So, we’ve been talking about strong language and how we should (or shouldn’t) use it.
This time, in the final post, I’d like us to think about another question:
‘How can we use strong, potentially offensive language well?’ (Yes, there is a place for it.)
The 30,000 Foot View
The bible begins with God’s speech (literally) creating life. As beings created to be like him, he’s given us a limited ability to do the same with our speech.
‘Death and life are in the power of the tongue.’ (Proverbs 18:21)
So, everything we say has this ability to bring life/death in a small way, but when we use strong language the effect is multiplied. We’ve gotta be extra careful.
How can we do it well? Here are some principles.
1 – Start with the heart. In Luke 6:45, Jesus says, ‘for out of the abundance of the heart [the] mouth speaks.’ By ‘heart’, he’s not talking about our emotions. Biblically, ‘the heart’ is our entire inner person, which includes our emotions but also our will, thoughts, commitments, and loves. That – more than anything else – is what shapes our speech (and the rest of our behavior, for that matter).
For example, just the other day I snapped at my kids when they were fighting for the bajillionth time. After I stepped back to process, I realized that I was angry at them for getting in the way of the peace and quiet I felt I deserved. So, I asked God to forgive me for being selfish and demanding rest. And, I asked him to change me so that I’d be willing to love my kids by guiding them through their arguments even when it comes at a cost to me.
2 – Remember its power. Since ‘death and life are in the power of the tongue’, we should think – and pray – before you speak. If you’re not confident it’ll be good, don’t say it.
3 – Look out for self-interest. The truth is, we’re all selfish. Through many failures, I’ve come to see that I should be suspicious of ‘what I’m about to say’ when I’ve got a stake in the game, or, am angry.
Responding to a wrong (I think) I’ve received, hurt feelings, or addressing someone’s inaction that’s affecting me are all potential occasions for strong, toxic communication that should have me reaching for my muzzle.
4 – But don’t hold back when it’s time. It’s usually a wisdom call, but there are times where it would be wrong to not use strong language. (Like the examples I mention in the last post.)
A few years ago, I saw another boy making fun of Matthew, my son who has autism. I had to say something pretty firm – not only for Matthew’s sake, but for the other boy’s, too.
Sometimes, though, fear holds us back. One time when I was flying, a bunch of young guys were mocking a flight attendant who stuttered. I felt something – or, more accurately, Someone – tugging at me, but I chickened out. Thankfully, another flight attendant noticed and handled it with gracious intensity. (‘Really, guys?!’)
A Simple, Powerful Test
As we begin our descent, I’d like to suggest a simple test that may be helpful as we try to grow in using strong, powerful language well.
In Matthew 22:37-39, Jesus gives us two powerful principles that should govern everything we do. Love God, and, love other people as much as you love yourself.
When we start viewing our everyday speech through that lens, it’s amazingly insightful.
Just the other day, I awoke to find little white balls (think large grains of sand) all over our laundry room floor, bathroom and kitchen. Thanks to the wonders of static electricity, they were everywhere – on the walls, on the laundry, in the washer. Ev-er-y-where.
Turns out one of our kids had taken a sibling’s neck pillow, filled with the insidious little spheres, and decided to sprinkle it all over, probably as retaliation for an earlier grievance.
But with a guest coming over in an hour, and the kids comatose, I had to clean it up. (Which, ironically, prevented me from writing this post.) I got really angry, and my poor wife heard a healthy sampling of strong language directed at ‘whoever did this’.
It seems obvious now, but what if the two most important things Jesus ever said had entered my mind in that moment?
Am I loving God right now? No, I had no practical understanding of the fact that he’s forgiven me for worse things. I wasn’t grateful that I have children, a friend coming over, or, that we can afford things like neck pillows when other people don’t have enough food to eat!
Am I loving others like I love myself? Not so much. It’s hard to admit, but I was filled with disproportional anger over something that’s trivial. And I didn’t give any thought to how my anger was affecting my wife.
I know that many situations aren’t this cut-and-dry. Life is complex, and so are our motives.
But knowing this far better than we do, Jesus reduced all of life – and the bible he gave us – to ‘love God, love others’.
He seems to assume that it will help us as we think about our lives and speech.
Most of the time, I think we essentially know if what we’re about to do – or, at least have done – embodies Christ’s call to love.
Just before my friend arrived, God removed the haze and allowed me to tell him – and my wife – that I was sorry. Looking back, I’m thankful for failures like this because they show me how much I need Jesus. Not just to forgive me, but to change me, too.
So in summary, there are times to use strong, potentially offensive language. To do it well, it should meet the four principles we laid out above, and, especially Jesus’s test of loving God and loving others.
- Which of the four principles above would be most helpful in shaping the way you use strong language?
- Think of a situation recently where you spoke strongly and/or offensively. How would remembering Jesus’s two key commandments have made a difference?