I think we have all heard the adage: “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all”. If we were too look into the Scriptures for something similar, look no further than Ephesians.
Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.
The meaning is pretty clear, the talk that comes out of our mouths should be helpful for building up others, benefiting those who are listening to us. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that there are a lot of people who are not using their words to build others up. In fact, quite the opposite. Words are tearing people apart every day. We read harsh criticisms through social media and newspapers, we hear it on the news and radio. Some would argue that even though these criticisms are not building someone up, it is for the benefit of those would listen to learn to steer clear of that person, organization, business, etc. I would argue back that the language in the criticisms are not always “wholesome”, not always researched facts, exaggerated truths, etc.
I do believe it is possible to give honest constructive criticism without using demeaning words, without tearing down those who believe differently than we do, and keeping the criticism down to the actual facts without exaggeration and hyperbole. There is a line that you can cross where your honest constructive criticism has become a personal (and sometimes vicious attack).
My grandmother would often use a simple phrase in relation to a lot of different topics. She’d say “use it or lose it”. It was a reminder that whatever tangible thing you hold in your hand, gift you have been given, opportunity you have been presented with has an expiration date. If you wait to long to eat that ice cream, it will melt. If you don’t use that gift certificate, you’re going to misplace it. If you don’t jump at this opportunity, it will pass you. If you stop learning, you will lose knowledge. If you don’t keep practicing at a skill, you will lose your proficiency. Use it, or you are going to lose it.
In the world of web articles, bloggers, and social media accounts it appears many of us have grasped the idea of use it or lose it. We know that if we don’t take full advantage of this opportunity, we lose the chance of success. If we don’t add to our platforms regularly, we will lose our audience. This has resulted in writers who beat certain topics to death because they keep bringing it up regularly for content needs, or who will write about just about anything just to publish on schedule. We find chaos there. This has resulted in youtubers, and live videos on social media accounts vying to be “viral” so they will speak on some of the most controversial topics. They know when something hits a hot button with people that they can ride on the coattails. Look at what happened when artists Childish Gambino released his new video “This is America” (warning, the video is graphic). It is purposely and intentionally controversial to get people talking, and within hours of it’s release there were hundreds of youtube videos of people sharing their reactions and interpretation of the video. Praises, shaming, and outright lack of comprehending anything about the video’s message were abound.
In the realm of Christian authors, speakers, musicians, and artists there is no short supply of online criticism. I will say that the majority of what I observe is found on twitter. I’m not really sure why, to be honest. I’d also go so far as to say in some cases the criticism of believers by other believers can outweigh just about every other topic outside of politics. Spend a little time watching the Christian accounts and you can’t miss it. Egalitarians tearing down complementarians. Criticisms of mega churches and their Pastors. Criticism of female Bible teachers and church leaders. Let’s not even begin on the public criticism of women who are Pastors. Once you start peppering in the criticisms from those who have been hurt by the church, left the church, and non-believers… it is actually overwhelming and heartbreaking.
A Pastor once said, and I’m sure many others have as well, that we should be known for what we are for more than we are known for what we are against. John 13:35 encourages us to be know for our love. What is love? 1 Corinthians 4-8 says that love is patience, kindness, it is not jealous, nor is it proud. Love doesn’t dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, and it doesn’t keep track of wrongs. Love protects, trusts, hopes, and perseveres. And in verse 8 we are told that love never fails, even though prophecies, tongues, and knowledge will cease. In other words LOVE doesn’t cease even when these other things do.
I’d like to take my grandmother’s phrase and make it a little more specific by saying:
Use it wisely, before you lose it.
One day our writings will stop, our words will not be read and our voices will not be heard. One day our knowledge will end, we won’t be able to teach others any longer. One day our gifts will pass away, but our LOVE will endure.
It is possible that my writing and speaking could stop, because I have reached an age that I have nothing left to say or I don’t have the faculties to keep writing. As a person with a chronic health condition, I do recognize that every day that I have to put pen to paper and move my cursor across this screen is a gift. It could be that our abilities will gradually fade or could be suddenly taken away from us. Someone close to me went to a doctors appointment yesterday only to find out she had a complication with her eyes and without warning could lose her vision. Like instantly, snap of a finger. She is being treated right now to prevent that from happening. Our gifts and talents could literally be gone due to a tragic accident, a slowly debilitating disease. Long will these blog posts be forgotten when we are navigating a new life, or when our presence fades into retirement. What will be left? The love I shared for those who knew me in life, those who I would lovingly encourage to go further than I ever did, and those people that I offered a shoulder to cry on.
It is possible that I might make a mistake that changes how people view me, damages my credibility, or sets me in opposition to others. Or, that I may change my position on hot button issues that creates controversy. We’ve seen authors who have done this, and it cost them dearly. They were dropped from publishers, stores, speaking tours, endorsements, etc. Not because of some illegal scandal, but simply stepping on the other side of an established line of belief. Whether a mistake or an intentional shift, my audience may narrow even to the point where there is no one left. I may have a lot more to say, but I will have lost the audience who was willing to listen. If that happens? What will be left? My love for others. That I served women well. That I did my best to equip them in their leadership roles. My genuine love and encouragement. That will be left.
There is another consideration, which is that is possible that any one of use could begin to use our voice in a negative way, and it will cost us. Where suddenly our writings take on a negative tone, tearing people down, accusatory and gossipy, without merit or evidence. And this is where I lean into “use it wisely, before you lose it” as a warning. I must use my voice, as a speaker and writer, wisely or I risk losing everything and everyone that I am trying to reach. If everything I write is about how awful a person is, calling out false teachers, tearing down Pastors, ripping apart denominations, pitting one group against another, etc. then I become known not for my love but my hate and disdain. I become known for my judgement, and I will begin to lose those who were once willing listeners. What will be left? A legacy of people whom I hurt, chastised, ran off, put down, labeled, and mistreated. There will be no love there. Just a wake of hurt.
If the Lord has trusted me with a platform, and I misuse that gift, I believe HE will take it from me. If I am sinning, HE will expose that sin. If I am not using it as HE wants, He will put me back on track or take it from me. If I am to be known for my love, and yet all I write about is vile and accusation… I am not going to be known for my love. The only people who are going to listen to me are going to be those who would use me to fit their narratives. If I want to be known for my love, then I have to be intentional about how I approach everything.
I do not want to be known as the writer who tears others apart. I do not want to be known as a woman who slings arrows from her mouth with wild abandon, careless and unrestrained. I do not want to be known as the speaker who blasts out accusations without merit or evidence. I do not want to be known as a person who can not be corrected, or unwilling to admit I was wrong. I want to be known for my love. Which bodes this question:
How do I speak or write about truth, if I can’t criticize when something or someone is in the wrong?
This is a great question, and I can only share my own methods.
1. I would rather TEACH YOU how to use the Scripture to test that person for yourself vs. TELL YOU the answer and have you trust me at my word. In other words, I recognize that I am a fallible person who is capable of being wrong. I will point you to the scriptures to test the message of an author, speaker, teacher, Pastor, church, etc. Every single time. Not only is it good for you to come to those conclusions for yourself, but it teaches you a skill you can use in the future (when I’m not around to answer).
2. I will never write (or speak) about a person/topic that have not at least attempted to speak to the person directly about. Generally speaking I am not a fan of the “open letter” to specific people. I think they can work really well when addressing an issue to the general public. However, I’m not inclined to believe that an author of 30 books cares what I have to say about them in an open letter. I will at least attempt to write the person directly, if I share the same level of influence a meeting could be possible. If there is rejection, if the response is rude, or if the response affirms what I believe to be true… at that point I may consider sharing it. Matthew 18 is pretty clear in it’s directions that first we go to the person. I will not skip that step.
3. I must look at myself and my intentions and ask “is this being done out of love”. If I am writing purely from a place of malice to malign that person’s character or ministry, that is not love. If I am writing in anger, words that are slanderous, that is not love. If I am writing a laundry list of wrongs going back until the day they were born, that is not love. If I am writing to dishonor another person, or to lift myself up above another person, that is not love. If I am unwilling to discuss any contrasting perspectives or look at any evidence presented that counters my belief, then I am being prideful, and that is not love either. A Pastor once shared that in order to speak “truth in love” you are required to love the person so much that you have no choice but to speak the truth. When I read criticisms of others, I rarely see it being from a position of love.
Now you may ask: What if I love God so much that I can’t let another person be a false teacher? Or, I love God and His church so much that I can’t not call out this behavior?
Let me leave you by employing my first point, TEACH vs. TELL.
First, you need to hit the Word and make sure that you are correct. What does the Bible say about false teachers? How can we identify them? How are we to respond to them?
Ezekiel 13:9 says that the Lord will have His hand against them.
2 Timothy 4:3-4 says that the people will find teachers who will tell them what their ears want to hear, not truth but myth.
Acts 20:29-30 does tell us that there will be wolves who come in to destroy us, but also that there will be those that rise up from our flock who will distort truth.
2 Peter 1:20-21 clarifies that the Word from any prophet will not be their own interpretation but directly from God.
Titus 1:1-11 describes what an anointed overseer’s character looks like vs. the actions of the false teacher (rebellious, deceptive, destructive, for their own gain).
… I could keep going on, but I want you to dig for yourself!
Keep in mind that 1 John 4:1-6 is specifically about testing the spirits, and Matthew 7:15-20 is also about False Teachers and False Prophets and how you can identify them.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t include a piece of scripture that is often, in my opinion, overlooked in this topic:
In this particular instance, John is calling out someone who was acting in the spirit… specifically casting out demons. He tells Jesus that they tried to stop him from doing it because this guy was not part of their particular group. Jesus responds to John with the instruction to not stop the man. This man was not a threat to the apostles, not a threat to the Kingdom. And in fact, Jesus recognized the man as an ally.
We need to be careful that we do bring accusation against someone that is not really a threat, where we are allowing doctrinal differences or our own personal interpretations cloud our ability to accurately test the person or belief against the Scripture. It is really easy to find people who agree with us, to take Scripture out of context to support our views and opinions. We can do the same when it comes to False Teachers. We can examine everything about their life to find enough evidence (or twist evidences) to make ourselves feel justified in our accusation. However, Proverbs 25:8 warns:
Do not hastily bring into court, for what will you do in the end, when your neighbor puts you to shame?
This is a warning to us that if we are too quick to toss out those accusations, and we are wrong… guess who ends up looking bad in the end?
So, I would ask the following of you…
Please do not hit share, repost, or retweet on an accusing article without verifying the facts for yourself. Do not take another writer, speaker, or teacher’s opinion as gospel truth (even if you think they are more spiritually mature or educated than you). This includes myself, please don’t share anything I write without vetting it. Once you do, you become an accuser … and that is not where you want to be.
Please do not write or speak about others or topics that you have not fully and responsibly researched. Don’t just look for materials that support your opinion, but look at those that disagree with you. Don’t rely on just extra-biblical resources either, take it to the Word.
Pray before you say anything. Whether you are speaking to a single person or writing for an audience of thousands, bathe your words in prayer. Even if everything you believe is true and accurate… is God asking YOU to be the messenger of this truth, NOW and in this way? If there is a seed of doubt, better to wait for confirmation that let your tongue loose.
Start with love. If there is no love in your heart for this person, or about this topic, there will be no love in your words. With out love, you are just a clanging symbol… water dripping… noise. You are not uplifting or edifying. You are not loving a person when you focus on tearing them down vs. encouraging them in a manner that builds them up.
If we are to be known for our love, we must use our voices wisely. Or, we risk losing it.