causing needless, irreparable damage to relationships and reputations. Our words should instead lift up rather than put down. The Apostle Paul put it this way:
“When you talk, do not say harmful things, but say what people need—words that will help others become stronger. Then what you say will do good to those who listen to you.”