“I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matt. 12:36).
God cares about our words. You don’t have to search long to find out that he’s concerned about the content of his people’s speech. But here’s the question: does God mind if we speak the truth, but do it an inappropriate way? Is he only concerned about the content of our speech, or does he also care about the manner in which we speak?
I fear than many of us in the church (and those outside too), while we concern ourselves with the content of our speech, often ignore the manner in which we speak to others. The internet and social media in particular have highlighted and fueled this problem – the very existence of ‘memes’ encourages short, reductionist, and unbalanced points of view (but that’s a post for another time). The current election season has also brought out some of the worst in people. The lack of civil discourse has been not only beneath a society that values democracy, dissent, and discussion; but, more importantly, below God’s calling for his followers’ speech.
The fact is God cares deeply about both content and manner. Jesus does not give us the option to choose between telling truth and speaking suitably; rather he obligates us to uphold both virtues. In other words, he desires that we imitate his example of being “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
Here is a brief survey of biblical passages that hold these virtues together:
Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ. (Eph. 4:15)
Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person. (Col. 4:5-6)
In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience. (1 Pet. 3:15-16)
The wise of heart is called discerning, and sweetness of speech increases persuasiveness. The heart of the wise makes his speech judicious and adds persuasiveness to his lips. (Prov. 16:21, 23)
Joshua Harris sums up the point well in the title of his short book on the topic, Humble Orthodoxy. That’s what we should strive for: a manner of speech that doesn’t degrade others or forsake truth, but rather echoes the meekness of our Master and expounds the truth.
Saying what’s on your mind is not inherently virtuous. Instead of spouting off whatever we “feel” at the moment, we ought to be sensitive to the context, our hearers, and the point we’re trying to make. This might sound laborious, or perhaps disingenuous; but the fact is it’s what we’re called by God to strive for. Whatever the topic (e.g. religion, politics, sports) and whatever the forum (e.g. a casual conversation, Twitter, a formal speech) we must not be careless with our words.
Much more could be said on this from both a biblical and communication perspective, but here’s the bottom line. 1) Does God care about what we say? He sure does. 2) Does he also care about how we say it? Absolutely. To answer either of those questions in the negative sets you up for poor communication that is displeasing to God.
I leave you with this penetrating and humorous quote from John Calvin, “I consider looseness with words no less a defect than looseness of the bowels.”