Like fire, gossip spreads and does harm

By Judy Brandon: CNJ Religion Columnist

I heard today that the town of Edgewood is fighting a grass fire and some townspeople have had to be evacuated.

Grass fires can be a terrible thing because they destroy everything in their path. On the spiritual side, James, a book in the New Testament, notes that gossip spreads like wildfire and is just as destructive. He says, “Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.” (James 3:5)

Several years ago, I saw a film on the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and I have never forgotten it. In that year, Chicago was a flourishing, growing city, but on the night of October 8, 1871, many people’s lives were changed when a small fire started.

The most reliable account of that night says that the fire began when a cow owned by the O’Leary family kicked over a lantern in the barn. Firefighters were summoned, but were sent to the wrong address and consequently the fire gained momentum. When the firefighters finally arrived, flames were already leaping from house to house and shed to shed, spreading rapidly from block to block and section to section of the city.

After raging for 29 hours, the fire finally was brought under control but not before much of the city was destroyed. In the 73 miles that was burned, the assessed cost of destroyed property was set at $192 million. Three hundred people were killed and 100,000 people left homeless.

But the cost was far greater than the figures revealed. Some people whose homes were lost had to settle in temporary shacks in parks. Because businesses were destroyed, food was scarce as well as basic living supplies.

How interesting that James compares the tongue to a raging fire, and he lived long before the Chicago fire!

Here are the parallels to what James wrote. The documentary noted that Chicago had no rain that summer, making everything vulnerable to fire.

The spiritual side to that is that people gossip because they are self-centered and they have ignored the biblical principle of self-control. Their lives are totally centered on their own welfare and anything that will promote self. The tongue is really the messenger of what is in the heart. What kind of heart would spread gossip?

The documentary also emphasized that the wind carried the flames throughout the city. There are people who spread gossip just like the wind. The juicy information is carried over all towns in a matter of minutes, leaping from one mouth to another.

The city of Chicago did not have the mechanisms in place to keep a fire from spreading. What is the mechanism for preventing gossip? There are two. One has to do with the one who gossips and the other has to do with the one who hears. The gossiper has to have a change of heart, a conviction that what he or she is doing is wrong. Secondly, the hearer must put the fire of gossip out by not spreading it.

The documentary showed drawings of the plight of some of Chicago’s people after the fire. Some lost homes and everything. There is still another parallel. Evil tongues have ruined lives because of “tales” spread and carried from person to person.

I know that I have a tendency to get caught up in the news about other people. I realize that I have to make a change, as do all others who tend to listen and spread gossip.