How to Tame the Digital Tongue

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Pastor, West Covina, California

troll (verb): to intentionally provoke others online with tactics ranging from starting unnecessary arguments to seeking to damage someone’s reputation.

Cyberbullying and online harassment have increased ever since the invention of the smartphone. The Pew Research Center conducted a study that stated at least “one in three online teens have experienced online harassment.” Many U.S. states have made laws to regulate this growing problem.

Harsh words, hurt emotions, and damaged reputations fill our social media feeds every waking morning.

“How can we as believers praise God while at the same time cursing those who made in the image of God?”

Tony Reinke in his book 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You puts the problem this way:

In an age when anyone with a smartphone can publish dirt on anyone else, we must know that spreading antagonistic messages online, with the intent of provoking hostility without any desire for resolution, is what the world calls ‘trolling’ and what the New Testament calls ‘slander’. (166)

The sad reality is that some Christians have been guilty of “trolling” and fail to recognize its destructive effects. Reinke explains how easy it is for us to engage in this particular sin:

Each of us have an inner troll, an inner slanderer—some part of us that would love to text some dirt to a friend, publish dirt online, and anonymously consume that dirt online. (169)

Slander, gossip, half-truths (what the world calls “alternative facts”), lying, critical speech, insult, sarcasm, and ridicule could all be labeled “trolling.” Corrupting talk should not come out of our 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). We Christians need to first acknowledge that we are too often guilty of these particular sins and pray that God would renew our speech with truth and love (Ephesians 4:25).

Principles for Posting

It is often easier to speak rashly and inappropriately privately behind a computer screen rather than speaking to someone face-to-face where tone, demeanor, and facial expressions would prevent what we would actually otherwise say. The Bible tells us we need to recognize a couple of principles concerning the tongue before we speak online.

1. The tongue is a world of unrighteousness.

James writes,

If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. (James 3:3–6)

Just like a bit’s ability to control a horse, a small rudder’s ability to control a ship, and a spark’s ability to cause a forest fire, the tongue has the ability to cause great destruction, if it is not controlled. More than ever, we need to recognize that words can have a global impact causing global forest fires in our digitally connected society.

2. Man cannot tame the tongue.

For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. (James 3:7–8)

Humans have been able to control and tame animals ten times their size, yet they cannot control an organ smaller than a goldfish. The tongue is untamable unless God intervenes and renews our speech by his Spirit, working in us to put off the old man and put on the new self (Ephesians 4:22–24).

3. Our tongues are often instruments of hypocrisy.

With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. (James 3:9–10)

How can we as believers praise and glorify our God while at the same time cursing and slandering those who reflect and display the image of our God? James tells us that we should not be inconsistent with our speech if we want to truly honor God. Words against a fellow image-bearer are words against God.

Stewards of the Word

Proverbs tells us, “Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble” (Proverbs 21:23). Let us not be like “one whose rash words are like sword thrusts”, but the wise whose speech brings healing (Proverbs 12:18). Jesus told us, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” and “on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matthew 12:34, 36).

The words of Christians, online or in person, are especially significant — we are stewards of the message of the cross (1 Corinthians 1:18), the word of his grace (Acts 20:32), and have been given words of eternal life because “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). Therefore, let us repent of any form of “trolling,” and speak words that build up, at the right time, so that it may be a means of grace for someone else.