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

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

Encouraging Words

Heaviness in the heart of a man maketh it stoop; but a good word maketh it glad (Proverbs 12:25).

Contrary to the feelings of many, no man is an island. No man (or woman) is entirely impervious to their environment or their circumstances.

We all go through times in life when our hearts are heavy. The reasons for heavy hearts are legion. Loved ones may hurt us or betray us, or we invest a lot of our emotional time and energy in their distress. They may pass away. We may be hurt by the words or actions of people around us. We may lose a job, develop a debilitating illness, or be in the midst of a very stressful period in life. Many times we allow the influences of the outside world and its continual panic to get us down.

Whatever the reason the distress is quite real. It is not as easy to live with a heavy heart as otherwise (cf. Proverbs 18:14). There is less motivation to engage in the simple functions of life, let alone anything else. It is hard to concentrate. It is hard to be civil and put on a false face in front of others. And it is especially difficult to “keep the faith” and believe that better times are ahead.

There is a natural tendency, in such circumstances, to retreat. It seems easier to not feel at all than to feel distress.

But the “unfelt life” is not really life at all. We all enjoy the highs/peaks of life. If there are highs/peaks, there must, at some point, be lows/valleys. We all experience them; we all have to live through them.

Yet there is something that makes it all just a little more tolerable, and that is a “good word.” Can we all not think of times when we were in distress (or perhaps just stress) and someone took out the time to encourage us and to build us up? Have we all not had experiences where we were laid low but the strengthening words of another lifted us up?

Words of affirmation and encouragement always have value. Little wonder, then, that God commands believers through the Apostles and others to encourage one another (1 Corinthians 14:23, Hebrews 10:25, Jude 1:20). Words of encourage sustain and uplift in times of distress and trouble. They reinforce us in the good times. There is no circumstance in which truly encouraging words cannot provide some benefit!

But for there to be good words there must be people who understand their value and are willing to freely provide them. Encouraging people are always in the minority; there is a superabundance of critics, cynics, and pessimists. Nevertheless, we all know the superior value of having a “Barnabas” in our life than the pessimists and cynics (cf. Acts 4:36-37). If we understand the value of having a “Barnabas” in our lives, how much more should we then strive to be the “Barnabas” for our fellow man!

There are few things that we can do that have a more lasting impression on others than to be there for them in times of distress with good words of encouragement, affirmation, and strength. Let us be a “Barnabas” and speak good words to all!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Jephthah’s Vow

And Jephthah vowed a vow unto the LORD, and said, “If thou wilt indeed deliver the children of Ammon into my hand, then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth from the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, it shall be the LORD’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt-offering” (Judges 11:30-31).

The vow certainly seemed to be a good idea at the time.

The Israelites were suffering under the oppression of the Ammonites. Jephthah was certainly not the first choice– the son of a prostitute (Judges 11:1), and now a gang leader (Judges 11:3)– but he’s the one that the Gileadites beg to help them defeat Ammon. If he is victorious, he will rule over Gilead. If he is defeated, he will bear ignominy and shame if not death! Thus he makes his vow, in all seriousness, to God. If he is granted victory, whatever comes out to greet him will become a burnt offering to God– a princely sacrifice indeed!

Yet Jephthah’s vow is a tragic one. He was, no doubt, expecting an ox, a sheep, or a goat to meet him first. The LORD grants him a mighty victory (Judges 11:32-33). But, as Jephthah comes home, his daughter– his only child– comes out to meet him (Judges 11:34). The text then indicates that she mourns for her virginity for two months and that Jephthah then “did with her according to his vow which he had vowed” (Judges 11:35-39). He had paid his vow. He offered up his daughter as a burnt offering.

People today recoil at this story. How gruesome! How terrible! Many wish to soften the story by declaring that Jephthah really didn’t sacrifice her, pointing out that God condemned human sacrifice, and saying that she was just left a virgin. While it is true that God does not demand human sacrifice and would not have commanded Jephthah to offer such a sacrifice, the text is pretty clear. It doesn’t make a lot of sense for his daughter to mourn her virginity for two months if she will be mourning it the rest of her life beyond that. And the text does say that he did to her according to his vow– and his vow was to offer up whatever met him as a burnt offering. The Judges author is describing the events that took place in the days of the Judges– he’s not necessarily condoning them.

Nevertheless, we rightly recoil at the horror of this story. The tragedy is that it was all very avoidable. The problem was not with Jephthah making a vow, or the victory the LORD gave him, or with his daughter coming to meet him. The problem was with the specific vow that Jephthah made. He was operating under a certain set of assumptions and did not factor other circumstances into those assumptions. Had the thought crossed his mind that it would be his only child that would come to meet him first, he would never have made that vow the way that he did!

Jephthah’s vow should be a great reminder for us about the power of words. As it is written,

Death and life are in the power of the tongue; And they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof (Proverbs 18:21).

And I say unto you, that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned (Matthew 12:36-37).

We have all, at some point or another, spoken casually, not really thinking about the whole range of consequences of what we have said. We may feel blindsided when the unintended consequences of our words come back to us and we realize that we have “put our foot in our mouths,” so to speak. Hopefully our words will not cause the same type of devastation as Jephthah’s did– but we will be called into account for everything we say.

Vows to God were serious business, serious enough that Jephthah considered it worse to break his vow than to offer his daughter as a burnt offering. Words, despite how easily they may flow off our tongue, are serious business, and life and death may even hang in the balance. Let us learn from the tragic story of Jephthah and his daughter, and be circumspect about how we speak!

Ethan R. Longhenry