The Tinderbox Tongue
September 02, 2012
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.
So also the tongue is a small body part, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.
I’ve always had a lot of respect for fire.
Some people might actually say that I’m sort of a chicken about it. Lighting even the sturdiest kitchen match makes me kind of nervous, and it’s almost an exercise in futility to give me cardboard matches—I can barely bring myself to draw a spark from the flint strip on the matchbook.
The closest I ever came to playing with fire was at age six. In a moment that was radiant with poor judgment and morbid curiosity, I stuck a bobby pin in an electrical outlet. Sparks flew. I screamed. My grandfather came running and found me pressed against the laundry hamper, mouth hanging open, staring at a smoking and now nonfunctional outlet.
Since that formative, and thankfully nonfatal, incident, I just avoid the dangers involved with flame whenever possible. Don’t get me wrong—a fire in the fireplace is one of the great pleasures of winter, and there’s nothing quite as beautiful as a wedding conducted by candlelight. And I love the smell of candles that have just been snuffed out—that and floor wax smell like church to me. I don’t fear fire because it lacks beauty or benefit; I fear it because its beauty is so deadly. Perhaps no blessing of this physical world is as destructive as fire. We’ve seen that in the past few weeks, with the wildfires in Oklahoma and other states, with the mass shootings in Colorado and Wisconsin (guns use fire, too).
Most adults consider it the better part of wisdom not to toy with fire. Use it wisely, yes. Mess around with it, no. Ask any barbeque expert: he or she will tell you that the two most important rules of grilling are to respect the meat, and respect the fire.
Now, we humans have the power of speech, of communication. The vast majority of people on this planet master at least one language during their lifetime, the language of their birth. Many people master two or more. And because we exist in community, we use our power of speech constantly. We use it for an infinite variety of purposes and with a million different motives, noble and not so noble. We can turn our speaking to the best of ends or the worst; we can kindle love or inflame hate. (The closer we get to elections every year, the more clearly we hear that, from every political and social direction.) The words we choose and the intentions we bring to our speech make the difference between building the body of Christ—working toward the heavenly kingdom—or shrinking the possibilities of life down to the size of our own private hells.
And so, when we speak, we really do play with fire.
Our reading this morning pulls no punches about the pitfalls involved with speech. “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect.” Hmph. It seems unlikely that any of us will achieve that particular standard. James wasn’t particularly optimistic about the human capacity for communication in general. “The tongue is a fire,” he wrote. “It is placed among our body parts as a world of iniquity.” James isn’t the only one. Many centuries earlier, the prophet Isaiah made it clear that he wasn’t terribly impressed with humans’ ability to be communicated with. He said, “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may sustain the weary with a word” (Isaiah 50:4). Well, maybe so, but his students weren’t particularly receptive to his prophecies. I’m guessing anybody who’s ever taught a classroom full of distracted students can relate.
So this passage from James is a little unnerving. On the face of it, he claims that the tongue is a purely sinful part of our bodies—that no good is likely to come of it. In verse 6, he says, “It stains the whole body,” it “sets on fire the cycle of nature” (meaning it destroys the course of our lives), it “is itself set on fire by hell.” Worst of all, it is untamable.
Apparently, we have no way out of this mess. We are stuck with an unredeemable and renegade body part that has destructive power far out of proportion to its size. This is all the more obvious in our mediafrenzied twenty-first century, because now we have not only TV, radio, and the telephone, but also Twitter, Facebook, email, FourSquare, Google+, and even Pinterest to work with, for good or for ill. I think, too, of the epidemic of in-person and now online bullying that’s affected so many kids.
So what do we do? Where’s the good news here?
James’s comparison of the tongue to fire is apt, if pessimistic. Words, like fire, do have enormous power to hurt. But something in this passage hints to us that the tongue is not, in fact, as completely perverse as James appears to be saying it is. He claims that the tongue is “a restless evil, full of deadly poison,” (verse 8) but he also says that the tongue is capable of “blessing the Lord and Father” (verse 9). The tongue can both curse and bless. So the tongue is “a world of iniquity,” a kosmos of unrighteousness. Undoubtedly so—but if the tongue can bless as well as curse, then I believe we are to understand that speech’s great power for destruction is matched by its power for the work of creation and redemption. Our speech can destroy, can do the devil’s work, or it can do the work of grace. It can break down the body of the community, or it can build it up.
Throughout the Bible, fire is used to describe both good and bad things. There are the fires of Gehenna, of hell. There is the fire we read of in Revelation.
But there’s also the fire we read about in Genesis 15, when God makes his covenant with Abram. And don’t forget the pillar of fire that God used to lead the Israelites through the wilderness (Exodus 13:21-22). Then there’s that burning bush Moses chatted with. That was God himself!
Swedenborg tells us that fire, in scripture, represents two kinds of love: heavenly love, self-giving love, love of God and other people, Christ-like love; and selfish love, love of the self and of things before God and other people. And then there’s what we read in the Song of Solomon:
Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm:
for love is strong as death;
Passion is fierce as the grave:
the coals thereof are coals of fire,
That have a most vehement flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
And neither can the floods drown it.
In the Christian tradition, we hear God’s love being described in that passage—love like unquenchable fire.
Ah. Maybe there’s some hope for our fiery, tinderbox tongues after all.
If we take all these kinds of mentions of fire in the Bible into account—if we think of fire as representing God’s presence, as God’s love, as God’s passion for us and God’s zeal for righteousness, the tongue isn’t just a “restless evil.” It can be that, yes, because we can choose to use what we say to hurt or to heal, to tear down or to build up, to embody the power of evil or imitate Christ. The tongue can destroy as effectively as it can give life. But we can use the power of speech to make all things new, to heal wounds and build bridges.
And that’s just it: it is our choice. God sends us the raw material—love—and we have a hand in shaping its impact, both on our own souls and on this world. And how we choose to use words reveals the state of our hearts. Jesus said it: “Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.”
Frederick Buechner points out that the gift of speech is powerful evidence that humans bear a lot of responsibility in this world. “There was no light,” he says, “until God called it into being by naming it. This is true for us, too—there is no world for us until we can name the world—and so words are, in a way, our godly sharing in the work of creation, and the speaking and writing of words is at once the most human and the most holy business we can engage in.” I see that wonder every day, in my work as an editor, helping people with that holy (and very, very human) business of self-expression. I see it, too, as my two small children play with and master language.
If speaking is, as Buechner claims, not only a sign of God’s love for us, but also a continuing act of creating the world, then what we say matters even more. James may have discouraged his first-century readers from teaching, but it’s as plainly true now as it was then that, in a larger sense, like it or not, we’re all teachers. Our words have consequences. We are accountable for what we say. It’s not because a vengeful God is waiting to judge us. It’s because our words shape reality.
God gave us the gift of speech because we are in many ways the pinnacle of his creation. He entrusted the power of speech and higher thought to us so that we could help him in his work. So our words not only reveal the state of our own souls, they also shape our souls and the souls of those around us. Our capacity to speak, or to communicate in any form, is precious. It is a gift, a sign, a token of God’s great love for and confidence in us. We have to figure out how to use that gift well. That means we have to pray, we have to care, we have to hope, we have to take courage when we speak.
Long before James wrote his letter, Isaiah called his people—and now us—to account for our words. “All you who are kindlers of fire, lighters of firebrands, walk in the flame of your fire!” He’s telling us that words matter. How we communicate, why we communicate, shapes our common existence. The fire we kindle with our speech surrounds us all, whether to burn us up or to purify and warm us. If we choose our words lovingly—and truthfully (balancing those two is a whole other sermon), we can “speak in the tongues of angels.” We can spark, not the ravaging flames of fear and selfishness and war, but rather the lifegiving fire of goodness, of compassion, of care. The flames of our fire will nourish rather than consume.
And we will find that, as Buechner puts it, “When words move us closer to that truth and gentleness of spirit by which we become fully human, the speaking of them is sacramental…[when we speak,] God’s Word itself becomes flesh again and again and dwells among and within us, full of grace and truth.” Amen.
O God, who by your son Jesus Christ has set up on earth a kingdom of holiness to measure its strength against all others: make faith to prevail over fear, and righteousness over force, and truth over the lie, and love and concord over all things; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
- from War Prayers, King’s College, Cambridge (1940)
The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.
- Romans 8:26
Leah Grace Goodwin