Our Words Matter
Most of us are quite careful about how we communicate in public. While some have no trouble engaging in a spirited debate behind closed doors, most of us don’t think it’s appropriate to publicly berate someone for holding a contrary political view. Even fewer would actually do it. Neither would we obnoxiously question the intelligence or faith of someone whose doctrinal views don’t align precisely with ours.
Even when the disagreement is significant, people are rarely willing to make a public spectacle over it. Yet impolite, even rude interactions take place countless times each day on Facebook walls and Twitter feeds all around the world. And sadly the perpetrators of such graceless communication are often Christians—followers of Jesus.
When God created human beings He gave us special gifts and a unique place in creation. Dr. Michael Pasquale points out that human language is one of those gifts from God that significantly sets humanity apart from the rest of creation.1
But just because we can create and use language doesn’t mean that we always do it well or that communication is easy. Sometimes we don’t communicate what we intend to. Other times what we intend might be harmful rather than helpful. Add in factors like the absence of facial expression and body language and the potential for misunderstanding in social media grows dramatically.
Our Intentions Matter
Part of the reason for this difficulty is that our ability to communicate has been damaged by sin. Jesus dealt with this corruption after a group of religious people had just accused Him of doing miracles through the power of Satan (matthew 12:22–24). After exposing the error in their accusations, Jesus went to the heart of the matter by telling a story about good trees bearing good fruit and bad trees bearing bad fruit (vv. 33–34). He summed it up by saying, “The mouth speaks what the heart is full of” (v. 34). Words aren’t the real problem, but they do expose the problem. That is why rules about what to post or tweet don’t solve the problem.
The Pharisees had just lied about Jesus, essentially calling Him a son of the Devil. But Christ did not simply correct their false information or try to change their bad behavior. Rather, He showed them that the problem was deeper. It was the content of their hearts.
When we use our words to hurt and belittle each other, we expose the condition of our hearts. When we use our blogs or our social media to bully, ridicule, or misrepresent another person, the problem isn’t with the words. What we write exposes a piece of our broken and sinful hearts. Don’t misunderstand, our words matter, but even honest and true words can be used in harmful ways. Jesus addressed both our harmful words and our ill intentions during His public ministry.
Jesus’s first followers were mostly Jewish, so they were deeply concerned about obeying the rules and regulations outlined in their Scriptures, what we know as the Old Testament. They took great care to make sure they ate the right foods, wore the right clothes, and offered the right sacrifices. Their lives were disciplined and their behavior was strictly managed.
They would have nodded in eager agreement when Jesus said in His famous Sermon on the Mount:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished (matthew 5:17–18).
These words would have sounded just right to the religious people of Jesus’s day. But He wasn’t done. The punch of His message was coming with “the turn.” The turn occurs when Jesus, having drawn the audience in, makes an unexpected move to drive His point home. He first uses a standard rhetorical device: “You have heard that it was said . . .” But then the turn comes as He follows it with an unexpected ending: “But I tell you . . .” He said, “You have heard that it was said, . . . ‘You shall not murder . . .’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment” (matthew 5:21–22). And again, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (vv. 27–28).
Six times He used a variation of this pattern. He even went so far as to say, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (vv. 43–44).
Jesus’s audience had heard the commands since childhood. They were people of the Law, and the devout among them would go to great lengths to stay religiously pure. Yet this young teacher from Nazareth stood before them proclaiming that the outward application of the Law was not enough. His desire was that His listeners understand the heart of the God who established the Law.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus communicated timeless truths that hold significance for those of us living in digital space. Rules and regulations may manage our behavior to a degree but they cannot change our hearts. Remember, the real problem is inside of us.
Before You Post
This is not to say that safeguards and standards are bad or unhelpful. After all, Jesus said He had not come to abolish the Law. Yet He taught that the deeper problem behind our threatening words is a murderous heart. Jesus did not come to simply keep us from killing, committing adultery, or seeking vengeance. He came to rescue every part of us—to heal murderous, adulterous, and vengeful hearts, and so He must confront the source of our destructive behaviors.
Let’s look again at Jesus’s conversation with the Pharisees in Matthew 12. Jesus responded, “Everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (vv. 36–37).
What words do I use when I post, tweet, or share information? What do my words reveal about my heart? And what responsibility do I have to others when I share this picture or comment? Let’s look at some life-affirming principles to consider before we post.
1 Pasquale, Michael and Nathan L. K. Bierma, Every Tribe and Tongue: A Biblical Vision for Language in Society, Pickwick Publications, Eugene: 2011.