Though definitely not the largest of Oregon forest fires, the Eagle Creek fire of September 2017 will be long remembered for the widespread devastation and distress it caused. It was first reported on September 2nd. By the morning of the next day, it had grown to 3000 acres and had trapped 153 hikers, forcing them to spend the night in the woods. On September 5th, it hopped across the wide Columbia River and started a fire on the Washington side. The community of Cascade Locks was evacuated, with 283 structures and 15 businesses being threatened by the fire. The fire also threatened historical structures in the Columbia River gorge, including the iconic and much-visited Multnomah Falls Lodge. Nearby salmon hatcheries were forced to move or release early hundreds of thousands of fish. The main east-west thoroughfare in the region, Interstate 84, was shut down for days, and maritime traffic on the Columbia River was shut down for 20 miles. As of October 7th, the fire had consumed some 50,000 acres. The popular hiking trails in that area are shutdown indefinitely. With the fall rains starting in earnest, warnings have been issued for possible rock and mud slides.
How did it begin? Witnesses reported seeing a group of teenagers lighting fireworks and throwing them into the Eagle Creek Canyon. Oregon State Police later obtained cell phone video footage that showed a 15-year-old boy throwing the smoking firecracker that had started the fire. Do you suppose that that teen could have imagined the extent of destruction that would be caused by that foolhardy stunt? That’s the imagery James uses in his indictment of the human tongue—“How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! (James 3:5).”
There is something very wrong with our tongues. Read James 3:1-12. The indictment of the tongue is unequivocal and universal. The tongue is small, but powerful. It is set on fire by hell itself. We can tame big animals, but the tongue is untamable. Though able to bless God, it is ready and all-too-willing to curse those made in His image. There is plenty of empirical evidence to prove the Bible’s assertion regarding the tongues evil proclivities —in marriages, families, churches, communities and across our country—a “forest fire” of sorts is raging even now. Untamable tongues set fires. They cause misery and destruction.
The problem with the human tongue goes back a long way. We read of it in Genesis chapter 3. The Devil deceived Eve and she succumbed to temptation. Then Adam too. That fateful day unleashed a sin contagion. The effect on Adam and Eve became immediately obvious. God confronted Adam. His response? “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate” (Genesis 3:12). Eve blamed the serpent. Deception, accusations, and blame-shifting—and a host of other tongue troubles–are all rooted in that day, and in all of us, in Adam (Romans 5:12).
God’s indictment on sinful humanity in Romans 3:11-18 focuses especially on the destructive nature of our tongues. Romans 3:13-18, “Their throat is an open grave, with their tongues they keep deceiving, the poison of asps is under their lips; Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness; Their feet are swift to shed blood, Destruction and Misery are in their paths, And the path of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes.” God’s indictment was consistent to Isaiah’s own appraisal when God unveiled the glory of His holiness to him. Isaiah witnessed the angels doing what they were created to do—worshipping God in His awesome holiness. By comparison, he was confronted with man’s shortcomings in that regard. His assessment? “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the Lord of hosts” (Isaiah 6:5). An honest, Spirit-led appraisal, will work to bring any of us to a similar conclusion.
The God-man Jesus Christ was born into a world of troubled tongues. His speech was according to His nature, full of “grace and truth” (John 1:14). He spoke only truth, but His speech was also always characterized by grace. He who knew no sin and never sinned had a perfect tongue. The religious leaders once sent men to arrest Jesus. When they returned without Him, the leaders asked why. Their response, “Never has a man spoke the way this man speaks” (John 7:46). Never indeed! The extent of man’s tongue troubles was dramatically demonstrated at the cross. Jesus, the creator of all things, had come into the world to save (1 Timothy 1:15). He purposed to go to that cross for lost sinners like you and me. Though He had done nothing wrong, He was falsely accused and tried and convicted. Then the multitudes cried out for His crucifixion! As He hung on the cross, He was mocked and insulted—by the leaders, the soldiers, those passing by, and even by the two thieves who were crucified with Him (until one experienced a change of heart). As they hurled insults, He spoke contrary words, saying, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). How contrary was Jesus to the ways of men! How glorious is the measure of His grace! Against the backdrop of such a cacophony of misery and hate, His words from the cross stand as the most melodious ever uttered. His death on the cross is of sin “the double-cure,” cleansing from its “guilt and power”. In Him alone, by faith in Him alone, do we find both forgiveness of sins and His power to be changed.
The Apostle Peter would later write of how we, as believers, need to follow Jesus’ example, saying, “For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example to follow in His steps, who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Peter 2:21-23). Peter then went on to say this: “To sum up, all of you be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit; not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead. For the one who desires life, to love and see good days, must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit.” (1 Peter 3:8-10).
James wrote that “But no man can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison” (James 3:8). Years ago, I served in the US Navy aboard a submarine. There is a reason that there is a saying which speaks of “cursing like a sailor.” You can probably imagine the degree of complaining and cursing and vindictive speech that might exist in that underwater, sun-deprived, environment. My buddy, Darwin, and I once decided to try an experiment. We ventured to attempt to go through a day without complaining or speaking evil. Of course–you know what happened–as it wasn’t long until our tongues had their own way. We all know the truth of it! Human tongues cannot be tamed. Jesus traced the “tongue” problem to our hearts, saying, “For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart. The good man brings out of his good treasure what is good; and the evil man brings out of his evil treasure what is evil. But I tell you every careless word that people speak, they shall give accountability for in the day of judgment” (Matthew 12:35-37).
The key then, to having tongues that speak as they should, is to have a tongue that speaks according to our new nature in Christ. We speak as Jesus would have us, when we speak not according to our human nature or fleshly tendencies, but according to the indwelling Spirit and the Word. We still have the flesh; left to our own devices, we will speak accordingly. Such speech is characterized by “enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions” (Galatians 5:20). But by the Spirit, the fruit of the Spirit (Christlike virtue), is born in us. As we walk by the Spirit, our speech is consistent to who Christ is, and is characterized by “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23; Cf. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7). Likewise, Ephesians 5:18 and Colossians 3:16 speak to the worshipful and edifying words that characterize the lives of those whose hearts are “filled up” with the Spirit and the Word.
We live in a day where hateful words and insults fill the airwaves and too many conversations. And that’s sadly true in too many “Christian” homes and churches! Even Christians toss fireworks into tinder dry regions. The fires started then quickly spread to destroy relationships and dishonor God. A raging firestorm exists in the spiritual realm—a raging firestorm set on fire by hell itself (James 3:6). Are you a firestarter or a firefighter? We’ve got to stop with the insults and name-calling that are so commonplace in our day (Cf. Matthew 5:21-22; Ephesians 4:29), and get back to the business of living out and sharing the good news. We are ambassadors for Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20-21). We are His representatives! Imagine an ambassador being sent out from our country to another. How long would he last in that role if he only cursed and insulted his fellow ambassadors and the people of the country to whom he was sent? As citizens of heaven, we ambassadors for Christ bear a message of reconciliation in the gospel. Let’s share that and words that are always “with grace” (Colossians 4:6)! I remember how I once started a day in Uganda by singing to myself these words, “Take my lips and let it be, filled with messages from Thee.” That was my prayer for that day—as it should be for every day—that the Spirit might do with my lips what I could never do on my own. What a divine privilege, to be speak for God in truth and in love—words that heal, not hurt.