It was a large, strange fire. Those who rushed to put it out found that it not only roared, but seemed to bark as it spread. The smoldering fields and orchards. The flaming foxes running this way and that. The damage. The confusion. The chaos. I read the scene again and wondered if it didn’t fitly describe the landscape of some of our online interaction today.
Do you remember the story? Samson made a substantial wager in Judges 14:14 that the Philistines could not answer his riddle,
Out of the eater came something to eat.
Out of the strong came something sweet.
Three days go by, and they had no answer. The Philistines grew anxious, then irritated, then enraged. This Israelite was about to impoverish them (Judges 14:15). So, they blackmailed Samson’s wife, threatening to burn her and her father alive if she did not discover the answer for them.
Extorted, she wept to her husband for days, “You only hate me; you do not love me. You have put a riddle to my people, and you have not told me what it is” (Judges 14:16). On the last day of the celebration, he caved. She told her kinsmen, and Samson loses the bet. Things then turn violent. Embittered by the betrayal, Samson kills thirty Philistines and pays his debt with their belongings.
“In a world of devilish discourse, this is what should surprise us: gracious speech.”
A few days after he returns, he discovers that his wife was given in marriage to his best man. Incensed, Samson captures 300 foxes, ties their tails together, secures a torch between the pair of tails, lights the torches, and lets them loose in the Philistines’ fields and orchards. Imagine the scene. Imagine the alarmed barks of the frantic foxes. The roar of the flames. The smolder of the Philistine economy, as the fields become smoke and chaos.
Small Yet Devastating
As in Samson’s day, foxes now run in our social media circles with fire on their tails. Our incendiary online culture has been well documented. Some of us (myself included) have scrolled just to find the latest fire, the freshest controversy, the newest uproar. We may have more arsonist in us than we assume.
Connecting those fiery foxes to our increasingly hostile discourse, I believe, is to downplay — not overexaggerate — the seriousness of the flames we see today.
The tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. (James 3:5–6)
The power of the tongue (whether spoken or typed) is disproportionate to its size. Little movements, little keystrokes, like little fires at foxes’ tails, bring forests to their knees. The tongue is, James clearly tells us, a devastation. A world of unrighteousness. A stain to the whole body. A candle that sets lives on fire. A flame kindled by hell. He continues,
For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. (James 3:7–9)
Untamable. Full of deadly poison. A restless evil. A curser of those created in God’s likeness. The tongue. The tweet. The retweet.
Burns We Bear
We can add to Scripture’s unsettling testimony our own. Are not many of your deepest scars caused by “the lash of the tongue” (Job 5:21)? And are not some of your deepest regrets words you said — or did not say?
And yet, despite these testimonies, might there now be less caution in public speech than ever before? Technology gives anyone access to a platform — and few refuse them. Firefox breeds even more fire among the foxes. The field is larger than ever before, and the foxes and flames fiercer and more numerous. Yet unchanged remains the fact that God will judge “every careless word” (Matthew 12:36).
“Little keystrokes, like little fires at foxes’ tails, bring forests to their knees. The tongue is a devastation.”
Should this Spartan cyberverse surprise us? No. Since before the flood, the intentions of the thoughts of a man’s heart have been only evil continually (Genesis 6:5; 8:21), and “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). Evil hearts speak evil words. Sons of hell start verbal fires. Jesus assumes this: “How can you speak good, when you are evil?” Eventually, “the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil” (Matthew 12:35).
In a world of devilish discourse, this is what should surprise us: gracious speech.
Tongues from Above
While the unforgiven have their tongues dipped as quills into the flames of hell, Paul called the forgiven to be marked by gracious speech.
Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person. (Colossians 4:5–6)
He called us to gentle speech, salted speech, the kind of speech that begets the fruit of knowledge of how to answer others. This is patient speech. Sober speech. Thoughtful speech. Compelling speech. Wise speech. Compassionate speech. Careful speech. Slow-to-speak speech. Fitting-the-occasion speech. Assuming-the-best-in-others speech. Speech mindful of Christ.
These words taste savory to the soul and give health to the body (Proverbs 16:24). This “gentle tongue is a tree of life” (Proverbs 15:4). This discourse is patient with the idle, the fainthearted, and the weak (1 Thessalonians 5:14). Tongues from above, like wisdom from above, are “pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (James 3:17). Gracious speech doesn’t speak evil of anyone, avoids quarreling, is gentle, and shows “perfect courtesy toward all people” (Titus 3:2).
Is this what we often hear, and read? Is this how we often talk, and type?
Tweeting as New Men
In every generation, this kind of speech will be seen as different. Tongues that do not grumble and quarrel will stand out as lights amidst the night sky of a twisted and crooked generation (Philippians 2:14–16).
And this speech is for those reborn of God. In solidarity with Jesus, Paul relates this new speech to the new man. Christians may have once tweeted as the world, slandered like the world, bickered and gossiped like the world — “but now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth . . . seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Colossians 3:8–10).
This new man — basking in his election, his divine adoption, and his holiness in Christ — puts on a compassionate heart, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, forgiveness, and “love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3:12–14). He loves much — within the church, online, and in personal conversations — because he has been forgiven much.
As Flames Spread
While the flames rise higher and higher, the Christian church has the opportunity to shine with a heavenly flavor of discourse. We can bear the divine seal of graciousness upon our tongues and keyboards.
“Are not some of your deepest regrets things you said — or did not say?”
Now, this does not mean we never speak hard words or unsettle some with our tone. This does not mean we will not confront error, contend for the truth, or take every thought captive to obey Christ. It does not mean we will not debate, rebuke, or say unpopular things. It does not mean we will be treated better than Jesus, who was praised for his gracious words one minute (Luke 4:22) and nearly thrown from a cliff by the same people the next (Luke 4:29).
It does mean that we are not rightly known as quarrelsome, harsh, severe. It means we are known for having patience, being compassionate, giving the benefit of the doubt. It means we can give our testimony that, at times, “we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children” (1 Thessalonians 2:7).
And this entails learning from Christ. Learning from him how to be “gentle and lowly in heart” (Matthew 11:29). It entails asking for an educated tongue (like his) so that we too “may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary” (Isaiah 50:4). And instead of setting flame to everything it comes in contact with, it hopes, “May my teaching drop as the rain, my speech distill as the dew, like gentle rain upon the tender grass, and like showers upon the herb” (Deuteronomy 32:2).