(Please don’t) pass it on

When I was a new Christian convert, in college, our campus group used to gather every Wednesday night for a time of Bible study and fellowship, kicked off by our singing praise songs to the strumming of acoustic guitars. For a time, my mother wondered if I had fallen into a cult. After all, it was the 1970s, and it was Berkeley, still transitioning out of the turbulence and notoriety of the psychedelic ’60s. But thankfully, Mom eventually stopped worrying when I failed to do anything stranger than read my Bible.

Every generation has its music, and every generation of Christians has its sacred music. One of the standards at our Bible study was Pass It On. It was a sentimental song about spreading God’s love: It only takes a spark to get a fire going / And soon all those around can warm up in its glowing / That’s how it is with God’s love / Once you’ve experienced it / You spread his love to ev’ryone / You want to pass it on.

A bit syrupy, perhaps, but catchy, and we sang it often. It was nearly our theme song. What could be wrong with a song about spreading the warm flame of God’s love? But ironically, the apostle James uses the same metaphor for an entirely different purpose — because Christians sometimes spread other things than love.

Think about this: A small flame can set a whole forest on fire. The tongue is a small flame of fire, a world of evil at work in us. It contaminates our entire lives. Because of it, the circle of life is set on fire. The tongue itself is set on fire by the flames of hell. (James 3:5b-6, CEB)

Wow. Lyrics like that might have melted the strings off someone’s guitar.

James has already suggested in chapter 1 that people’s piety is worthless if they can’t control their tongues. Here, he continues the same line of thought; he pulls no punches in trying to teach his readers the damage they can do with their words. One of his concerns, as we’ve seen, is with the impact of false teaching on the church. But his concern runs deeper than that; he wants all believers to recognize their own propensity to wreak havoc with thoughtless speech.

Before we take a closer look at James’ teaching, however, I want us to think about the implication of his metaphor. As the New International Version translates, “Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.”

Certainly, we’re no strangers to conflict. But we’re apt to point fingers and pay far more attention to what’s wrong with other people’s words than with our own. Our words feel justified, even if they’re angry ones, because we’re the good guys. We’re the injured party. But those other people? How can they be so mean? So insensitive? So thoughtless? We want to change them, make them take their words back, make them see the error of their ways.

Yeah. Like that’ll work.

If we truly want to see change, we have to recognize this simple fact: the one person we have the best chance of changing is ourselves. We can be surrounded by emotional tinder and not know it; tossing out words carelessly can be like tossing a lit match. Spreading God’s love isn’t just about having the warm fuzzies; it’s about caring enough to be careful with our words. It’s about avoiding unnecessary blazes. And if something does flare up, then it’s about humble and compassionate self-control, about not adding more verbal fuel to the fire.

Because, after all, it only takes a spark.