Discernment,  Musings

Lessons Learned: On Speech and Tone

As noted in the first post in this series, I’m taking time to reflect on some of the experiences God has graciously given me and the extremely practical lessons I’ve learned from them. This isn’t meant to serve as a personal journal, but rather as a source of encouragement and application for the reader.

Tone Matters

Sometimes it’s not what we say, but how we say it, that causes hurt, angst, or acrimony. I know I probably just caused a flashback to your childhood, when your mother spoke those same words, but the reality is, she was right.

There are some who will give me flak for this post. “Biblical Christians” love to decry any argument that raises the issue of tone. It’s as if their Bibles only contain those passages where Jesus rebuked the Pharisees and cleansed the temple, but seems to be missing those many passages where He spoke with compassion to sinners. The woman at the well, Zaccheus, the woman who washed His feet with her hair. These individuals must be profoundly grateful that they encountered Jesus rather than many of His professing followers.

Speaking the Truth in Love—Really

The internet is full of watchdogs and discerners, both helpful and not-so-helpful. I admit that it is online dialogue that is sparking this particular post. “We are being loving by speaking the truth!” they shout. Most of the time, they’re right. We should never compromise truth in the name of “love” because telling the truth is the most loving thing we can do. Still, it is just as important for us to consciously communicate that truth in a helpful manner lest we turn people away from hearing that same truth.

Sarcasm, sharpness, and badgering are not helpful. Period. Severity may not be wrong, but it is not always beneficial. And the truth is, we all fall into one or more of these traps, especially online and especially if one of our pet topics is under discussion. To echo the words of one of America’s great psychologists: Stop it. (Yes, that was humor. Don’t email me.)

Gracious and Salty

Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. 6Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.

Colossians 4:5-6

Verses like this hit me hard. I say that with sincerity because I know my own tongue can be sharp and sarcastic and therefore profoundly unhelpful. Sure, your facetious remarks are a hit with your friends and Twitter circle. They think you’re witty and they retweet your 280 characters, causing your pride to puff, even if just a little. But what about the person who sits back and quietly watches your comments without making their own? What about the person who is struggling with the sin or situation you are mocking? What about the person who is sincerely questioning, open to listening to two sides of a story or argument? What does your sarcasm accomplish then? It succeeds in turning those people away, possibly away from the truth of God’s Word.

At the risk of being accused of acting like the Tone Police, I use this as a plea for my fellow Christians to seriously consider their tone and approach to disagreements or sensitive issues. Just because you are right doesn’t give you the right to be a jerk or pompous or unwilling to listen to others.

Christian Discourse

Of Colossians 4:6 Matthew Henry wrote,

Let all your discourse be as becomes Christians, suitable to your profession-savoury, discreet, seasonable.” Though it be not always of grace, it must be always with grace; and, though the matter of our discourse be that which is common, yet there must be an air of piety upon it and it must be in a Christian manner seasoned with salt. Grace is the salt which seasons our discourse, makes it savoury, and keeps it from corrupting. (Source)

Ought we not consider, then, how gracious our speech is before it escapes our lips? The Pulpit Commentary calls this grace “the kindly, winning pleasantness which makes the talk of a good and thoughtful man attractive.”

Are our words conveyed in such a way that they are pleasant, attractive, and purifying? Or do we instead come across as shrewish, agenda-driven, even angry individuals? How are we representing the Lord we claim to love and serve when we engage with others?

To be sure, this extends far beyond online discourse. This extends to our families, our churches, and our workplaces. Are we the argumentative colleague? Or are we the coworker who pauses before opining, and who weighs her words before speaking them? Are we the one our colleagues know not to cross? Or are we the one who is brought in to help mediate conflict?

Corrupting Words

Taming the tongue is quite a task (see James 3). But as was mentioned earlier, this is not always about what is said, but about the heart behind the words, which is often revealed in how we say what we say.

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.

Ephesians 4:29

Once again, Paul urges us to speak with savory, that our words may bring grace to others. I’d argue here that “corrupting talk” means more than word choice. Yes, tone can be corrupting. Those who are parents know that a child can say perfectly fine words, but do so with a tone of snark and snideness that betrays their heart. Corrupting talk corrupts. It tears down. It does not edify. It’s not a difficult concept, so why is it so difficult to train our hearts, minds, and lips?

Stumbling Blocks

Why the focus on speech and tone? Because stumbling blocks are real, and they often consist of words.

Pause and think for a moment about a particularly difficult person you know. It shouldn’t take long, we all know one! Have you ever tried to engage this person in conversation about a topic on which you disagree? Has the person become belligerent in the course of the discussion? Or perhaps arrogant and unwilling to thoughtfully engage? Did you really want to continue that conversation? What profited from it? I daresay very little, if anything at all.

It’s a terrible thing when we become a stumbling block, preventing others from hearing the good news of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. It’s true, Jesus is the ultimate stumbling block (1 Corinthians 1:23). Unbelievers in their flesh and folly do not want to concede their lives to Him. It is one thing, then, if our “stumbling block-ness” is truly due to our proclamation of the gospel and the sincerity of our lives. It is another thing entirely if our attitude, becoming distinctly un-Christlike through pride, sarcasm, or arrogance, is the stumbling block that causes one to turn away from hearing the good news.

Reflecting Christ

In a previous post, I once stated of my own prior tone,

There were other times, though, when my words were just too biting, too distasteful to others, and while God’s truth will divide, may it never be that my communication of that truth is the root cause of that division.

I stand by this, and I pray all Christians will. May our speech—the whole of it—never be the cause of unnecessary division. May we reflect the gentleness of Christ in our engagement with sinners, not simply crucifying them for their sin, but telling them instead of the One who loved His own enough to be crucified for their sin. Further, may we reflect Christ in all our dealings: with coworkers and friends, with strangers and merchants, online and in person. When we do this, I suspect we may find the outcome far more desirable than when we allow snark and pride to prevail.

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