[first published in the monthly congregational “Notes” for February, 2019.]
Here in the heat of a full Victorian summer with the ever present danger of bushfires, we have become used to days of total fire bans. We are well aware of the impact of just one spark. In the 1970’s, there was a popular Christian song that began with the lines, “It only takes a spark, to get a fire going, And soon all those around, can warm up to its glowing…” The song tried to capture the Christian’s desire to pass the love of God on to others and expressed the hope that just one “spark” of that love would be enough to stir a response that would lead them to embrace the love of God for themselves. Oh that it were so easy! But when dry hearts have been prepared by the Spirit of God, that certainly can happen in very short time. Revivals do spread like bushfires. More often than not, however, we will see the opposite: rumours, gossip and character assassination running wild and free.
The apostle James understood the effect of just one spark on dry tinder but was moved to apply the bushfire imagery to describe the awful consequences of a mischievous or malicious tongue. “See how great a forest a little fire kindles! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity” [James 3:5b-6a]. He lived in an age without social media, but his words are so appropriate to describe the firestorms of confected rage that can erupt after just one anonymous “tweet” or a post on a fake Facebook page. Even respected news outlets can be misled. Something does not have to be true, it just has to be emotive enough and people will respond with knee-jerk reactions to things they think were said, and which they know nothing about. Whole reputations can be destroyed in a moment.
No Christian should be part of such a reaction, no matter how tempting it might be to jump in and be “relevant”, or how much of a witness we think our quick response might be. Instead (and it is not just James the first century church leader giving us his opinion but the Spirit of God Himself speaking for all time) we should be “quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger” (Jas 1:19). It is better to be right in the long run rather than immediate, partial and destructive. This is not always easy, especially when we may be pressed for “a Christian response” to the many issues that rightly raise our concerns, and when we may want to appear at the vanguard of social justice to show what we know to be true: that ultimately only Christianity is able to provide a strong and equitable social foundation without recourse to repression of one social class or another.
We must be very careful, which is hard in the midst of all our zeal, because James straight away cautions that “the wrath of man does not achieve the righteousness of God” (1:20) which we may quite safely extend to apply to the indignation of man as well. “Surely it is a matter of common grace!” we say. Perhaps, or perhaps not. The indignation of man, especially that aroused suddenly and reactively, cannot take proper account of any context, and has no knowledge of the heart Worse still, it has no delight in the righteousness of God as a standard unless it furthers self-interest. Furthermore, it may well be that the mischief caused by an unbalanced reaction is worse than the original fault! That is why the Book of Proverbs also rebukes a perverse, lying or spiteful tongue (Prov 10:31, 17:4, 25:23b, 26:28) and praises the wise and truthful one.
This is not to say that God cannot use the angry & malicious in the providential ordering of history! Of course He does, and the events of the crucifixion show this without a doubt. But this still does not give us warrant to legitimise false witness or prioritise short term worldly acclaim while seeking to serve Him. The full approval of God is more important than having all men speak well of us! (Luke 6:26). We must no more sin with our lips or our pens and keyboards that grace may abound, than we would with our bodies.