27 October 2016
Sweet talk, the Bible and why people mess up
There's a saying often applied to Christian witness that more flies are caught by honey than by vinegar. Enquirers are not impressed by sour believers who pour scorn and gush criticism. Kindness, gentleness, forbearance and the other fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5 are far more attractive.
But sweet talk is not high among the virtues of contemporary society. Barely a day goes by without some well-publicised outburst of violent, hateful or abusive language, or of exaggerated and unsubstantiated allegations. And it's not just politicians who are doing it. The culture rubs off on us all.
In an interview with The Times in September the novelist Ian McEwan joined the growing throng complaining about "how furious and enraged people are" on Twitter. Instead of following the advice of James 1:19 that "everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry", the social trend is for the opposite.
It messes us all up. It damages victims, for whom the mental and social wounds sustained from savage attacks can be devastating. It damages society. Bitterness is an acid that eats away at trust and cooperation in communities, churches and nations. And it is intensely damaging spiritually.
James likens the effect of unguarded language to a forest fire set off by a spark, then says that it's incompatible with Christian discipleship. "With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God's likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be" (James 3:9-10).
By 'cursing' he doesn't mean swearing. He means condemnatory or dismissive remarks that demean or belittle people. You're not just slapping someone down with whom you disagree, he says. You're slapping the face of God in whose image they are created. They deserve more respect – even if we're convinced they're wrong.
Jesus says the same. In Matthew 5:21-22 he reminds us that while we all agree that murder is wrong, angry abuse and ridicule are equally subject to God's judgement and "the fire of hell".
This presents us with some uncomfortable truths. One is that abusive language is an expression of self-righteousness. It declares that we consider ourselves better than another. That runs counter to Paul's instruction to "do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others better than yourselves" (Philippians 2:3).
It may also be a way of stamping our mark on a society – or a church – that we feel doesn't listen to us and in which we feel powerless. We hear an idea, allegation or belief that riles us, and without checking if the hearsay is accurate we vent our frustration by proclaiming our views loudly to whatever audience we can command.
Then there is what psychotherapists call 'splitting'. We project on to others weaknesses or insecurities buried deep inside us and which we can't, or won't, face. A fault-finding gossip may snipe at others because it hides their conviction that they're a failure. These inner defects are common, and require the healing touch of the Holy Spirit in the depths of our hearts.
So the first remedy for the current epidemic of violent language is to bite our own tongues and check our own motives for holding forth, so that we don't add to the deluge. "Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent, and discerning if they hold their tongues" (Proverbs 17:28).
A second remedy is to consider the person on the receiving end. Venomous rebukes are unlikely to help them see the error of their ways – if indeed they are wrong; it may of course be that they've got a point worth considering. Patient consideration and discussion goes against our defensive instincts. But then Christian discipleship is a reversal of the world's values anyway.
A third remedy is to obey Paul's command to make all our conversation "full of grace, seasoned with salt" – that is, tasty, moreish, not sick-making (Colossians 4:6). Sweet, not sour; encouraging, not down-putting. To be a model, not a mimic.
And a fourth is to get behind the still woefully inadequate social safeguards to protect vulnerable people from online abuse. In August the police announced the setting-up of a new unit to deal with online hate crime. In October the Crown Prosecution Service published tougher guidelines on criminalising people who use derogatory hashtags or pass on offensive messages.
It's a start. But so too is lacing our tongues with honey rather than vinegar.
Derek Williams muses occasionally and tries to tweet sweetly @DerekTFTD. His latest book The Judas Trap – why people mess up (and how to avoid joining them) is published by Instant Apostle, RRP £8.99, and is available from Christian bookshops or online.