For the last several weekends, John and I have been working hard in our yard, clearing and burning cedar trees. He cuts them level with the ground using his chainsaw and then shaves all the little branches off (so he can use the trunks for fence posts) leaving a messy pile of twigs and cedar boughs for me to drag to the fire. It’s hot, hard work. My eyes and nose are full of smoke, and occasionally, if I get too close to the popping fire, hot ashes will fry me like bacon. One got me on the lip yesterday! Often there are thorny algarita bushes mixed in with the underbrush that enjoy using me as a pincushion. I’ve currently got more scratches on my legs than I did when I was a little girl. And poison ivy loves to surprise us, hanging from trees and pretending to be grapevine. But I have really enjoyed the work. It’s productive. Its therapeutic. It’s great exercise: I’ve lost a few pounds and gained a few muscles. It’s something John and I can work on together. And sometimes, when I throw an especially heavy cedar branch on the fire, it’s fun to practice my Serena Williams grunt!
Of course, we have to be careful with the fire. Fire is very useful when controlled, providing warmth and light, but if it’s left uncontrolled it is dangerous and damaging. And in the dry Texas summers we have to be especially watchful. We make sure the area where we burn is as far as possible from other trees and dry grasses. We don’t burn when the day is windy. We keep buckets of water nearby and run an extra long hose from the hydrant so we can spray down the surrounding area. When we finish for the day, we stop feeding the fire until it dies down and covers over with ash. If we leave it alone, eventually it will go out completely, but if I go back out in the next few days to do my dragging work again, all I have to do to get the fire blazing again is poke around in the ashes and uncover the hot coals. Then, when I feed the fire with more twigs, it easily flames up again.
While I’ve been dragging, I’ve been thinking. James talks about fire, comparing it with our tongues. “So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things. See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire!” (James 3:5) He goes on to say that the tongue is a fire that “defiles the entire body” (the ESV says “staining the whole body”) and it “sets on fire the course of our life” (v. 6). So many of us have a hard time controlling our tongue, instead letting it run free and wild. “I call it like I see it.” “That’s just the way I am, I have to speak my mind!” “I’m just telling you the truth.” Not only do we hurt ourselves in this way—we hurt the ones around us who are the victims of our tongues. We hurt the entire body of Christ. We hurt innocent bystanders who witness our ranting and are burned when we carelessly feed these fires. As James says, “my brethren, these things ought not to be this way,” (v. 10).
Here we are, right smack in the middle of the strangest year I think our present generations have ever experienced, and we need to stop building and feeding these damaging fires. 2020 is a tinderbox. Social media in 2020 is a dry, brittle, brown field full of dead trees and tall grass waving in a strong California Santa Ana wind under a blazing Texas sun with no rain in sight, onto which we are tossing lit matches into gasoline-soaked rags! It seems we’ve never had more to argue about, and we’ve never had more time in which to argue, formulate replies, gather statistics, bear false witness (knowingly or unknowingly) and defend our positions. But—shouldn’t Christians be the source from which living water flows—extinguishing fires rather than feeding them? Are we being hypocritical, as James says, using our tongues in one moment to bless God and in the next to curse men (v. 9-10)?
I know I am guilty of speaking my mind in a way that isn’t helpful. I am fluent in sarcasm, though I have tried hard to extinguish it because sarcasm stings, and it betrays a pessimistic heart. I have opinions about politics, the economy, Covid-19, vaccines, masks, and racial issues, but I don’t always share them wisely. Maybe I shouldn’t even share them at all. Social media could be such an encouraging, useful tool if we all used it wisely—sharing the mind of God through scripture, building one another up, sincerely offering compliments and showing love. Instead, I’m afraid it has the tendency to become more of the devil’s tool. I would like to challenge myself, as well as each of you, to take a hard look at our social media and other discussions. Does the way that we live—and speak—demonstrate gentleness and humility? Do I show wisdom and understanding (v. 13)? Am I lying to myself, insisting that speaking blunt truth to someone is showing love, all the while ignoring James’ definition of godly wisdom?
Godly wisdom is pure: it is holy, faultless and innocent. It is peaceable, “being conducive to a harmonious relationship.” It is gentle: yielding, kind, courteous and tolerant. It is reasonable, or persuadable, willing to yield and open to reason. It is full of mercy, showing “kindness or concern expressed for someone in need…compassion, pity, clemency.” The fruit it produces is good, not bitter or bad. It is, as the NRSV translates, without a trace of partiality: “pertaining to not being judgmental or divisive, nonjudgmental, not divisive, impartial.” And it is without hypocrisy: it is genuine and sincere. What is the goal of speaking our minds? Is our intent simply to bring others over to our cause or to win an argument? God wants our fruit to be righteousness that has been sown in peace. He wants us to speak truth, but not sarcastically or unkindly. Some may see that as weak, but it isn’t. It’s biblical. God insists that we be peacemakers.
Right now, about a hundred yards from our home, there is a pile of ashes with hot coals just under the surface. Someone could easily toss a few dry twigs on the top and stir them into the coals and soon there would be a blaze. They could then walk away from the fire, leaving it burning, endangering our home, our health, and our lives. Would you be even more careless, stirring hot coals into a blaze of words that may put someone’s spiritual health at risk? Are you inflaming others, stirring up a fire with gossip, opinions, sarcasm or your agenda? Please, let’s stop feeding the fire and burning others with our spoken and written words. Let’s be intentional about letting the fires die out. Let’s sow peace and encouragement and show godly wisdom, honoring the Lord rather than satisfying our own desires.
 Arndt, William et al. A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature 2000 : 288. Print.