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

Two or Three Witnesses

At the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is to die be put to death; at the mouth of one witness he shall not be put to death (Deuteronomy 17:6).

God exhibits concern for fairness and justice as He provides legislation for Israel through Moses. Many of the laws involve serious matters with life-or-death consequences for the defendant. In Deuteronomy 17:2-5, Moses provides a case law regarding anyone who is found guilty of having committed idolatry and served other gods. Such people are to be put to death. But there is one caveat given: there must be at least two or three witnesses. One witness is not sufficient to establish guilt and thus execution. Furthermore, even if there are at least two witnesses, the witnesses must be the first one to throw the stones of execution (Deuteronomy 17:7). All of this serves to underlie the seriousness of not just capital offenses but also any accusations thereof.

This is wise policy. It might be tempting for one person to bear false witness against his neighbor in order to gain some advantage, exact revenge, or on account of some other nefarious purpose. It is not foolproof; situations could be imagined in which two or more people decide to conspire against someone and bear false witness, as some of the Jewish people themselves imagined in the apocryphal story of Daniel and Susanna. Nevertheless, in such circumstances, their stories could be proven as inconsistent to their own detriment (as the aforementioned story attempted to make clear).

Yet it also protects the defendant even in cases where a person gives testimony honestly but not according to reality. Human memory is not like a video camera accurately capturing every moment and then perfectly archiving the information for later use; our memories can change slightly, especially if prompted by suggestion. One person could see something, honestly believe the person was committing a capital crime, but be mistaken. That is far less likely to be true if two or more people saw the same offense.

There is also value in having the witnesses be the ones to begin the execution. It is one thing to make accusations and let others do the “dirty work”; it is quite another to have to take the stone in your hand yourself and throw it at the accused. This is especially true when everyone knows everyone, as was likely the case in most Israelite villages and towns. This was a serious matter: it required strong commitment to the principles God set forth in the Law, but it also required absolute certainty of the guilt of the accused.

This is not a principle abandoned after the end of the Law. Bringing two or three witnesses is the second phase of the attempt to reconcile with a brother who has sinned (cf. Matthew 18:15-17). Paul warned the Corinthians of the matter in 2 Corinthians 13:1; he exhorts Timothy to not hear any accusation against an elder of the church except if there be two or three witnesses in 1 Timothy 5:19. Serious matters require validation by more than one witness!

The principle is not just valid in terms of legal matters and capital offenses: it is a good principle by which to live our lives. Accusations should require validation from more than one source.

We humans have a habit of playing “judge, jury, and executioner” with others. We are tempted to confuse our subjective perceptions with objective reality. It is easy for us to be sure that someone else acts in uncharitable ways, does not like us, does things to injure us, and so on and so forth. Perhaps there are times when such persons actually do harbor ill-will, but many times it is just a matter of mistaken impressions or misunderstandings of intention. But the feelings of jealousy, envy, and hostility engendered by these judgments prove toxic to marriages, friendships, business partnerships, family relationships, etc.

At such times we must remind ourselves how we judge ourselves by our intentions but others by their actual performance, or, as Jesus put it, we see everyone else’s specks in their eye while missing the log in our own (cf. Matthew 7:3-5). There is a reason why people with logs in their eyes are not trusted to provide reliable testimony on the witness stand! It proves too easy to project all sorts of negative motivations and intentions on others when it is quite possible and perhaps likely that no ill will was intended. Just because we feel wronged does not mean that we actually have been wronged; just because we feel as if the other person is not well disposed toward us does not make it so.

Far too often too many people make too much out of quite a little. We do well to consider the wise standard of having two or three witnesses in regards to serious matters, and not be so quick to malign and judge others on the basis of our subjective perceptions. Let us wisely give others the benefit of the doubt, establishing all things by the mouth of two or three witnesses!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Ninth Commandment

Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor (Exodus 20:16).

It is something we have all done as children– “passing the buck.”

We have done something, and the parental authorities have learned about it. When we are confronted about it, we try to find someone else to blame.

If we have siblings, the brother or sister did it.

If we do not have siblings, but have pets, then the pet did it.

If we do not have siblings or pets, then no one did it. It must have happened on its own!

Thus begins a challenge that humans will face their entire lives– the dilemma regarding whether we will speak the truth when confronted with difficult circumstances. Will we stand up and say what is right, or will we say a lie in order to shift blame or to gain some other advantage? Will we speak what is really truth, or will we seek to distort truth for our own purposes?

This challenge is not new, and it was one that was going to beset Israel. Therefore, when it came to interpersonal relationships, God dictated the ninth commandment to Israel: you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

God is not really worried about those circumstances under which telling the truth is to your advantage, or in circumstances under which telling the truth is to the advantage of both you and your neighbor. At those times most everyone will tell the truth. But what happens if the truth is to your neighbor’s advantage but not your own?

We can think of a lot of circumstances where that might be the case. Perhaps it is a situation akin to Ahab and Naboth, where Ahab was able to gain Naboth’s vineyard because people were induced to testify falsely against Naboth (cf. 1 Kings 21:1-16). Or perhaps, like Potiphar’s wife with Joseph, you have been caught in a compromising position, and it was easier to blame the other person than confess the truth (cf. Genesis 39:6-20). We could think of many other circumstances.

All such examples and circumstances have a similar theme: it seems more “cost-effective” to lie or stretch the truth than to actually tell the truth, and therefore, even though it may cause great harm to our neighbor, we tell the lie in order to gain or keep our advantage. In such circumstances we are guilty of bearing false witness against our neighbor.

“Bearing false witness” sounds like legal terminology, and the commandment certainly applies to that type of setting. Nevertheless, there is more to the commandment than just what happens in the legal system. We testify about others far more in the “courts” of our family, friend group, work, school, and church than we ever do in a court of law. The commandment continues to apply!

When it comes to our neighbor, Israel was to tell the truth– and so are we (Ephesians 4:25)! In order to do so we must put away slander, malicious talk, lying, distortions, and all such things (cf. Ephesians 4:31-32). We are to tell the truth to our fellow man and about our fellow man, even if it means that we must take the blame for our own failures and even if it works to our disadvantage.

The command to not bear false witness is rightly understood in terms of the command to love our neighbor as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18, Romans 13:8-9). As Paul says, love does no wrong to a neighbor, and lies and slander certainly accomplish wrong and evil! Furthermore, we can truly understand why it is so important to not bear false witness when we consider that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves.

When you were a child, were you ever blamed for doing something that you really did not do? Did you have a situation when your brother, sister, friend, or enemy bore false witness against you and you had to suffer the consequences? I am sure that such felt quite wrong, unfair, and inappropriate. And, indeed, it was wrong, unfair, and inappropriate!

If we understood as children that it felt wrong to be blamed for something we did not do, then we can understand as adults that just as we are wronged, hurt, and suffer pain when others bear false witness against us, thus we do to others if we are doing the same. Would we want others bearing false witness against us? Of course not! Therefore, why would we do that to others? Bearing false witness is entirely contrary to God’s purposes by which we are to show love, mercy, and compassion toward one another (Romans 13:8-9, Ephesians 4:31-32)!

A word should be added about distortion of the truth. We live in a time when many people are more than willing to promote a particular way of looking at things in order to gain some advantage, be it political, economic, or otherwise. When this happens, the truth is distorted, altered and adapted in order to fit the narrative that is being peddled.

Distorting truth is no better than lying; to intentionally distort the facts, or to promote material that distorts the truth, is a way of bearing false witness, particularly when it is done in order to lead to disadvantages to a particular person or group of people. While it may be true that we are entitled to our own opinions, we are not entitled to our own version of truth. We are to speak truth even when the truth may not fit the way we want to see things. We are to speak truth even if it is not to the advantage of our particular political or economic philosophies. And, above all, we must always speak truth when we speak about God in Christ, never distorting the pure Gospel message in order to obtain some worldly advantage (Galatians 1:6-9, 1 Timothy 6:3-10)! Woe to us if we are found to have borne false witness against God Most High!

It is a lesson we are taught from a young age, and while it might seem to be optional in many aspects of life, it should not be: we must always tell the truth, even if it gets us into trouble. Lying, shifting blame, or distorting the truth so that we may gain advantage and cause others to be disadvantaged is entirely contrary to the character of God– He, after all, suffered great disadvantage for our benefit by giving of His Son for our reconciliation (Romans 5:6-11). Therefore, let us rather be wronged than to wrong, and to seek to speak truth to one another, about one another, and concerning all men!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Speaking and Hearing Evil

Also take not heed unto all words that are spoken, lest thou hear thy servant curse thee; for oftentimes also thine own heart knoweth that thou thyself likewise hast cursed others (Ecclesiastes 7:21-22).

There is an ill that we have all experienced, that gets all of us flustered, and yet we have all done to others. That ill is speaking evil or cursing another.

There are all kinds of reasons for it happening. We offend people, intentionally or unintentionally, and mouths begin talking. We may be trying to help– or trying to hurt. Perhaps we have not done as well as we could at living the life we are trying to live. Unfortunately, some of the times when we are living the life we are trying to live, the mouths keep talking.

We all know that we should not– we should speak words that build up and encourage, and we should not be bitter in our words (Ephesians 4:25, 29, 31). But we are human– and we all are more free with our tongues than we should be (James 3:1-10).

The Preacher knows all of these things. And yet his counsel seems strange to us– do not listen to all of the words that are spoken (Ecclesiastes 7:21). Normally we hear exhortations to listen (James 1:19)– and we all know that even though we have two ears and but one mouth, the mouth tends to dominate over the ears. We tend to be better at talking than listening, so why should we not listen?

The reason for not listening also seems strange. We should not listen lest we hear “[our] servant cursing [us].” Granted, the Preacher is writing at a time when society was more stratified than it is now, and many people had servants. As a master, to hear your servant curse you would be one of the greatest insults and indignities.

But wait a second. If people are talking about us, shouldn’t we want to know about it? Wouldn’t we want to listen even more if such things take place?

Well, certainly, we want to know. But is it good to know? Is it good to consider how others have cursed us, regardless of their social standing?

The Preacher encourages us to consider ourselves as we answer. Have we not, at times, cursed others, if not by word, in our hearts? What would happen if they all knew what we had felt and/or said? How would we want them to respond?

We should not imagine that the Preacher is excusing anyone when they curse others. He is considering the way things are, not necessarily the way things should be. We do well, therefore, to truly heed the Preacher’s advice. It is counter-intuitive to not take heed to curses that are leveled against us. It is much easier to dwell on them and allow bitterness and/or resentment to grow.

Yet we must take stock. We are no better than others; others are not really better than us. We would never want others to hold our cursings, internal or external, against us. We do best, therefore, when we show such grace to others, recognizing our own failures!

We are given a choice in life– we can either bear the burden of every negative word we hear about ourselves, or we can decide to not give them any heed. The former leads to anxiety, anguish, and constant feeling of betrayal; the latter, despite being the harder road, allows us to live in some measure of peace with our fellow man.

We should not be so simplistic as to think that we are never the subject of evil thoughts or cursing, just as we cannot deny that we have had such thoughts ourselves. Let us keep the “Golden Rule” in mind (Luke 6:31), and not take heed to every word spoken about us!

Ethan R. Longhenry