In these perilous times, it is a constant temptation to shoot my mouth about this issue or that. I know I’m not alone in this; we feel our blood start to boil as we read or watch news stories or follow a thread on social media. There is a rising pressure to speak our minds and set people straight.
I’ve learned to immediately hit the pause button when I feel that impulse to react with my own opinions about the controversies at hand. I’ve learned the hard way over the years that emails, texts, and social media platforms are some of the worst places to have a constructive debate or resolve a conflict.
Attempting to do so, in my experience, is more likely to make the argument worse. And if I do, who’s the judge of whether I am right or wrong in what I say?
When clients ask me if I’d like to read the text threads on their phones so I can understand how bad or wrong the other person is, I usually will say, “Actually, no, I would prefer not to.”
The other day, as I was reading in Psalms, I came to this:
“I said to myself, ‘I will watch what I do, and not sin in what I say. I will hold my tongue when the ungodly are around me.’ But as I stood there in silence— not even speaking of good things— the turmoil within me grew worse. The more I thought about it, the hotter I got, igniting a fire of words: ‘Lord, remind me how brief my time on earth will be. Remind me that my days are numbered— how fleeting my life is…’” (Psalm 39:1-4).
Jeremiah the prophet, who was persecuted and ostracized nearly every time he opened his mouth, said something similar,
“…If I say I’ll never mention the Lord or speak in his name, his word burns in my heart like a fire. It’s like a fire in my bones! I am worn out trying to hold it in! I can’t do it!” (Jer. 20:9).
It’s comforting to know that those who have prophetic gifts and feel this pressure to speak are in very good company with the prophets of old. The need to speak, given the possible consequences, can feel like a fire shut up in the bones. There is an urgent need for release.
But in such a contentious environment, we must ask, what can I say without sowing strife, and how should I say it, and when and where, and to whom?
I can’t answer this question for anyone else. I can only share with you how Scripture comes to life for me, helping me find some answers. I hope it helps you as well.
Generations come and go, and social issues wax and wane. Only God and his word endure and remain the same forever. Because of this, I have recommitted myself to exercising the fruit of self-control and considering Scripture consistently in my use of words.
As difficult as it is to tame the tongue, nearly impossible, according to James 3:1-9—we still have responsibility to do just that, as well as we can. If we speak carelessly, James says,
“By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell” (v. 5-6, MSG).
According to Proverbs, it is “scoundrels” who create trouble with their words, lighting a “destructive blaze” (Prov. 16:27). And it is the “quarrelsome” person who “starts fights as easily as hot embers light charcoal or fire lights wood (Prov. 26:21). The rather cynical Preacher of Ecclesiastes warns us, “God’s in charge, not you—the less you speak, the better” (Eccl. 5:2, MSG), and I take this to heart.
Maybe you’ve experienced this recently as you’ve dared to speak into the swirl of controversy. You had only good will, and someone was offended. It seems lately that if we don’t speak, we risk being accused of silent complicity with perceived enemies of social justice. But if we do, someone is bound to be offended, no matter what we say. How do we wisely manage the risk?
The first principle is that as followers of Jesus, we can say the kinds of things he would say and do the kinds of things he would do. He brought glory to the Father, comfort to the brokenhearted, conviction to the sinner, eternal truth to those struggling with doubt and confusion. If our words are in this territory, we can be assured we are on the right track.
Holy Spirit, please help us with our discernment of this!
We can preach the gospel of the kingdom and apply it to the problems in front of us. We can tell people everywhere we go that God is good, and his mercy endures forever. We can say that God gave his Son as a gift, so that whosoever puts trust in him can be saved (Jn. 3:16), be filled with the Holy Spirit (Gal. 4:6), come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2:4), and be set free by it (Jn. 8:32).
We can tell people, when they ask, why we have hope when there is so much darkness all around (1 Pet.3:15). We can express a belief that all will be well in the end, because that’s what our trustworthy Book says.
We can listen to people’s honest questions, and reveal how Christianity provides solutions to our human problems. Many have only heard unsatisfactory ideas or have given up their search for answers entirely. What a blessing for us to serve something that can satisfy the desperate longings of their hearts.
If I don’t—if we in the body of Christ won’t speak of these things, who will? Paul asks,
“How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach, except they be sent?” (Rom 10:14-15).
We must tell others of the transformative truth we have found in Jesus Christ and the word of God.
Within the church, the standard is clear: we are to seek to excel in the edifying of others. Whatever we say or do, prophesy or impart, pray or serve, our primary purpose is to build up the people around us. Never to enflame them or sow strife among brothers! (1 Cor. 14:5, 12, 26). Never just to prove ourselves right and another wrong.
If we suffer, we suffer for saying right things rather than wrong things (1 Pet. 3:14-18).
The Apostle Paul explained that his preaching of the Good News was not something he could boast about (1 Cor. 9:16). He was compelled from within. He had the same fire in his bones that Jeremiah had. So did the first apostles in Jerusalem who boldly declared, “We cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:20).
We can focus on issues sometimes, and devote time, money, and energy to them—abortion, racism, human rights, for example. It is fitting for those who represent the Lord to confront unrighteousness, injustice and cruelty when we see it. But our zeal to advocate for these causes must be enfolded within an unwavering commitment to speak the gospel.
Our words must be seasoned always with his grace. This is where people will discover true words of hope, peace, and life.
If we follow this rule and people are offended, we stand on the same solid ground where Jesus and the Prophets stood. We are blessed and rewarded for suffering persecution for Jesus’ name (Matt. 5:11). If we can’t follow this rule, it seems to me we should heed the Preacher’s advice and keep our mouths closed.
Please feel free to comment. I’d love to hear from you, as long as you take into consideration what you’ve just read!