Wildfire!

So the tongue also is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how much wood is kindled by how small a fire! And the tongue is a fire: the world of iniquity among our members is the tongue, which defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the wheel of nature, and is set on fire by hell (James 3:5-6).

Those who live in the eastern part of North America can be forgiven for wondering why wildfire might be a great concern; most of the time the east is green and lush. In the West, however, wildfire is an almost ever-present danger. The land is frequently dry. It does not take much to start a wildfire that burns tens of thousands of acres: an unattended campfire. A car accident. Lightning. Wildfires are very dangerous indeed!

James, the brother of the Lord, understood the power of fire and how a great conflagration could start with a small catalyst. Parts of the Levant are not unlike the American West in that way. He speaks of fire in order to help his beloved fellow Christians to understand the great danger behind another element which can start great conflagrations with the smallest of catalysts: the human tongue.

James had begun by warning Christians about not having too many become teachers on account of the stricter judgment teachers will face (James 3:1); he continued by pointing out that the one who does not stumble in word is able to control the body (James 3:2). He explored that illustration further, speaking of how horses are controlled by a small bridle in the mouth, and also introduced the notion of how a large ship is directed by a small rudder (James 3:3-4). He then speaks of the power of the tongue despite its small size (James 3:5-6); he would go on to recognize that while humans have tamed all animals the tongue cannot be tamed, and pointed out that we bless God and curse man with the same mouth, and that such things should not be (James 3:7-12). James therefore has a strong concern with the dangers that come from the use of the tongue.

James does not mince words about the dangers involved. The tongue is small, but boasts greatly. Of all the members of the body it is the tongue that can defile the whole, can set the world on fire, as it itself is set on fire by hell; such is the only use of Gehenna outside of Jesus’ use of the term in the Gospels.

We today know all too well about the dangers of the tongue. We have seen many people whose lives and careers were ruined because of an ill-timed remark or the wide sharing of a thoughtless remark. One is reminded of the story of Justine Sacco, who before departing for Africa made a foolish joke regarding not getting AIDS in Africa because she was white on Twitter. During the flight her tweet was shared many times; when she landed she was informed of the outrage her tweet had instigated and that she had been fired. The Internet proved merciless to Ms. Sacco; people would be foolish for judging her and her character based only on one decontextualized statement. Nevertheless, her example illustrates just how important it is for us to give consideration to what we say.

The danger of the tongue comes from many different sources. It may be, as in the case above, with a poor joke that may reveal more about our thought processes than we would like to admit. It may be the insult or cutting remark uttered in anger; you can claim that you did not really mean it, and ask for forgiveness, and even receive it, but the scars from those words will always remain. It may be gossip spoken and spread, ultimately reaching its subject. As they begin the words may seem very small and insignificant, and perhaps on their own they would be. And yet such messages can take a life of their own; ask any politician whose not well thought out comment would ultimately dog him throughout the campaign and cost him the election.

We do well to recognize how our tongues are always a potential wildfire within us. There are some times and certain contexts in which a foolish or thoughtless word may not cause too much difficulty or distress, as a spark that falls after a wet period in the forest. On the other hand, there are plenty of times and situations in which the ground is dry and the plants desiccated, ready to burn long and hot with only the smallest of sparks; the wrong word in the wrong situation and your life as you know it can be destroyed, your soul in danger of hellfire, and you are left wishing you could just take those words back.

Unfortunately, you can never take back your words. But you and I and all of us in Christ can resolve to not say them in the first place. In many ways wildfire control is dependent on humans using fire properly, and the same goes with our tongues. We must use the tongue to glorify God and bless man made in His image. We must give thought to how we speak for and about others so as to build up and not gossip, slander, or tear down. Foolish jesting is not worth our reputation and standing. May we all seek to control the wildfire in our mouths and seek to restrain our tongues!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Terror on Every Side

Go not forth into the field, nor walk by the way; for the sword of the enemy, and terror, are on every side (Jeremiah 6:25).

God has given Jeremiah a tall order: to proclaim a warning of imminent danger and doom to a people presently enjoying safety and security. It is not going well.

In order to awaken Judah from its spiritual stupor God, through Jeremiah, warns the people of the army which will come from the north–Babylon–and the devastation and destruction which will come upon them (Jeremiah 6:22-30). As part of that message, Jeremiah assumes the voice of people in the midst of that terrible trial, warning everyone to not go into the field or on the road since the sword of the enemy and terror are on every side (Jeremiah 6:25). Jeremiah is emphasizing the great danger in which the people of Judah will find themselves on that great and terrible day: they will look for safety, as they had while Jeremiah spoke, but will not find it. They will seek refuge and shelter and only find pestilence, the sword, or exile. The illusion of safety would be forever shattered.

People seek after safety, security, and refuge. If people find danger on one side, it is easy to come to the belief that the other side will be less dangerous. But what if we, as Judah, are beset by “terrors on every side”?

The New Testament speaks of the spiritual forces of darkness which are arrayed against us (Ephesians 6:12) and warns us regarding those who teach falsely, having been seduced by deceptive spirits and demonic doctrines (1 Timothy 4:1). When we encounter such doctrines and practices and recognize their danger we are often tempted to run to the other side to seek refuge and safety against those errors. Yet such a viewpoint presumes that we always can establish the truth by contrasting it with its opposite. Yet what if there are just as many seductive spirits and demonic doctrines on the “other side” as on the side on which we have seen the danger? What if the doctrines of demons and seductive spirits are all around us and therefore represent terrors on every side?

The Bible is clear where our true safety and security is found: in Christ and in the faith given once for all in His name (Romans 8:1-39, 2 Corinthians 10:3-6, 2 Timothy 3:15-17, Jude 1:3). Jesus has overcome the forces of darkness through His death and resurrection and guards us through our faith until the final day (Colossians 2:15, 1 Peter 1:3-9).

We should not imagine that Jesus stands on the extreme of one side and opposes the other in terms of many of the doctrinal and practical disputations in Christianity; more often than not the extremes have both gone too far and have fallen prey to the opposite deceitful spirit and demonic doctrine than the one they are opposing. Instead we do well to consider that Jesus and the faith in His name are beset by these “terrors on every side,” false doctrines going to opposing extremes, each taking some aspect of the truth in Christ yet distorting it well beyond anything which Jesus and the Apostles intended. We cannot remain in Christ and His truth by simply reacting to one set of errors; we remain in Christ and His truth when we are rooted in Christ and circumspect about all doctrine, as concerned about our flank as we are about our advance, so to speak (Colossians 2:1-10).

To find dangers on every side is disconcerting, yet it represents the spiritual reality in which we live. The spiritual forces of darkness are pervasive, powerful, deceptive, and very good at leading people away from Jesus and the faith in His name. By our own strength or ability we would never be able to stand; that is why we must always seek to be rooted in Jesus, ever seeking to understand what He has revealed as true and remain rooted in Him, not merely reacting to one extreme by going to another. Let us remain in Christ and obtain the victory over the terrors on every side!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Following Afar Off

And they seized [Jesus], and led him away, and brought him into the high priest’s house. But Peter followed afar off (Luke 22:54).

The night’s confused events were taking place rapidly.

They had all spent the night eating the Passover with Jesus, and they all knew that the time was near. Jesus had indicated that He would not drink the fruit of the vine again until the Kingdom had come (Luke 22:18). He had served His disciples and instructed them in many things regarding His imminent departure (John 13-17).

And then, in the garden, Judas had come with the band of soldiers. Peter felt that this was the time to act, and he cut off Malchus’ ear (cf. Luke 22:47-51, John 18:10-11). Jesus censured him for the move, and healed Malchus. All of the disciples then turned and fled while Jesus was led away (Matthew 26:56).

Soon after, Peter remembered exactly what he had told Jesus and what Jesus had said. Peter said that he would go with Jesus both to prison and to death (Luke 22:33). He could not abandon his Master now, and so he followed from afar.

The pieces were then in place. Peter sat with others and warmed himself by the fire (Luke 22:55). It was in this setting that his courage failed him. He had three opportunities to confess Jesus, and he denied Him three times (Luke 22:56-60). Then Jesus turned and looked at him (Luke 22:61). We can only imagine how Peter felt at that moment!

Thus Peter betrayed Jesus. It was really classic Peter, exhibiting the same type of initial brashness and then wavering as seen when he walked on the water and then began to sink (cf. Matthew 14:28-31). Peter as a man of little faith was exposed again.

That exposure was unnecessary as we can see. The disciples had fled, and Peter could have continued to flee. He could have waited out this tempestuous time away from the danger and would not have had the opportunity to deny Jesus. Yet Peter, as impetuous as always, followed Jesus into the danger zone, and, as usual, failed.

But would Jesus have really wanted Peter to flee and not experience the testing of faith? That is a much more difficult question. As much as Peter’s denials must have pierced Jesus’ soul, Peter was at least willing to suffer the danger of being near Him. The abandonment was not entirely complete, as it certainly was for some of the other disciples.

After Pentecost the day would come when Peter would again step forth into the danger zone, but this time he would not fail– he boldly stood before the Sanhedrin and confessed Jesus as the Risen Christ (Acts 4:1-23). Peter would be the one to stand and preach the first Gospel message to Jews (Acts 2:14-36) and Gentiles (Acts 10:1-48), and, according to tradition, follow his Lord and Master to death by crucifixion (John 21:18). All of this was because Peter was not one to flee but to be willing to, if nothing else, at least follow afar off.

There are many times in our lives when confused events take place rapidly. Times of distress and difficulty come upon us; many times we do not expect them. When our faith is tested, and we feel as if we are going to be bereft of our Lord, how will we respond? Will we be as many of the disciples and run away, attempting to avoid all the possible dangers? There is a time and place for that, assuredly, but not always. Or will we be like Peter, willing to follow even if it is afar off, willing to risk our livelihoods and our lives to follow Jesus?

Perhaps we will find ourselves in that kind of situation and we fail like Peter failed. We should then “turn again” and “strengthen our brethren” (cf. Luke 22:32), repenting and seeking to do better. Or maybe we will succeed and stand firm, proclaiming through our word and deed in distress and difficulty that we are servants of Jesus Christ. Then God receives the glory (cf. 1 Peter 4:11).

We have no reason to believe that Peter the Apostle could have been the force for good for the Kingdom that he turned out to be had he not been Simon the disciple who was willing to follow and yet failed. Likewise, we will never be the disciples of Jesus Christ we can be, and we will not be able to be the force for good for the Kingdom that we should be, if we never take the risk of following Jesus in difficult, distressing times. We might very well stumble and perhaps even fail; the flesh is weak even when the spirit is willing. We can learn from our failures and move on. And perhaps we will succeed and God will be glorified and it will be evident how wise it was to follow and not flee. But that day will never come if we always flee, never taking the risk, never being exposed to the danger.

What kind of disciples of Christ are we? Let us seek to follow Jesus, even when the times are difficult, even when the danger is evident, take the risk, and stand firm for Him and His Kingdom!

Ethan R. Longhenry