Have you noticed how difficult it is to do many things in isolation? What, for instance, is the sound of one hand clapping? Did you ever try to play tennis or ping-pong alone? In football, a passer needs a receiver, and in baseball, a pitcher can’t do without a catcher. If you’re into card games, you can play solitaire on your own, but poker or rummy don’t work without at least one more person. Bridge, euchre, checkers or chess? Forget about it!
Something else that won’t succeed in solitude is an argument. Our present age promotes an excessive amount of arguing, bickering, protesting, hueing and crying. But just as two are necessary to tango (or waltz, cha-cha or salsa), disputes arise and intensify only when at least two have decided to engage in opposing oral conflict.
The next time someone tries to pick a verbal sparring match with you, try walking away. See how long the argument continues. The other party might attempt to resume it when you meet again, but it’s hard to sustain an antagonistic exchange when chirping crickets are the only sound when the arguer pauses to take a breath.
In the Scriptures, we discover argumentation isn’t something we invented in the 20th and 21st centuries, regardless of what social media and spontaneous protests might indicate. The problem is addressed in both the Old and New testaments. For instance, Proverbs 26:20-21 tells us, “Without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down. As charcoal to embers and as wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife.”
Most of us have observed what happens to a campfire, or a blazing fireplace, once the wood has turned to ashes. It’s like that with an argument, especially the kind saturated with fierce anger and animosity. If you don’t fuel the fire, it can’t keep burning.
Why is this important, especially for followers of Jesus? Because many of us submit to the temptation to argue our beliefs, and exhibitions of unrestrained tongues leave us vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy. In James 3:9-12 we read about the irony that uncontrolled lips present:
“With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.”
In preaching to the choir, I know I’m a member of the “choir” and risk fingers being directed back to me. I’m better than I used to be, but sometimes my old bull-headedness still rears up. This reminds me of another admonition in the same chapter of James:
“When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships for example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder…. Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person...” (James 3:3-6).