Ever since there have been people, there have been opinions. And ever since there has been more than one person, there have been diverse opinions. Diverse opinions often clash. Harsh language is as old as the Fall. Debates are nothing new. Believers have always been urged to guard our speech, and few (if any) of us have ever maintained a clean record in that regard. It is unbelievably easy to let careless words slip now and then. History is full of well-intentioned people who needed to learn when to put a sock in it. So really, this is a very old topic.
But now we have smartphones.
Never before has communication been so instantaneous and far-reaching. It is truly frightening to me how quickly a thought can be dashed off on Twitter — what’s 140 characters, after all? — and immediately, anyone with an internet connection can see it. Unless we tightly control our privacy settings (and perhaps not even then), we have no idea who is reading us or how they will interpret our message.
“Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things. See how great a forest a little fire kindles!” (James 3:5)
Has James’ analogy ever been more appropriate than in the internet age? A single lit match on the forest floor can set an entire countryside ablaze. One misplaced sentence that hits the magical combination of timing, visibility, and intrigue can go viral overnight.
In view of that, we need to ask ourselves: What are we saying?
Recently, I have seen a handful of highly visible Christian writers fumble their verbal matchbox and start fires. These are godly men and women, every one of them (if you’re familiar with them, you probably already have an incident or two in mind, and if you don’t, then don’t worry about it). Yet for each of them, when they published that one ill-fated tweet, Facebook status, or blog post — something I’m sure sounded just fine in their own heads before they hit “send” — the Christian blogosphere exploded.
Many people were outraged, and took to social media to say so. Many others leapt into the fray to defend the original authors. There were open letters everywhere — letters to the tweeters to apologize, to the detractors to stop being so harsh, to the defenders to examine their priorities, to the whole internet to just calm down and stop fighting. That, in and of itself, is not what you’d call ideal.
But what bothered me more than the gaffes themselves was what followed from the folks holding the matchbox. Tweets were clarified or deleted. Positions were defended. Trolls were rebuked. Calls for grace were sounded. While those are not inherently bad things, what troubled me most was what I didn’t see from many of them: An apology. Not even the pseudo-apology, “I’m sorry you took it that way.” Most of these situations ended with the author saying, perhaps gently, and perhaps with palpable exasperation, “Okay, okay, I deleted it. But I didn’t mean it like that.”
As a writer, teacher, and communicator — although in a much, much smaller capacity than anyone involved in these controversies — I can’t help but think that this is entirely beside the point. To be sure, intentions matter. The Lord looks at the heart. But our purest, most valiantly noble thoughts don’t count for much to our audience. All that our readers have to work with are our words. If we say something insensitive and get pushback from people who have been hurt, the response is simple: “I’m sorry.”
We have to listen to why what we said bothered people. If they protest, “I don’t believe God would really let anyone end up in Hell”…well then, that’s something we can’t compromise in or apologize for. But if it’s “You said [insert term here], and I saw that as a devaluation of my people group,” then that’s another story. At that point, it barely matters whether or not the author agrees with the connotations of that term. Particularly if there are many people with the same complaint, it’s time to back off: “I’m so sorry; I had no idea it would come across that way. I will think carefully about this.”*
If it’s “just a word,” then we don’t need that word. If we “didn’t mean it that way,” we need to expand our vocabulary to more clearly say what we mean. It’s worth taking the time to avoid inflaming preexisting wounds in others. It’s our job to be gentle, not the job of our listeners to simply get over whatever we clumsily said.
Of course, we should not shrink back from statements that the Bible is bold about. Of course, we should not be ashamed of the gospel of Christ. Of course, we are called to speak the word of the Lord, like Ezekiel, “whether they hear or whether they refuse” (Ezekiel 2:5-7, 3:11). Of course there will always be the “offense of the Gospel” — but as much as it depends on us, we want the Gospel itself to be what’s offensive, rather than our own careless or confusing language.
There will always be those who misunderstand, and there will even be those who purposefully misconstrue. There will be opponents. There will be trolls. We can’t please everyone, and we will wear ourselves out if we try. Not every criticism is equally valid. But relatively few criticisms — fewer than we might assume — are completely without merit. If nothing else, for selfish reasons it’s good to at least learn how to avoid that poo-and-fan combination in the future. But ideally — y’know — we want to learn how to avoid hurting the people we intend to minister to.
We need to take responsibility for the fact that such a thing could happen. We need to accept that the onus is on us to be clear and to be kind. We need to remember that all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds can see what we say, perhaps far more than we ever imagined. When writing to an open, global audience, we need well-aimed arrows of truth, not loose cannons of brain-dumping.
If we don’t take a deep breath before hitting “send”… if we don’t feel the weight of the dozens or thousands of eyes that will see what we’re about to say… if we don’t remember how flammable that verbal forest is… if we don’t feel the slightest trembling about our weak words representing God’s glory rightly to whoever has an RSS reader… well, perhaps we ought to think a little harder about what we’re about to do. We can’t (and shouldn’t) always prevent controversy, and we can’t always perfectly avoid causing pain, but as much as it depends on us, we can strive to live peaceably with all (Rom 12:18).