Beware of Biting Words
“The seminal place for uncivil discourse and the biting words we dish out is our self-centered soul.”
How many of us are tempted these days to blast someone with our words, albeit justified in our mind because the recipient deserved it. The world seems on the verge of disaster if not collapse and we feel the need to set things straight. People have different views about wearing masks, politics, social justice, PCOR restrictions and more. We see a comment on social media and the urge to jump in and do our part to correct someone is hard to resist. Some people can be robust and passionate to engage debate, while others say nothing out of fear of reprisal. You might be blocked on social media, or you fear losing a friendship. My son told me a story about a teen playing video games where the teen was riding as a co-pilot in a helicopter with another player he just met online. While helicoptering to another spot the pilot asked a friendly question, “Are you watching the NBA playoffs?” The teen co-pilot answered no because his family disagreed with the BLM protests the NBA allowed. A real argument ensued in the virtual world but ended with the pilot intentionally crashing the helicopter to kill them both in the game. Yes, a real life argument between teens ended in a virtual-reality kamikaze murder. In the news we see real life arguments ending with terrible real life consequences almost every day.
The apostle Paul addresses biting words in Galatians 5:13 when he says, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” Here Paul uses the word flesh to mean our self-centered soul, and he warns us to not use the freedom we have to engage in debate and converse on issues as an opportunity to let lose our self-centeredness. How do we know when we have done this? Paul clarifies, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself, but if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.” Today’s arena of uncivil discourse is marked full of biting. Paul is warning us—if you bite, you may be devoured.
Paul goes onto to describe what actions are categorically walking in our flesh – or walking in a way that gives into our self-centeredness. In verse 19 Paul lists these actions of the flesh that address interpersonal relationships and how we talk to one another, particularly those who disappoint us in the arena of debate:
- Enmity – expressions of hatred and disdain
- Strife – self-centered bickering that erupts between rival factions and goes no where
- Jealousy – greedy desire for the power or possessions someone else has
- Fits of Anger – disproportionate or inappropriate eruptions of rage, a temper tantrum
- Rivalry – selfish ambition that causes division
- Dissensions/Divisions – interpersonal division, breaking up into factions to advance a goal
When you read through this list, does any of it describe your responses to people? Do we feel these things at the heart level? One of my good pastor friends teaching on this stated, “The problem is not that others are wrong and espouse bad ideas, or dangerous ideas. No, the problem is that the way we talk about it is built around the flesh.” The seminal place for uncivil discourse and the biting words we dish out is our self-centered soul. There is no better place to realize this than reading the definitions of the fruits of the Spirit that Paul gives us in Galatians 5 and applying them to this context of debate:
- Love – self-sacrificial regard for your neighbor and your enemy
- Joy – a deep awareness of God’s goodness that continues with you even when things are difficult
- Peace – not just the absence of conflict, but seeking harmony that stems from the peace you have with God
- Patience – slow to anger, not blasting someone when they don’t meet your standards or disagree with you
- Kindness – not only do you not blast them, but you extend them grace and good things
- Goodness – a gracious disposition that looks for the best, willing to be generous in your opinions and words, time, possessions
- Faithfulness – loyalty, not changing the rules when it suits you
- Self-control – not thrown around by emotions which stops other fruits
These fruits of the Spirit are the marks of Christian maturity. Do you think these fruits describe you when engaging in debate? Are you known to blast someone when they don’t meet your standards or disagree with you? You may debate from a platform that walks by the flesh and not by the Spirit. The Christian way of engaging in debate is to live out the fruits of the Spirit in conversation. Perhaps it would be helpful to read over Paul’s lists in Galatians 5 before embarking into social media each day? My mother used to say to me when I was growing up, “If you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all.” I found a cartoon in a New York magazine recently that showed a dad speaking to his son at a playground saying, “If you can’t say anything nice, then say something clever and devastating.” That is a true, but sad commentary on how far discourse has fallen in our culture. Let us be Christians who despise uncivil discourse and live out the fruits of the Spirit in our conversations. And let us remember Paul’s warning—if you bite, you may be devoured.
Pastor Kevin Elwell