Tag Archives: words

Talk damage

There is an unresolved issue about how to deal with hate speech on social media. People say online what they would not say in person, whatever the situation. Yet free speech is an important freedom, and once you begin to limit it beyond provable slander or clear misinformation, the road to big brother control is open.

It is not only hate speech. Much racism is encouraged, even taught by things said. Similarly body shaming relies on what is said. There is no doubt that what people say can, and does, cause a great deal of harm.

So perhaps we should not be surprised that James, with his insistence on practical, down-to-earth faith, talks repeatedly about good, and bad, speech. In James 3:1-12 he seems almost despairing: Words may seem small, but have a power almost beyond imagining, and we so easily make mistakes with them. The tongue seems untamable, in a way which ought not to be.

He has already hinted that the wise way is to speak less readily (James 1:19: “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger”), and that genuine faith has to tackle the issue of what is said. He will go on to give instructions about avoiding slander (James 4:11) and telling the truth (James 5:12). He makes it clear that there are no shortcuts. The only way to sort our speech is to let our lives be sorted. When God has worked over our attitudes, ambitions, jealousies – and all the rest – only then will our words be reliably loving and patient. Of course, it is not a fast process, and none of us can claim to have finished, but it is encouraging to know that it is part of the agenda.

And, working backwards, that is why becoming a teacher of the faith is dangerous. Teachers will be judged more severely. The more they know, the more they should show progress in their lives – and not only when they know they are “in public”. It is a sobering thought for anyone who has ever led a Christian group or preached a sermon. They know the theory that explaining the gospel should help some come closer to God, even though some will find the cost of discipleship too great. The should also be aware that those who see and hear may end up saying (I think like Ghandi) “I like your Christ, but not your Christians”.

Words can be wonderful, words can be terrible. Only when the words, and the person speaking them, are fully directed by the Holy Spirit can they fail to show the faults of the speaker alongside the best of the message. This isn’t big brother control, it is a willing partnership to show the love of God.

What’s behind it?

Do you sometimes wonder why things succeed? Is it just clever presentation, a good advertising agency, or a bit of manipulation? Sometimes we look back at the fashions of a few years ago – the popular ideas and activities as well as clothes – and wonder why we ever thought them worth bothering with. Yet some things do last, and prove their worth.

Paul writes to the Corinthians (we read 1 Corinthians 2:1-12 this week) about what happened when he first came to them and established the group of Christian believers. He says that they weren’t persuaded by a clever speaker, nor by polished theory and philosophy. Yet the Church was established there, and fought through many difficulties, as it has done all over the world. Paul’s claim is that, far from depending on himself, he spoke of Jesus and his death. The force was God’s Spirit, which made, and maintained, the difference.

My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power,  so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.

1 Corinthians 2:4-5

There is a power behind Christian living, but if it is real it is not dependent on a dominant personality, or a clever presentation. The power has to be the power of God to heal and transform broken lives, and to motivate loving service. In a similar way, the wisdom Paul speaks of is not about getting rich, making a reputation, or even getting your own way. It is in gaining some understanding of a God who loves his people, who chooses the way of the Cross, and works in lives that are often seen as unimportant.

But is it real? The Christian faith continues to grow and transform people, even when it costs them dearly. Despite many human failures and scandals, nothing has finished it. It has to be something more than clever words and flattery. It has to be about the way things were made, and really are.

To simplify . .

How complicated does it have to be? In a world where so much is complicated – technology, getting help, simply handling the everyday things we use – do the big questions have to be endlessly complicated as well? What about the decisions? Perhaps not. Paul writes (in today’s reading, 2 Timothy 2:8-15)

“Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David–that is my gospel”

2 Timothy 2:8

a simple summary – and a good one. Paul is chained as a prisoner, but seems to think imprisonment worthwhile, in the hope that his efforts and endurance will help others to find salvation – “safety” – in the same way, through Jesus. His concern with outsiders comes from Jesus, and is a reminder for us. He doesn’t tell us where “the saying” comes from – a hymn, a bit of worship text, a poem?, but is underlines his point:
Jesus is our focus, a leader reliable enough to follow through death to life beyond. (You have to be very sure of a leader to go on that campaign with him!) He reminds us of the importance of enduring, of keeping going – for it is those who continue their loyalty to him who will gain the benefit.

But Jesus is not like us in being possibly unfaithful. He keeps faith, whatever we do, and that is part of the difference. Jesus is remembered as the one who was raised from the dead – the great evidence of God’s approval of the man and his message. His pioneering of that journey is vital.
Jesus is also a descendant of David – not just the Messiah (“Great David’s greater Son”, to quote a hymn of ours), but one who, coming in that tradition, fulfills and advances it.

So is it all that simple? “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David–that is my gospel” 2 Tim 2:8. Yes, and no. Yes, that is a good summary, and it does tell us where we should be focussing and who we should be following. No, because it is a summary, and to understand the summary you need to read the whole argument.

Paul goes on to that in verse 14 “avoid wrangling over words”. There are 2 sorts of discussion:

  • one is a point scoring contest, an attempt to win. It can go on for a long time as people twist words, facts, anything
  • another involves careful listening, building with others a deeper and better picture of an important reality.

Paul knows only too well how pointless the first is. Words are terribly inexact things, but they are the best means of communication we usually have. There is a danger in using them – of confusion, of point-scoring competition, of giving the wrong picture, an inaccurate picture, a picture that looks OK to me but has a totally different meaning for the other person.

You see the dilemma, and its solution. We try to work out our faith, to understand at the deepest level we are capable of. But when we are in danger of getting too clever, or too totally confused/bemused

“Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David – that is my gospel”

2 Timothy 2:8

That instruction can be given without qualification

“Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David–that is my gospel”

2 Timothy 2:8