In a famous passage, James tells us to beware of the damage our tongues can do. He puts it like this: “The tongue is a fire…The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature” (Jas 3:6). Without question, he’s talking about the things we say. I have no doubt that every reader of this blog can look at his life and see proof of what James says. I’m not telling you anything new. I just wanted to give you an example from my life. May it serve as a reminder of the wisdom of James’ words.
When I was fairly new to the Army chaplaincy, I attended a school. As you probably know, the Army is very hierarchical. Rank is very important. Even in a school situation, students are given certain jobs based upon their rank. For example, a class leader is usually chosen, picked strictly by rank. He might be irresponsible and might make a terrible class leader, but he is chosen anyway.
Our class leader, in my opinion, was like that. He too was a chaplain and he seemed to relish his new position. We were all students and had to study and turn in assignments, but he would place unnecessary burdens on us that took up valuable time. I’m sure that my feelings towards him were also driven by our personalities. My personality caused me to see that school as a break from Army life. We could go to class, put in the minimal effort, and have some fun when each day of class was over. The class had an unofficial motto that reflected the way most of us felt: “If the minimum wasn’t the minimum, it wouldn’t be the minimum.” We wanted to put in the minimum effort.
Suffice it to say that our class leader did not have that kind of personality. I think he saw the class as an opportunity for him to hone his leadership skills. Maybe he thought he could change our attitudes and saw the class as a laboratory to develop leadership principles. He would whip us into shape. I can tell you that he did not change my mind. He wanted to make us better students; I thought he was a little Hitler.
The school lasted four months, and I resented everything he did that I thought robbed me of a good time. I decided that when the class was over and he had no more authority over me as we went our separate ways, I was going to let him know what I thought of him and how he treated the class. Since he outranked me, I had to throw in a certain amount of respect, but I was going to give him a piece of my mind.
I don’t remember why I didn’t do it. Perhaps I didn’t see him on the last day. Perhaps I had cooled off. Maybe an angel supernaturally intervened in some way and prevented me from exploding in a carnal outburst. I am sure I wanted to use my tongue to hammer him, but I am so glad I didn’t.
When I arrived at my new duty station in another state, I went to the personnel office to check in. Whom did I see? My former class leader. The Army had changed his orders. Not only was he now assigned to the same installation as I, but he was also going to be my new boss.
Could you imagine the problems I would have had in working with him if I had used my tongue to do what I’d intended to do? We had an office of about eight men, and I was his right-hand man. We were going to be seeing each other every day, and our office was supposed to be the place where soldiers were to go if they had questions about God. It would not have been a healthy work environment.
In addition, he had my career in his hands. He could have ended it with a stroke of his pen. I was so glad I didn’t use my tongue to attack him.
When James talks about the damage our tongues can do, he primarily has relationships within the Church in mind. But our tongues can mess up all areas of our lives. Sure, there are times we need to speak up, such as when doctrinal purity is threatened. But in my case with the student leader, he just irritated me. Looking back, what he did to me was no big deal.
I think that most of the time when we want to let our tongues loose, it’s better to reel them in. They can cause a lot of damage in a lot of different circumstances. When we feel the urge to let it rip, we should think first. The tongue can light a really big fire.