When I lived in Snook, just outside of College Station, most of the time people just burned their own garbage because garbage pick-up was either too expensive or unavailable. And while there was a dump less than ten miles away, many people waited and only took the things that couldn’t be burned to the dump. Now, if you’ve ever burned your trash in a metal can like most of the people around there, you’re used to seeing little sparks shoot off, especially when you first get the fire going. Normally, those sparks aren’t a big deal; they usually burn out before they hit the ground and the ones that don’t can be stepped on and easily put out. Well, this one time, a neighbor who lived just a few doors down was burning his trash like he always does. On this particular day, however, a spark shot off unnoticed by the neighbor and the grass was extremely dry. Within seconds, the field was aflame. Fortunately, we have a volunteer fire department based just a couple blocks away and the fire was put out before any houses were damaged. But since then all of the neighbors have been watching those sparks very carefully, worried that the smallest spark could set the whole neighborhood on fire.
In James chapter 3, Jesus’ brother describes a different kind of spark. He writes, “The tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue is also a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell” (James 3:5-6, NIV). In the verses immediately before, James also compares the tongue to the rudder of a ship or the bit in a horse’s mouth, both of which are small things which are able to dramatically influence the direction being traveled. The tongue and the words it produces may seem insignificant, at times, but they can have a dramatic effect.
Proverbs 18:21 tells us that the tongue itself holds the power of life and death. And yet we use our tongues constantly, rarely thinking about the dramatic influence a few words can have. We recount a dramatic conversation and shift a few minor things to make us look a little better without considering that we have moved into deceit. We allow ourselves to speak in anger, knowing that the words we use will be words we regret in a few hours. We make a joke at someone else’s expense, all in good fun, of course, without considering the effect the joke will have on the person we’re discussing. Or we simply let a few words slip in the wrong company and a key fact given without the proper context destroys someone’s reputation.
Words are tiny things, but they are more powerful than most weapons of war. Words have the power to alter the course of history, to bring death and pain, or to heal and give life. Don’t let your words fly lightly. The tiniest spark can start uncontrollable fires.