Social media has become an inferno of insults and anger. And sometimes even professing Christians add to the rage without thinking about the foolishness of spewing verbal abuses. We need to do better. And this leads to today’s question from a young man, a listener to the podcast who writes this: “Hello, Pastor John. My father is a pastor who spends a lot of his time engaging with people on social media, often using demeaning and insulting language in the process. This can range anywhere from calling people liars for saying things he disagrees with, to straight up calling them stupid.
“He seems to excuse this behavior with the mindset that ‘it’s not insulting if it’s the truth,’ but it still makes me very uncomfortable to see this behavior from him, both as my dad and my pastor. In my view, it directly goes against Scripture’s call for us not to ‘revile in return’ but to bless (1 Peter 2:23), and for our speech to ‘always be gracious, seasoned with salt’ (Colossians 4:6). I’m a young Christian, and I know that my knowledge of spiritual matters is often lacking, but it’s been burning my conscience to think that my dad might be engaging in sinful behavior online. I greatly would like to know your take on the matter.”
Let me try to make a few comments that our young friend can consider in the formation of his own understanding of how to speak and how to perhaps, in the end, approach his father in a humble and effective way.
1. Speak the truth.
First, the very minimal expectation of our speech on social media should be that it is true — that is, factually true, biblically sound. And the more evident that truth, the better. In other words, if people can see why it’s true, then that’s better.
Now, I say that’s minimal, and the reason I stress that it is only minimal is that you can handle truth in ways that are sinful. Speaking truth doesn’t guarantee that you are speaking righteously or lovingly. That’s one of the main points of Job 3–31. I mean, that’s 29 chapters of questionable theology. Lots of what Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar were saying to Job was, in one sense, true.
“Speaking truth doesn’t guarantee that you are speaking righteously or lovingly.”
In fact, I’m reading through Job right now, and I just read a whole chapter this morning that just had me scratching my head and saying, “What’s wrong with that?” And what was wrong with it was it was ill-timed and it was lopsided. But you could probably justify most of the things he said by paralleling them with the Psalms. That book, I think, is in the Bible for many reasons. And one of them is to show that truth is not enough; truth can be used unrighteously.
2. Aim at Godward good.
Here’s my second observation. Paul said in Ephesians 4:29, “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.” So, besides being true, Paul says we should test what we say by whether it is aiming at building the other person up. And building up, in Paul’s vocabulary, means helping them grow in their faith, and in their understanding of Christ, and in their love for other people, and in their holiness.
In other words, the test is this: Am I aiming in my social media posts to help the person that I’m talking to or talking about know God better, trust God more, love people better, walk in less sin and more holiness? Now, that leaves lots of room for criticism. I’m not saying you can’t ever say anything critical about what somebody has said or done. But the test of Ephesians 4:29 is, Are we aiming manifestly at the other person’s Godward good? That, he says, is the gracious way to speak.
And then he adds that our speech should fit the occasion. In other words, it takes real wisdom to know how to use truth in the most effective way from situation to situation. And you can hear this in Proverbs 26:7, where it says, “Like a lame man’s legs, which hang useless, is a proverb in the mouth of fools.” That’s a true proverb. It just hangs there like useless legs in the mouth of a fool because he doesn’t know the situation, and he doesn’t know how to use it.
Or consider Proverbs 26:9, “Like a thorn that goes up into the hand of a drunkard is a proverb in the mouth of fools.” In other words, a person may speak proverbial truth, and his speaking may be perfectly useless or perfectly harmful, depending, in part, on whether it fits the occasion.
3. Know your audience.
Here’s my third observation: fitting the occasion has special implications for the Internet and social media. This calls for a peculiar kind of wisdom and restraint. And what’s peculiar about this occasion called the Internet is that it is contextless. We don’t have any control over who or how or where or when a person reads what we have written. There are thousands of different settings, and emotional conditions, and levels of maturity, and states of spiritual height or depth, and immediate experiences, and on and on.
In other words, we are unleashing our sentences into an unknown welter of occasions. And I’m not saying that this should shut us down entirely, but I am saying that wisdom, speaking as fits the occasion, should give us a certain restraint so that we are not indifferent to all the unknown effects that what we may say may have.
In fact, one of my biggest complaints about the way people use Twitter, for example, is that lots of what is said publicly for ten thousand people to read should be said privately to the person, not publicly. So many things are said to an individual for a grandstand of people to watch you say it. And I don’t get that. It really puzzles me. It makes me wonder, Why do you want so many people to hear you say what you just said to that one individual? So, we should ask ourselves, really, Why do you want so many people to hear what you say to your friend? I think there’s some deep stuff going on there that’s not real healthy. I’ve tasted it in myself, and I see it in others.
4. Seek peace and pursue it.
My fourth suggestion is that we measure what we say on social media by whether it communicates a heartfelt desire, not just that a person grow in their relation toward God, but that they realize we would like to have them as more unified with us than we presently are.
In other words, when we criticize somebody for a viewpoint or an attitude, do they discern that, behind that criticism, we really would like the day to come when we could be friends? Or do they taste a kind of contempt that communicates, “Not only do I not like your opinion, but I wouldn’t want to be around you even if you changed your opinion?” Which comes through? Do we want them? Do we want them?
“Can people detect that your heart is deeply content in and satisfied by the beauty and worth and greatness of Jesus?”
I hear this point in Ephesians 4:1–3, where Paul says, “Walk in a manner worthy of [your] calling . . . with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” In other words, no matter how seriously we feel we must take issue with somebody or some issue, do we give evidence that we really would like there to be peace? Yes, we want truth-grounded peace. But we don’t just want truth; we want truth-grounded peace. Or do they pick up that what we really enjoy is combat, not reconciliation?
5. Be slow to anger.
And the fifth suggestion is that we take really seriously James 1:19–20, “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” Of course, I’m not saying there is no occasion for righteous anger. I’m just saying that, given the way we are sinfully made — wired by the fall and very prone to defend ourselves and very easily provoked and frustrated and angered — the words of James are really needed.
Be slow to anger, slow to speak, because it’s very, very, very (I’ll say three and stop there: very, very, very) likely that your anger is not righteous, and mine isn’t either, and it will not produce the good you think it might. That text is a governor on our anger-accelerator, and we need it.
6. Let your treasure shine.
And the last criterion I would mention for speaking on social media is this: Can people detect that your heart is deeply content in and satisfied by the beauty and worth and greatness of Jesus? That’s why we exist: to display Jesus Christ as the supreme treasure of the world. Do they taste that? Do they taste that when they read or listen to what we say? “I can tell they are very peacefully content and satisfied in Jesus.”
And I’ll just close by saying to our young friend, if you find that these six observations I’ve just made might be helpful to you and your father, go to him with all humility and a deep awareness of your own sinfulness, as Galatians 6:1 says, and express to him your concern again. And ask him perhaps to read these points, or listen to them, or listen to you share them. And then don’t pressure him; don’t call for some big immediate change. But you and I and others will pray together that perhaps his communications might conform, in the future, more closely to God’s word.