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

Wildfire!

Killing, Hostility, and Degradation

“Ye have heard that it was said to them of old time, ‘Thou shalt not kill’; and ‘whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment’:
but I say unto you, that every one who is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgment; and whosoever shall say to his brother, ‘Raca,’ shall be in danger of the council; and whosoever shall say, ‘Thou fool’, shall be in danger of the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:21-22).

This was quite an astonishing way of saying things.

For generations teachers of the Law of Moses would not presume the authority to make their own naked declarations: whatever they would say would involve references to the Law and/or to noted rabbis. Yet here Jesus makes a break with tradition and begins a series of statements comparing and contrasting “what was said” with what “I say unto you” (Matthew 5:21-48). The multitudes proved suitably astonished: they marveled at how He taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes (Matthew 7:28-29).

He begins this extraordinary series of declarations with a well-known commandment: thou shalt not kill (Exodus 20:13, Matthew 5:21). “Whosoever shall kill will be in danger of the judgment” is not explicitly found in that word-for-word form in the Law but its sentiment is a proper conclusion of passages like Exodus 21:12-14, Leviticus 24:21, Numbers 35:16-21, 30-34, and Deuteronomy 16:18. What the Law teaches is rooted in Genesis 9:5-6: murdering another human being is wrong and sinful. Since God created all humans, and is no respecter of persons, all humans have value in God’s sight (cf. Genesis 1:26-27, Romans 2:11): therefore, a man taking the life of another man can never be a trivial matter. Such cases had to be adjudicated and done with the greatest care: justice needed to be done for the one who died, but the severity of the consequence, the death of the one who killed the man, was so serious that it merited a thorough trial. Furthermore, the Law made provision for intention: one who was guilty of what we would call involuntary manslaughter was not to be treated the same way as one who was guilty of first-degree murder (cf. Numbers 35:9-34). While mercy was called for in cases of involuntary manslaughter, there was to be no mercy in cases of first-degree murder: life for a life, blood for blood, was demanded, otherwise the integrity of life would be besmirched.

Jesus has no quarrel with the law regarding murder, the trial process for murder, or the consequences for murder. He in no way is attempting to minimize the need for justice to be done in cases of murder; while murderers, as the rest of us, can receive forgiveness for their sins, they still will have to suffer the civic consequences for their behavior. Jesus is in no way attempting to abrogate or minimize this law; He instead goes further with His warning.

Jesus focuses in directly on the “first-degree” part of “first-degree murder”: murder as an intentional, premeditated act. What motivates anyone to attempt to kill another human made in the image of God? Such an act is never motivated by love or based upon an application of the “Golden Rule.” Every first-degree murder is first committed in the mind, and it can only first be committed in the mind when there is some sort of hostility or enmity which is fostered and cultivated within the mind. This is Jesus’ focus in His “but I say unto you” declaration.

Jesus speaks in absolute terms: everyone who is angry with his brother is in danger of the judgment just as if he had murdered him; the one who says, “Raca,” meaning “empty” or perhaps colloquially “airhead,” is in danger of being brought before the council, or Sanhedrin, and the one who calls his brother a fool is in danger of Gehenna, God’s trash pit. These are very serious warnings and demand the listener’s attention!

There is an understandable desire to temper what Jesus says: He Himself will call the Pharisees and scribes fools in Matthew 23:17, and Paul will tell Christians to be angry and sin not in Ephesians 4:26. Yet we do well to also consider how John considers one who hates his brother as a murderer in 1 John 3:14-15.

The core message of Jesus’ instruction is clear enough: murder is the result of a process, and the process therefore is as dangerous, sinful, and wrong as its result. Murder is the result of everything from anger to insult and, as John will show as perhaps worst of all, indifference, having no concern about the fate of others (hate being understood as lack of active love, or loving less, as is often in the New Testament; so Luke 14:26). Yes, one can be angry with another person without killing them, but one cannot kill another person without having some sort of anger at them. Yes, it is possible to despise or be indifferent to the existence of another human being without murdering them, but murder is often motivated by a careless disregard and contempt for the life of the one killed. These attitudes and thought patterns can lead to the deed, and even when they do not lead to the deed, are still unprofitable, unproductive, and quite toxic to God’s real intent. God is not merely interested in having us not kill each other: He wants us to affirm the value of each person as another made in the image of God and therefore of inestimable value. If we are angry with another human, or show disregard, contempt, or indifference toward another human, we are not honoring him or her as fellow children of God, and thus find ourselves in danger of judgment and condemnation. The works of the flesh are indifferent to, callous of, or even abusive of other people; the fruit of the Spirit cannot help but dignify and honor others as fellow children of God (Galatians 5:17-24).

Jesus therefore uses the ultimate negative in order to point His followers to the ultimate positive: murder is such a big deal because of the surpassing value of human life, and therefore God’s people must think, feel, and do all things in order to maintain the honor, value, and dignity of human life. Such honor, value, and dignity goes well beyond just avoiding ending the lives of others; by necessity it must continue to affirm their value and dignity, and thus our thoughts, feelings, and actions should always express that value and dignity. Anger and its subsequent hostility as well as insult and its subsequent degradation are incompatible with the honor and dignity inherent in the value of life. Jesus makes it clear that it is not enough to just not kill; we must also show love, and to show love demands that we honor and dignify our fellow humans and do all things toward that end. Therefore, let us seek the best interest of others, not only not killing them but also not allowing anger to fester into hostility and resentment, or to act presumptuously and insult and degrade them, and thus honor and glorify God who dignified them with life as He has us!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Killing, Hostility, and Degradation

Man’s Anger and God’s Righteousness

For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God (James 1:20).

Anger is a primal and basic emotional reaction of mankind. It is one of the hardest to control and often causes the most emotional– and sometimes physical– damage.

A lot of people get caught up in their anger. They let it fester and grow, and many times, they end up consumed by it. Their anger becomes their master and they serve its dictates. It is always tragic to see people who have allowed their anger to destroy their lives both physically and emotionally. Many times, those against whom the anger is directed have little idea regarding what is going on.

Unfortunately, other times people act upon their anger. Not a few crimes have taken place on account of people acting in anger. Families are greatly pained by outbursts of anger. Children many times live in fear of their parent or relative because of anger.

We can be angry without sinning if we do not allow the sun to go down upon it and we seek to calmly resolve the matter (Ephesians 4:26). In all things, we must show love, humility, self-control, and patience (cf. Galatians 5:22-24).

Sometimes, however, people convince themselves that they have a righteous reason to be angry. They see sin so prevalently displayed among them, and they get very angry. They justify their anger by claiming that since God is angry about sin, they can be angry about what is going on around them, also.

Yet we must remember James’ exhortation. God’s righteous indignation is just, loving, and merciful– matters of judgment are to be left to Him (James 4:11-12). Our anger– no matter how “justified” or “properly directed”– can never accomplish God’s righteousness. It is too prone to sinful excess. It too easily becomes our master, and we its slave. It is not the way of Christ!

The way that men can accomplish God’s righteousness is to show love, mercy, and compassion despite sin, just as God showed us love, mercy, and compassion despite our sin (Titus 3:3-8). After all, what if God poured out His righteous indignation upon us while we were in sin? Let us not begrudge God’s kindness and patience (Romans 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9)– without it, we would never have a chance!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Man’s Anger and God’s Righteousness