The recent wild fires in California revive memories of my life in Southern California—and one day in particular. It was January 8, 2007. At 5:00 p.m., as I was preparing to leave my office on the campus of Pepperdine University, I glanced out my window. Below the campus a small fire had just begun to burn at the shoulder of Pacific Coast Highway. It was one of those dry, windy days. Winds gusting to 55 miles per hour quickly drove the fire toward the Malibu Bluffs. In minutes a tiny fire had blossomed into one of those conflagrations for which California is famous, spilling over the bluffs onto the beach homes below. When the blaze reached the home of Suzanne Somers, the house didn’t just catch fire. According to the actress, her house exploded. “It was like a box of matches . . . . it just went whoosh,” she said.
James, the brother of Jesus, understood this phenomenon well: “What a vast amount of timber can be set ablaze by the tiniest spark! And the tongue is a fire, representing in our body the whole wicked world. It pollutes our whole being, it sets the whole course of our existence alight, and its flames are fed by hell” (Jas 3:5-6 REB).
Anyone who listens to the rhetoric of the current political campaigns or the back-and-forth between heads of state can easily imagine that our whole world is like a drought-stricken landscape, and we are careless motorists heedlessly tossing lit cigarettes into the brush along the roadway. James is saying to us all: “The tongue is as dangerous as any fire . . . . it can make the whole of life a blazing hell” (3:5-6 Phillips).
When one considers the rancorous verbiage that flows in all directions, it’s urgent that followers of Jesus remember that he has called us to behave radically differently. Abusive language must not typify Jesus followers. Among the many “hard sayings” of Jesus, this one must be among the most sobering:
I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. (Matt 12:36-37 NRSV)
Words are pretty much forever, lasting until the day of judgment. Any notion that words are just empty puffs of air that evaporate is wrong. There is no delete button.
According to the Scientific American, college students speak about 16,000 words a day. Of course, daily word usage is even higher once you add in texting, emailing, tweeting, and so forth. But using the daily average from the Scientific American study, and multiplying it over a lifetime, you come up with about 450 million to one-half billion words spoken by a typical college-educated person! Imagine being called to account for every careless word expressed—whether spoken, telephoned, hand-written, tweeted, or emailed—over a lifetime!
The biblical tradition offers helpful advice on how to use one’s tongue properly: to speak less, not more. “A flood of words is never without its faults,” says Prov 10:19. “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger,” writes James (1:19). The apocryphal book of Sirach counsels a kind of gracious reticence: “Do not answer without first listening. And do not interrupt while another is speaking” (Sir 11:8). (I try to imagine how such a principle would revolutionize the way cable news shows function!) In countless ways Christians must look different from others. How we speak (and do not speak) should be one of the most telling signs about our authentic allegiance to Jesus, the one who used language to bless and heal. May we be like him in how we speak to one another.
(This blog post is an adaptation of an article to appear in a forthcoming issue of Leaven magazine.)
Header image: U.S. Department of Agriculture. “20130817-FS-UNK-0027.” The Rim Fire, Stanislaus National Forest. August 17, 2013. Photo by Mike McMillan. Retrieved from flickr.com. Some rights reserved.
Darryl Tippens (Ph.D., Louisiana State University) is University Distinguished Scholar at Abilene Christian University, where he teaches English, researches, and serves in the Provost office. He is Provost Emeritus of Pepperdine University. Dr. Tippens enjoys writing on a variety of topics including Shakespeare, Milton, the Bible as literature, Christian spirituality, and higher education. He is the author or co-author of several books including “Pilgrim Heart: The Way of Jesus in Everyday Life” and “Shadow & Light: Literature and the Life of Faith.”