The warning, “leaves of three, let them be,” is good advice when approaching unfamiliar plants. Poison ivy is a vine that possesses three potentially dangerous leaves.
As a young girl walking to school each day, I detoured around a large elm tree growing adjacent to the sidewalk. I gave the tree a wide berth due to the prolific poison ivy vines winding around the trunk. I had heard horror stories of the reactions people contracted from touching poison ivy. I’d also heard it rumored that some individuals could be exposed to poison ivy without experiencing an adverse response. Each day when I walked past that mass of vines swirling around the tree, I wondered which poison ivy theory applied to me. The suspense was more than I could tolerate. One spring day I broke off several leaves, crushed them in my hands, and rubbed them on every exposed area of my skin.
Occasionally children are guilty of impetuous, irresponsible behavior, unfamiliar with the art of predicting consequences for their actions. Fortunately, I was unaffected by the poison ivy rub down, causing me to conclude that I would be one of the few who were immune to the toxic effects of poison ivy for life. Had I possessed the courage to admit my reckless experiment to an adult, I may have learned that the first reaction to poison ivy merely exposes the immune system to a new substance. If I were confronted with the tainted chemicals again in the future, the urushiol oil on the plant would cause an immediate response.
Later in life, I accidentally brushed against poison ivy leaves in the woods while clearing brush. It wasn’t long before an itchy, red rash developed. Poison ivy was the farthest diagnosis from my mind due to my neutral childhood experience. The second exposure triggered my immune system to recognize the chemical and it produced an allergic reaction. By the time I sought medical evaluation three weeks later, the rash was profusely covering my limbs. The itching was so intense, I couldn’t sleep at night, eventually requiring aggressive medical intervention to treat the tenacious rash.
Urushiol oil is the poisonous chemical of poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac plants. Brushing against the berries, flowers, roots, or stems of the poisonous plants leaves a smear of oil on skin, clothing, garden tools, or heavy equipment, remaining viable on those items for years, even surviving freezing temperatures.
There are many other poisons in our lives that carry the potential for causing greater harm than poison ivy, leaving permanent scars and sometimes irreversible damage. What instills more fear than poisonous snakes, the venom of which may cause nerve paralysis within minutes?
“No man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil,
full of deadly poison” (James 3:8).
Expressed alternately, “This is scary: You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue—It’s never been done. The tongue runs wild, a wanton killer. With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women he made in his image” (James 3:8, The Msg.).
When a friend’s confidence is betrayed, poison has been emitted from the tongue. Some people feel they can justify “a little white lie.” However, the color of a lie has never been determined.
“The Lord detests lying lips,
but he delights in men who are truthful” (Proverbs 12:22).
Our tongues can be dangerous muscles, spouting harmful poison. Unlike poison ivy, the vitriol a tongue spews is not always reversible. Its poison multiplies in creative, unimaginable ways.
Poisonous plants should never be burned in an inside fireplace or an outside bonfire. Urushiol oil attaches to smoke particles that can be breathed, causing swelling of the respiratory tract, compromising breathing, or perhaps shutting down respiratory muscles. “Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue is also a fire; a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire” (James 3:5-6).
An area of forest desecrated by a raging inferno is a chilling sight, killing every living thing in the vicinity. Fire annihilates, toppling giant trees, displacing wildlife, and destroying underground plant roots as it paints the surrounding environment black, the color of death. The ruinous effects of a consuming blaze cannot be reversed for decades, much the same as the destructive injury caused by sinister words. Damage remains both in the path of a fire or gossiping words, frequently lost to redesign forever. “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” (Proverbs 26:20).
“Rumors are the vehicles that turn life into a demolition derby, and gossip and slander are the tracks on which they travel. The tracks of gossip and slander are paved with careless, idle chatter as well as the malicious intentional sharing of bad reports…..Having a tongue is like having dynamite in our dentures—it must be reckoned with” (Tongue in Check by Joseph M. Stowell).
If I had known poison ivy was potentially dangerous, I would have learned to recognize and avoid the trifoliate plant. Our words function in much the same manner. If we monitor our negative emotions, admitting that anger, jealousy, and bitterness have the potential to inflict immeasurable heartache, we might be motivated to hone our ability to control hostile verbal outbursts. “If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless” (James 1:26).
Have you ever wanted to retract a comment you made in haste, but instead of apologizing, you offer the feckless excuse, “ I was only thinking out loud?” Thinking is purely a mental function. Once uttered, our thoughts have been transformed into words. “Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (Proverbs 12:18). Soothing, comforting words serve as a balm to heal.
From the inside out—our heart to our tongue—our inner monologue is filtered. Noble words are first purified mentally. Only God can assist with such an important mission, as we pray in humility and obedience:
“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer” (Psalm 19:14).