The tiniest spark of fire can grow quickly into a raging inferno, consuming thousands of acres of forest or whole blocks of buildings. Likewise, a few ill-spoken words can escalate into a quarrel or all-out brawl, damaging a person, a family or a business.
We have seen the tremendous destruction caused by the recent fires in California. Ash, soot, stone and metal frameworks are all that remain. Thousands of acres of trees and vineyards have been destroyed, as well as hundreds of homes with their contents. The toll of the damages amounts to tens of millions of dollars and is rapidly climbing as fire-fighters battle the voracious blazes. But the damages assessed in dollar value do not account for the emotional devastation experienced by victims who have lost their homes and possessions.
The essential ingredients necessary for fire are heat, fuel and oxygen. Stop any one of these, and the fire ceases. Otherwise, once a fire is started, it will burn until there is no more fuel or oxygen.
Fire is a good thing when used to make our coffee or tea, cook our food and warm our houses. And fire can also do great damage as previously mentioned. Likewise, words are positive when used for good, to encourage, to build up and bring peace. But words can also spark “fires” that can quickly escalate and spread, hurting and damaging people.
Words are as old as mankind. Most of us have been taught (at least that was the case when I was young, and I can only hope that today’s children are still being taught), that we shouldn’t say hurtful things to or about other people. I’m not naïve, understanding that we humans often fail to practice what we have been taught—a real human frailty. Sadly, it seems we don’t learn until we “get burned” by the consequences our words can bring: dissolved friendships, damaged reputations, confrontations and fights and wars.
Perhaps tainted by a past personal grievance with or jealousy of someone, we may develop negative opinions of that person. This negativity can be easy for us to share with others, and can potentially be imparted into the minds of such listeners. Sadly, this just “lights the fire.”
Words can be used positively to spark enthusiasm, inspire confidence and encourage the accomplishment of great things. But words can also dampen enthusiasm, spark discouragement and foment antagonism, which may escalate into a fight or a riot, bringing significant personal and property damage to people, businesses or institutions.
The analogy of words being like a fire comes from the Bible. A well-known passage in James 3 speaks of our human propensity to stumble in our words. It makes a comparison of the small bit of flesh we call the tongue to a bit in a horse’s mouth and to a ship’s rudder. The bit and rudder are small but effective in controlling the horse or ship. But our small tongue can kindle a “fire” that can burn down a whole forest, so to speak (vv. 1–5). The next few verses explain that no man can tame the tongue, which can be used for good to “bless our God,” or for bad, to “curse men”! Our tongue is “an unruly evil” (vv. 8–10)!
We can prevent or extinguish fires by removing the ingredients: heat, fuel or oxygen. We can do the same with word “fires.”
“Where there is no wood, the fire goes out; and where there is no talebearer, strife ceases. As charcoal is to burning coals, and wood to fire, so is a contentious man to kindle strife” (Proverbs 26:20–21). Remove the heat of anger, the fuel of contention and the oxygen of gossip to put out the word fire.