When I was growing up, my best friend’s house burned to the ground.
By God’s grace, no one was hurt but every precious item they owned, every photograph and heirloom, every article of clothing was consumed as their quaint, historic log cabin went up in flames. It happened quickly and without warning.
Fire is unbelievably powerful.
If you are American you will know about Smokey the Bear who since the 1950s has been the face of forest fire prevention in our National Parks. I still remember the haunting television ads on my black and white television as the dangers of stray cigarette butts or unattended campfires were underlined with scenes of raging wildfires.
In the Bible, God says that my words can be that dangerous.
Read the verses from James. Hear the seriousness with which they were written.
‘It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech, we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell.’ James 3.5-6 (the Message)
Now read it again.
Now decide if you will believe this is true.
God says that it only takes one word, one gossipy spark to start a hellish fire. It only takes a sentence to make a friendship evaporate or for a reputation to literally go up in smoke. Words can split families for generations and they can leave someone’s self-esteem with first-degree burns. Malicious comments can burn a ministry or a marriage to the ground.
And yet most of us go through life underestimating the destruction of careless words. We drop unkindness and criticism like burning matches and walk away, never even looking back at the blaze we have left in our wake.
We all do it.
We need to stop.
Let’s be honest. Each day, in every workplace, home, church and friendship group there are a million opportunities to get upset with one another. There are disagreements, niggles, rubbed-the-wrong-way moments and differences of opinion.
These are normal and a part of being human but it is what we do next that really matters.
And the Bible only gives us two options.
The first option is to go to the person and discuss it, work it through and forgive. This is very simple but it takes guts. It definitely doesn’t involve calling up your best friend to dissect it or spreading your annoyances to an audience. It just involves you and the other person, in love, talking through a disagreement while it is fresh and hasn’t become infected or infectious. It is what someone does who values relationships above petty differences and who knows how to love people who are different. It isn’t easy but it is right and it will ensure the fallout doesn’t start a fire.
The other option is much easier and probably the right one most of the time. We can just extend grace and let it go. We can decide to not easily be upset or bent out of shape. We can choose easy-going instead of fault-finding and grace instead of gripes. We can assume others have good motives even when they do something we don’t like. We can make allowances for different approaches and perspectives and look to learn from others, not always assume we are right.
Handling conflict well is rare and it is hard but it really matters.
Because there is a different kind of fire that I need in my life; it is an Acts chapter two fire. It is the fire that came down on a room full of people who were unified in passion and purpose. This fire spread when differences were treated as trivial and more important things were prioritized. It was a fire stoked with humility and fueled with spiritual hunger.
There are two kinds of fire and I don’t think that I can have both.
I will have to choose what fires I start, what flames I fan. I can stir up love for God in myself and others or I can dampen it with negativity and criticism. I can speak hope to the discouraged or kick someone who is already down. I can spread judgement and misunderstanding or I can light the touch paper of grace and forgiveness every time I am tempted to be offended.
God, give us soft hearts, careful words and kind spirits. And then set our hearts on fire for your glory.