Words Have Consequences

We live in a day and age in which there is a lot of debate about words. What’s okay to say? What is politically correct? How can we speak in ways that are not offensive? As we discuss issues like politics, racial justice, and sexuality with others, we can feel as if we are walking a razor thin edge of speaking with truth without offending. Much has been said about “cancel culture,” the trend of individuals being shamed and companies boycotted for objectionable behaviors and opinions voiced, even many years ago. Cancel culture intends to “cancel” the influence of people and organizations who don’t agree with the prevailing and progressive thoughts of modern movements. While public figures and corporations experience the greatest pressure to conform, cancel culture also impacts normal individuals. Teens fear being shamed on social media and adults are concerned for their jobs.

How should we as Christians respond to these tensions in our current day and age? While we can be wise and discerning with our words, the very essence of Christianity is offensive to the times in which we live. Do we retreat out of fear into our bubbles of safe community?

I love that the Word of God can truly instruct and correct us within such a practical and modern-day dilemma! We are not the first generation of Christians to feel the weight of how God-honoring words can get us in trouble.

John the Baptist was an incredible man. Jesus referred to him as “the greatest man to ever live.” John said a lot of offensive things about repenting and preparing the way for the Messiah. But have you ever considered what led to his death? In a private conversation with Herod, John confronted this leader on his sexual sin. What John said to Herod was true and was within the context of a budding friendship. The Scriptures say that Herod liked to talk to John and ask him questions about spiritual things. Herod was a seeker. Yet John’s honest confrontation offended Herod’s wife, who developed a murderous rage toward him.

And what about Stephen? This godly, righteous man was killed not for anything he did, but for what he said as he confronted the Jewish people with their refusal to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus, Himself, was crucified not because of any action He took, but because of what He said.

Yes, words have consequences. Isn’t the spiritual battle a war of words, pitting Jesus, who claimed to be the Truth, against Satan, the father of lies? We cannot accomplish the work God has given us here on earth without being both bold and discerning about our words. As Jesus told His disciples, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves; therefore, be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”

We need discernment.

As we study the life of Jesus (and well as His disciples), we see a curious balance of refusing to answer questions one moment, but unloading with hard truths the next. A classic example of this is how He responded to two very different questions in Mark 12.

First, the Pharisees asked Jesus about paying taxes to Caesar. This may seem to us like an easy answer. Of course, paying taxes is a good idea. However, the money paid to Caesar supported a Roman government that was characterized by brutality, oppression, and immorality. Yet Jesus didn’t step into this trap set for Him. In fact, He sidestepped the discussion about politics and simply said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.” In other words, don’t overly concern yourself with these political matters. Instead, focus on the spiritual claim God has on your soul.

Right after this conversation, another group of religious leaders asked about a complicated hypothetical marriage situation to trick Jesus into making a comment about the afterlife. Again, they were trying to trick him into saying something divisive. Rather than sidestep this question, Jesus nailed them not just with an answer, but by saying something extremely offensive:He accused these respected Jewish leaders of not knowing the Scriptures (which they had spent their lives studying) nor the power of God.

There are times both when we need to have tremendous self-control not to speak and other times when we need supernatural courage to speak. Only the Holy Spirit can give us the discernment of which is needed. But here are some guidelines that can help in that process of discernment:

Carefully listen.

John tells us that Jesus knew what was in the heart of every person He interacted with. He didn’t need personality tests or years to understand someone. He could instantly cut through their defenses and see the nature of their heart. Were they true seekers or conniving enemies? Did they need a hard word of truth or a gentle reassurance of love? You and I don’t have those spiritual “eyes” to see through people. Instead, we need to take the time to listen, to ask questions, and to pray for this wisdom.

While social media outlets like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter can be wide-reaching platforms to share ideas, they can also facilitate destructive and hurtful exchanges on sensitive issues. You can’t “listen” or  see pain or anger in a person’s eyes as they react to a social media post. You don’t know where they are in their spiritual walk and why they believe the way they do. Paul wrote to the Colossians, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” If you use social media, it may be a good practice to read that verse before you post.

Listening is not just for the sake of understanding the other person. It is also important in admitting and revealing our blind spots. Honestly, none of the weighty issues that plague us have easy, one-dimensional answers. Jesus is revealed not through one of us, but through a united body of believers, each bringing unique aspects of revealed truth and spiritual gifts.

Avoid meaningless arguments.

There must have been a fair amount of divisive conversation happening within the early church, even without social media. How do we know this? Because in almost every one of Paul’s letters, he warns the early Christians not to be entangled in controversies that don’t have eternal consequence. He says that some of the things we argue about are “pointless and worthless.”

Many of the controversies of our day are divisive for the sake of dividing people. Whether in church or on your chosen news channel, we form camps with people who believe like us on things that often don’t matter in light of eternity. These silos keep us from sharing with others the things that really do matter.

Paul was killed for the things he said about Jesus and our need for a Savior. Every offensive teaching of his came from his unfaltering commitment to proclaiming Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Savior of the world.

There are some heavy and important issues being discussed in every church and community around our country. We are called to be “salt and light” to a world that is desperately seeking answers for brokenness and pain. While we may speak into political and cultural questions, let’s be sure that everything we say is rooted in the foundation of Jesus Himself and doesn’t revolve around our own feelings, opinions, and biases.

Remember that silence has consequences too.

If Paul, James, Peter, or Jesus were walking on earth today, I wonder if they would say to modern Christians, “Why are you surprised that it costs you something to be a follower of Jesus? Didn’t all of the New Testament tell you it would be this way? Why did you think you would be an exception?” No doubt, Jesus and all of His followers were “canceled” by both the Jewish and Roman cultures they lived in. They would encourage us, “Consider it an honor to walk in His footsteps and to share a sliver of the rejection He endured for us.”

We speak not to be martyrs or to draw attention to ourselves, but because silence has consequences too. Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the Gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!’’

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is offensive, and we must not make it less so. Why did Paul say, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel?” Because many others were. Even if they believed it, they didn’t want to say it out loud. But Paul did so because He sincerely believed that it is the power—the only power—to bring salvation to everyone who believes.

Date: July 22, 2020