In 1899 four newspaper reporters in Denver, Colorado almost succeeded in tearing down the Great Wall of China with their words. The reporters from four different newspapers were having drinks together at a local bar. The men had been sent out to dig up any kind of story for the Sunday editions, since there was not much happening in the news cycle. After bantering around some ideas for going after stories, one of them proposed that he was going to make up a story. With more beer drinking, they began hatching a story together that would be a big whopper. They would write about China. It was on the other side of the world. No one would know the story was a phony. Nobody would verify the source.
This is the story they came up with, in order to sell newspapers: “Group of American engineers are bidding on a job to demolish the Great Wall. Chinese are opening their borders to international trade and goodwill.” The Denver newspapers carried the fake story. But it did not end there. Eastern newspapers like the New York Times picked up the story that China was opening up to the West by tearing down the Great Wall. People took the story seriously to the point that the Chinese found out about it. There were extreme patriotic groups within China that were suspicious of Western influence to begin with, and they ended up slaughtering hundreds of foreign missionaries. Within two months of the story, 12,000 troops from six Western nations joined forces, invaded China with the purpose of protecting their own countrymen. All the bloodshed that followed was originally sparked by a journalistic hoax invented in a bar in Denver by four men, and became the international crisis known as the Boxer Rebellion.
The tongue is so powerful that it determines the direction of a person’s life (James 3:3-5a).
The horse is a strong animal; yet, even an eleven year old girl who knows what she is doing with a bridle and a bit can make the horse do whatever she wants him to do. The power of the tongue is also like a large ship that is completely controlled in its direction by a very small piece of the ship, the rudder.
Our words might seem small and insignificant, but they have incredible power to determine the course and destiny of human lives. A rider who does not know how to handle a horse is in trouble. An undisciplined pilot of a ship who is not careful puts the passengers at risk of a shipwreck. Likewise, the loose undisciplined tongue is on a one way course of destruction.
The tongue is so powerful that it can destroy a person and those around him/her (James 3:5b-6).
Just like fire, our words have an awesome potential for harm. The Chicago fire of 1871 killed 250 people and destroyed 17,000 buildings. It was all started by a cow kicking over a lantern in Mrs. O’Leary’s barn. The Yellowstone National Park fire of 1988 torched 783,000 acres and took 13,000 firefighters at a cost of $120 million to contain. It was all started by flash of lightning.
The tongue has the same capacity for destruction. Those who misuse it are guilty of negligent spiritual arson. We take our God-given power of speech for granted when we allow stray words to fly off the tongue. The power of the tongue destroys when it resorts to gossip (saying something behind somebody’s back that you would not dare say to their face); flattery (saying something to someone’s face that you would never say behind their back); negative criticism; sarcastic humor; boasting; and, a whole host of other sins of the tongue that all have as their end game the destruction of people’s lives.
We are never to take our words for granted in the church. They have the power of speaking life and adding immense value to others’ lives. Conversely, words have the ability to destroy both the speaker and the hearers. The answer is not to keep our mouths shut, but to use the tongue as it is intended by God to be used:
· “The tongue of the wise brings healing” (Proverbs 12:18).
· “The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life” (Proverbs 15:4).
· “My tongue will tell of your righteous acts all day long” (Psalm 71:24).
· “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise” (Psalm 51:15).
· “Do not repay evil for evil… every tongue will confess to God” (Romans 12:17, 14:11).
May the love and grace of Jesus direct your every word and guide your tongue so that the church is edified, the world blessed, and the lost are found.