In an image-saturated world, words still matter. In our friendships, marriages, and churches, how we use and misuse words will set the path either for pain or for flourishing. In this series, writer Branson Parler exhorts us to not take our words lightly, because the way we use our words ultimately points to the Word who became matter, became flesh, and dwelt among us.

This Part 3 of a four part series called Words Matter. Access the rest of the series here:

Promises Broken | More but not Less than Words | Tongues of Fire | Speaking of God


 

 

The story of Megan Meier proves just how false it is to say that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” In 2006, Meier struck up a friendship with Josh Evans, a boy she had never met, on social media. Josh had moved to a neighboring town and didn’t have a phone number yet, but he and Megan interacted frequently. This is where things get strange. Josh wasn’t really Josh. Behind the mask of social media, “Josh” was really a group of neighbors, including the mother of a girl who had a falling out with Megan. Over the course of their interactions and to exact revenge, “Josh” became increasingly harsh, telling Megan “You are a bad person and everyone hates you…The world would be a better place without you.” Megan replied, “You are the kind of boy a girl would kill herself over.” After sending that message, Megan committed suicide.

 

Nearly a decade later, we’re much more aware of cyberbullying. But although cyberbullying may be new, the devastating effects of our words are not. As James puts it, “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” The tongue is small but has a huge effect, and though we can control things much bigger than us—horses and ships, for example—we can’t control our tongues. So our out-of-control tongues take us along for the ride, like a spooked horse or a ship at full throttle with the rudder set for a collision course.

 

Our tongue is a fire. Our words can burn and destroy.

 

In the Bible, however, fire isn’t just a negative image of death and destruction; it can also point to life and the reality of God’s presence. For example, God’s presence is communicated through the burning bush and a pillar of fire in the book of Exodus. On the day of Pentecost, God’s Spirit is poured out on followers of Jesus and this is signified through “tongues of fire,” an appearance of flame that is meant to take the reader back to those Exodus stories and God’s presence with his people. And what do the disciples do after receiving the tongues of fire, the Spirit’s empowering presence? They speak. Although tongues of fire can be destructive, tongues of fire that are overflowing with God’s presence can be life-giving and creative. How does that work?

 

Tongues of fire can bring life by generating a controlled burn. Scientists tell us that some level of burning is helpful and beneficial for forests and grasslands. In fact, sequoia cones need heat from fire to release their seeds. So fire can bring about new life. To be honest, though, this is really hard to do. We either try to keep our words in and let the fire burn inside us, or we let it out in a fireball of destruction. A controlled burn takes practice so that we learn what to say, when to say it, and how to say it.

 

Tongues of fire also imitate God’s words by creating hope within hopelessness and offering a new vision of what could be. When God speaks, he calls into being things that did not exist. The apostle Paul said that God’s words of promise to Abraham generate a new possibility, a new reality for his future. We are likewise called to speak into each other’s lives, to give hope beyond the “way things are” to the way things can and will be because of the promises of God.

 

If our tongues are like bridles that control horses or rudders that steer ships, then our words used in a good way can give direction and set the course for our lives. In a world where it’s tempting to take our glut of words—texts, social media, email—for granted, we have to remember that we have tongues of fire. Our words will either destroy or give life.

 

Tongues of Fire | Off the Page

 

Tina Meier, Megan’s mom, recognized this. Through the Megan Meier Foundation, she speaks to students, educators, and parents about the realities and dangers of cyberbullying. Though she was horribly burned by a tongue of fire, she is using the power that burned her to bring life to others. Ultimately, Jesus suffered under scorn and ridicule so that we can experience God’s blessing and speak that blessing, life, and encouragement into the lives of others. Let’s use that gift.

 


 

 

This Part 3 of a four part series called Words Matter. Access the rest of the series here:

Promises Broken | Words > Image | Tongues of Fire | Speaking of God