"Remember," Smokey the Bear warned millions of television viewers, "only YOU can prevent forest fires."
But what if Smokey had faced the inferno we carry around with us daily—in our mouths? Maybe his warning wouldn't have centered on misused matches but on combustible conversations. In fact, his public-service announcement may have sounded a bit like the apostle James's:
Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one's life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. (James 3:5–6 NIV)
Even with all its benefits, the tongue has power to destroy us. The words we mumble under our breath on our way out the door, the ones we spit out when a driver cuts us off, the ones we hurl when we're on the defensive—all of them can transform us into monsters. Ugly words begin in our minds, slide down our tongues, and fly through the air. Ironically, they can cause the most damage where we least expect it. To ourselves. The sparks we spew sweep back toward us and char our own hearts. And from our scorched emotions, we release even more caustic words. It's a ferocious cycle.
A friend of mine lived consumed by ugly words. She was nearly consumed by living like this. Everything, everyone, and every thought demanded her critical analysis. The soup was too cold. A stranger's hat too large. The traffic too jammed. Eventually, her comments infiltrated her heart and altered her actions. Oblivious to the change, she lost sleep wondering if others thought her soup too cold. She changed outfits obsessively. And she often left late for appointments, simply to avoid sitting in traffic. Her muttered critiques injured others, but when her words penetrated her own heart, they seared her relationships and her spiritual life. The gradual transformation added to her days of gossiping restless nights of self-criticism.
James wrote that the tongue "is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body" (3:6). Making that principle positive, when we choose to restrain our tongues, we develop habits to restrain our bodies. After all, controlling the tongue is an inner discipline. As we begin to control our inner lives, we can also control our outer lives. Why should we watch what we say? Because others watch what we do. The connection is inseparable.
James encouraged us to prevent verbal fires from burning the forest around us. And yet, he gave no checklist, no tear-out sheet, and no three-step solution. Thankfully, the Bible isn't silent about what we should and should not say.
- We should talk less. When words are many, folly is not far behind (Ecclesiastes 5:2–3).
- We should avoid boasting. Increased pride hardens the heart (James 4:16).
- We should avoid grumbling. That includes complaining about our neighbors, friends, spouses, and even ourselves (James 5:9).
- We should pray. The tongue will not run wild when our mind stays on Christ (James 5:13).
- We should practice patience. As fallen humans, we cannot tame our own tongues; they are too unruly for us. We must wait as God works on our words and we surrender to Him. (Philippians 1:6)
Our tongue can stir up anger and crush the spirit. But our words can also turn away wrath and promote healing (Proverbs 15:1–4; 16:24). And they don't have to be numerous to be powerful.
As Smokey the Bear would say, the responsibility to prevent forest fires—to preserve and conserve—falls on our shoulders.