Of Forest Fires, Sharp Wits & Verbal Mistakes

“…though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts great things. Consider how large a forest a small fire ignites. And the tongue is a fire. The tongue, a world of unrighteousness, is placed among the parts of our bodies. It pollutes the whole body, sets the course of life on fire, and is set on fire by hell (James 3:5-6).”

Goofing off with the axe and a tree that the forest service cut down along a fire line of the 2012 forest fire.

Goofing off with the axe and a tree that the forest service cut down along a fire line of the 2012 forest fire.

One of my most prized possessions is a beat-up, double-bladed axe. The axe itself has seen much better days, what with its smattering of rust, frayed duct tape handle and cracked plastic guard and all. It still cuts wood very well, which was the main reason I asked to keep it after working as a forest service campground host two years ago. You see, I found it in a closet at the campground among some other tools and it looked like one mean firewood cutting instrument, so I started using it for that purpose.

The axe has a story to tell, though, that fits in with James’ warning here. The tree-falling instrument was used on the front lines of fighting a massive forest fire in my neck of the woods three years ago. In 2012, the Little Bear Fire burned up 43,000 acres of wilderness, houses, vacation lodges and hiking trails. It wasn’t started by someone’s sharp tongue, however! Just a lightning strike on a remote mountain ridge that burned out of control for several days before fire crews were even able to start fighting. In fact, the fire came within 500 feet of my new property and the mountainsides around me are littered with charred trunks and a few destroyed foundations.

Forest fires are a major issue here in New Mexico, just as they are currently causing problems in the Pacific Northwest. It is dry here during the late spring and early summer and dry winds are strong, coming off of the desert and into the forested mountains. One out-of-control bonfire is all it takes to set thousands of acres on fire. Thankfully, the Ruidoso area, where I live, has seen a surplus of rain this year but, even still, locals look at haze on the mountains with a bit of dread. Is it water vapor or is it smoke?

I chose this passage in James because of a conversation I had recently with a friend. This unnamed person told me about how they used to be very sharp-tongued before they got serious about following Jesus. The friend said that they wouldn’t wait to respond to a tough situation or to a verbal slight. They would just fire away a quick, sharp response, and usually suffer the consequences. They’re getting better, they told me, but still have a tendency to fire with the tongue first before stopping to think through if they should.

angryI wish I could say that this person was the first I had encountered who didn’t think before they spoke but I cannot. I used to be that way and, when I’m truly angry, can still say stuff that I wish I hadn’t. I’ll never forget one time four years ago when I got in trouble for using a sharp tongue with my boss. I was showing him something on my computer — a problem that I could not fix and that he could not understand why not — when frustration boiled over (along with my blood temperature, I think) and I said something in haste, in frustration, and unkind. My boss just angrily got up and stormed out of my office. I was called into his a few minutes later…

The truth is that we humans can do a lot of damage by not thinking before we speak, especially when we are frustrated. Charles Swindoll, the famous Bible teacher and preacher, said in a Dallas Seminary chapel once that he has a quick checklist he goes through in his head before responding in frustration or anger. He asks himself, “Are these words necessary? Are they destructive? Are they constructive?” and then he responds. I’d imagine that if more people went through a similar checklist, we’d have a lot fewer responses!

I guess the bottom line is… if you have a tendency to speak without thinking when frustrated or angry, practicing self-control and, maybe, silence is far better than setting a forest of relationships ablaze. Most sharp-tongued people I know (if not all) have left charred human relationships in their past. I find it to be really sad. I’m currently a lot quieter than I have ever been in my life. A gentle answer or silent demeanor may not always calm wrath but it does usually prevent forest fires.

I like my forests (relationships). Do you like yours?

Be God’s.