Somebody once said, “The main thing in life is to keep the main thing the main thing.” That’s true in Christian theology, too. Jesus once spoke of “weightier matters of the law” (Matthew 23:23), meaning some things in the Torah are more important than others. Likewise, the Apostle Paul spoke of “disputable matters” (Roman 14:1), meaning some things in the Christian life require no ecclesiastical positions or pronouncements. The Early Church called such things adiaphora, meaning “matters of indifference.”
The fact is, certain aspects of the Christian faith are never worth disputing (2 Timothy 2:14, 16-18a), while certain aspects of the Christian faith are always worth defending (2 Timothy 2:18b). The bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (along with his followers at the end of the age) is in this latter category. That’s always doctrinal hill to die on—so much so that Paul devotes an entire chapter to it in 1 Corinthians 15. Without the resurrection, he says, there is no Christianity.
Paul tells us in this passage that when it comes to haggling over WORDS, cut it out (2 Timothy 2:14, 16-18). However, when it comes to handling THE WORD, cut it straight (2 Timothy 2:15, 19). He instructs young Timothy—and he instructs Bible teachers today—“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15).
The image is rich with practical insights for today’s teachers. Our calling is to be faithful to what God has revealed in his Word, a task that requires hard work, courage, and living primarily for the approval of the One who inspired his Word to be written down for our instruction.
Moreover, we should want the apostles and prophets of old—were they sitting in the front row of our classrooms or sanctuaries—to hear our sermons and lessons, and nod in agreement after we teach, saying, “Yes, that’s what I meant. You were faithful to the message I wrote down about God and his ways many years ago, and you demonstrated its relevance for God’s people in your day.”
In short, Paul’s message for us is: Watch out for Bible teachers who make much of what is little and little of what is much. What we need to make much of in our day is Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, and his gospel of salvation for all who believe.
Are we as a nation less civil than we used to be? Maybe to a point, but three factors make it seem a lot worse than it probably is. First, today’s instant media puts the national invective “in our face” quicker and more frequently than in days gone by. Technology gives us hate at the speed of light. And lots of it. The sheer amount of vituperation we see on a daily basis can be disconcerting to one’s sense of personal peace; hence, the recent calls in our society for more civility. Unfortunately, outrage is good for business. The merchants of wrath on social media generate both clicks and cash for their cause, so, don’t expect the fireworks to fizzle any time soon.
Second, our crisis in education has rendered ideological retorts far less effective (not to mention fun) than they used to be in previous generations. Verbal pushbacks today are crafted as little more than ad hominem attacks—personal insults that are unseemly, unsophisticated, and ultimately unpersuasive. But one need only recall the kinds of political discourse our nation witnessed just a century and a half ago. In the 1858 debates, for example, Lincoln called the logic behind a proposed Douglas policy “as thin as the homeopathic soup that was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had starved to death.” Somehow the nation endured such brutal zingers. I do concede, though, it was the policy being attacked, not the person. That distinction seems to have been lost in our day.
Third, gone are the days when the mainstream media were (mostly) honest and evenhanded. Indeed, there was a time when our “straight news” outlets sought to be dispassionate in the delivery of their product. They were content to be our eyes and ears on the events of the day, but now they try to be our brains, too, telling us what to think. No thank you; we can do that ourselves. Moreover, professional pundits have done more to polarize our country than any politician. And now they’re playing censorship games to aid and abet certain candidates, being selective and prejudicial in what they cover and don’t cover. Along with Big Tech’s manipulation of search results and feed content, it’s rank advocacy masquerading as real journalism—a flagrant corruption of a once noble industry. I’d rather chew glass than consume that kind of “news” on a regular basis. Of all the trends in motion right now, this one might be the most dangerous.
How Bad Will It Get Out There?
It remains to be seen if we can long endure the kind of verbal explosions we see online each day. On the other hand, it may be helpful to remember that in the 1960s, bomb-throwers actually threw bombs. To the snowflake generation (a somewhat inflammatory but largely warranted moniker) verbal shrapnel apparently is worse. Students are easily “triggered” these days, sometimes needing professional escorts to help them get to “safe spaces” on campus when they hear something they don’t like. We used to call such an attitude unmistakable evidence that a young person was “spoiled.”
Important debates get shut down now simply by someone claiming his feelings got hurt in the marketplace of ideas. Ironically, such fragile folks have little hesitation in pulling their own verbal triggers against those considered not yet “woke.” In their minds, the uglier the response, the better. “Be cruel or be cast out,” sang Rush in the 1980s. Their musical prophecy has come to fruition in today’s cancel culture. It’s “free speech for me but not for thee.”
Alas, the summer of arson and violence we just endured (labeled “mostly peaceful protests” by the spinmeisters in the media) makes me wonder if we’re heading back to the 1960s. Will we revert to throwing real bombs again? Oh, and rumor has it there’s an election next week. Is it that time again? Already? Lots of folks are on edge about what will happen to our cities if some people don’t get their own way at the ballot box. Hurt feelings can justify all kinds of malevolence these days. But if a civil war is needed to quiet things down again, let’s find a way to make it bloodless. Preserving people’s freedoms may be worth life and limb, but preserving their feelings—not so much.
One aspect of our current lunacy is rooted in the fact that those who are so easily outraged seldom see people on their side of a particular issue as less-than-perfect specimens of moral goodness themselves. Their cause is right, so they must be right. Not so (cf. Luke 13:1-5). It’s a secular form of self-righteousness, and the dogmatic assertions they preach get enscripturated in the doctrines of political correctness. It’s a new form of fundamentalism—without any fun, of course. Butself-assertion without self-reflection becomes self-destruction. In time, society itself collapses under its own weight. Cancel culture winds up canceling itself.
If civilization can be defined as “social order promoting cultural creation,” one might define civility as “verbal order promoting respectful communication.” But it takes character to be civil—and even more character to endure incivility. Apart from an elevation of character, neither can be realized to any extent in contemporary society. For believers, character is a function of our relationship with God. Therefore, we must lead the way in society by modeling a proper stewardship of words. I cannot accuse the secularists of failing to be self-reflective if I myself am not self-reflective when it comes to my own particular speech patterns—both in discourse and in scholarship. That’s what this series has been all about. I need to own up to my own lapses.
Civility in Scholarship
As noted previously, the esteemed clergyman, scholar, and author Eugene Peterson has said, “We cannot be too careful about the words we use; we start out using them and they end up using us.” His call is for believers to cultivate the practice of integrity and winsomeness in speech, which involves a genuine respect for others as well as humility within ourselves. These attitudes are especially important for the Christian scholar. As Nancy Jean Vyhmeister notes, “The research mindset is characterized by objectivity, focus, clearly set-forth presuppositions, and logical organization. In a more biblical frame, it is adorned by humility.”
In her doctoral dissertation, Laurie Mellinger likewise highlights the need for humility by advocating a posture of hospitality among readers, writers, and teachers of theology. “Engaged theological readers respond in ways that bring their Christian faith to bear on what they read,” she writes. “For instance, they endeavor to respond with love and compassion. Whether they read secular literature or biblical narrative, they attempt at first to withhold judgment, offering a thorough and fair hearing to authors, characters, and ideas before responding.” The idea is provocative, as the word “hospitality” in the New Testament (φιλοξενία) means to love people of a different country or culture. Practicing hospitality, then, means to demonstrate a high regard for individuals who are different than we are—even in their thoughts, words, and ideologies.
By extension, hospitable scholarship would involve treating the author we’re engaging as valuable and worthy of respect even if we vigorously disagree with their conclusions. Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” (Matt 5:46-47). In other words, being kind to others who are just like us is no big deal; anybody can do that. Unbelievers can do that, says Jesus. But φιλοξενία costs something; it’s a virtue that may not come naturally to us. Indeed, it may even require something of us, but it adorns the gospel.
In the end, common grace allows people outside our faith to be right about many things, even if their view of Christ and Christianity is askew. That means I can always come to an author outside my faith tradition and say, “I can learn from this person. I may not always agree with her, but I can always ‘chew up the meat and spit out the bones.’ Christ is not exalted when others are diminished, so I will not seek to skewer this writer. Instead, I will be fair, dispassionate, and even-keeled in my interaction, reserving my harshest critiques only for the most heinous of ideas.” Celebrate before you cerebrate, Tim.
Modeled by a Mentor
No one modeled this approach for me better than Professor David A. Dorsey, the late Distinguished Professor of Old Testament Studies at Evangelical Seminary who mentored me through my first doctoral program. Dr. Dorsey was a master at responding to the ridiculous things we would say in class. Looking back, I marvel at the grace he displayed. One of us would say something goofy about a passage, or something way off-base theologically, and he would say, “Well, you might be right about that, but here’s what I think is going on in that text.” And he would proceed to school us on the proper handling of the passage, but always with gentleness and respect. We were corrected, but not insulted; re-directed, but not ridiculed.
Dorsey’s approach is still with me today. In a recent article I wrote on the Sabbath for the Evangelical Journal, I politely disagreed with one scholar whose form-critical assumptions caused him to miss the exquisite nature of various passages in Exodus. His harsh assessment of the biblical text was unnecessary, and I said so. However, I also praised other aspects of this scholar’s work, noting how “magisterial” his work was in the field of Sabbath studies. He contributed much to the topic, and that contribution is rightly honored. In other words, I treated him as I myself would want to be treated if my own work were being reviewed by him. Dorsey, along with other professors at Evangelical Seminary, showed their students how to do this during my M.Div. days. My goal now is to do the same for my own students.
Civility in scholarship does not mean that we treat all ideas as equally valid, or that we all need to restrain ourselves from offering honest critiques when we think they’re warranted. After all, when it comes to the field of biblical studies and Christian theology, much is at stake for the parishioner in the pew. For example, can believers really have confidence in Scripture as God’s Word, or must we always take the critical position that the Bible is untrustworthy? To hear some scholars, one would think there is nothing unique about the Christian canon, or that Jesus Christ was no more important to his nation than George Washington was to ours. As Vyhmeister notes, “Researchers start their work from the premise that knowledge is attainable and that finding truth is possible.”
My goal, then, is to argue respectfully and persuasively when it comes to engaging those whose arguments would undermine a high view of Scripture. Indeed, Richard J. Mouw’s concept of “convicted civility” is my target. Mouw is on a mission to clean up society’s speech in our generation. In his book Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World, he writes, “As Martin Marty has observed, one of the real problems in modern life is that people who are good at being civil often lack strong convictions and people who have strong convictions lack civility. I like that way of stating the issue. We need to find a way of combining a civil outlook with a ‘passionate intensity’ about our convictions. The real challenge is to come up with a convicted civility.”
Mouw continues, “Civility has its own value, quite apart from any evangelistic or political results it might produce. To become a gentler and more reverent person is itself a way of being more like what God intended us to be.” To which I say, “Amen.”
“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.” Psalm 19:14
“Oh. My. Word.” That was my unsophisticated reaction to reading Ike Lasater’s Words That Work in Business: A Practical Guide to Effective Communication in the Workplace. (Yes, bad pun intended.) I always like to be pleasantly surprised by titles I thought would be underwhelming to read, and this little gem sparked something in me that will long endure. It gave me a new perspective on several key areas of my personal and professional life, so I needto spend more time with it. I wasn’t expecting much from this book, but I was riveted by it—and then jolted.
The author assumes prior knowledge of Marshall B. Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. But even without that knowledge, the reader can still infer the basics of NVC from Lasater’s book, consulting Rosenberg’s seminal work later. (NVC is about connecting with ourselves and others from the heart. It’s about seeing the humanity in everyone and recognizing our commonalities. It offers a simple yet effective framework to bring awareness to what we’re thinking, saying, and doing, and how we’re listening to other people so we can communicate with better clarity and compassion. Rather than judging, blaming, or criticizing, we start on neutral common ground to share what’s important to us in order to connect with others on a more empathetic level by tuning in to what they’re needing, hoping, or desiring.)
I’ve already acknowledged in this series that sometimes my words are not vehicles of love—toward God or others. Too often they’re self-centered or dispiriting. Too often they’re unhelpful or unkind. I admitted my need to be less of a “negaholic” and “complainiac” at times, but I wasn’t always sure how to go about doing that. In the previous post, I also noted that I need to “stay in conversation” and improve my skills in that area, too, but I wasn’t always sure how to do that, either. After reading Lasater, I had a much better track to run on for charting a new course.
The Past Is Present in Our Speech
In many ways, Words That Work in Business is something of a psychology of personal interaction. In it Lasater describes my upbringing perfectly:
I was implicitly taught how to analyze who was at fault, and thus who was to be blamed and punished. I learned how to protect myself from criticism, avoid punishment, and redirect blame. The results of this not-very-conscious process of blame and shame determined how I felt. My learning was how to avoid being blamed and punished; thus, I learned how to avoid what I did not want. This process did not help me learn what would enable me to flourish and throve or how to create the life I wanted.
Can I just go back in time and teach this book to my 17-year-old self? Better yet, can someone teach it to my parents so they can teach it to me? Or is it too late? If so, maybe I can just learn the principles in this book and model them for my grandkids (if I ever get any). Until then, maybe I can just start practicing with my colleagues until I get it right. Lasater’s “training wheels sentence” for NVC newbies is this:
“When I hear __________ , I feel __________, because I need __________. Would you be willing to __________?”
The concept is simple, but the implications for personal interaction are profound. In my world, for example, I’ve heard dozens of sermons on not judging others, but most of them were just negative approaches. “Thou shalt not!” But what is the positive practice to replace our incessant judging and criticizing? Lasater shows us. In fact, never before have I been so “lit up” by the appendices of a book. There Lasater gives us lists of helpful words and strategies for each of the blanks in the above “training wheels sentence.”
Preaching without Being Preachy
Does evangelicalism need a pioneer to explore these issues when it comes to homiletics? Which theological traditions might be open to such principles? Which would probably dismiss them out of hand? I have a few hunches, but that’s beside the point. I just placed another Rosenberg title on my Amazon wish list to help me pursue these stirrings: Practical Spirituality: The Spiritual Basis of Nonviolent Communication. All preachers want their words to “work” in the pulpit. Maybe there’s something here that can be helpful to us.
Quite honestly, I need to sit with this for a while. I think God is inviting me to something, though I’m not entirely sure what it is yet. In part, I’m wondering how NVC could apply to weekly preaching—where much damage is often done by our “violent” words to the congregation, unintentionally so but definitively, nonetheless. Alas, we preachers give ourselves a pass, ardently claiming “faithfulness to the sacred text” (and therefore faithfulness to God), even though we’re likely doing a lot of damage in the name of God. How can this be? I’m thinking more here about our homiletical posture than our sermonic content. How we say something can be just as important as what we say (cf. John 12:49).
Patience When We Blow It
Part of the joy in this approach is Lasater’s encouragement for us is to stop judging ourselves so harshly when we stumble in this area. This verbal life takes practice, he insists. Lots of it. “Make requests of yourself and others, not demands. Learn the difference. Feel the difference. Learn to learn.”
But therein lies the problem. There’s too much I want to learn. And read. And study. But if I try to do it all, I suspect I’ll never get around to writing this dang dissertation that’s hanging over my head. So, I need divine grace at any moment to know which areas of study God wants me to pursue. On my own, I have too many. Maybe there’s a book out there that can help me with the Faustian curse that still haunts me from time to time. That, too, is likely connected to my own history of “growing up messed up.”
Thank God, then, for grace. When the Lord spoke his ultimate “Word” to us, it was Jesus, his divine Son, full of “grace and truth” (John 1:14). Consequently, there’s always hope.
One challenge offered by Marilyn McEntyre in her book Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies is for people to “Stay in Conversation.” It was that nasty little word “stay” that first caught my attention. All of us converse from time to time—out of sheer pleasure and/or necessity—but it doesn’t come easily for many of us. As an introvert, I could be tempted to think that conversation is the verbal equivalent of kale; it may be good for me, but I don’t have to like it. On the other hand, I do enjoy conversation when it features the right blend of seriousness, wit, insight, encouragement, and/or inspiration. Small talk is just exhausting (and annoying) to this INTJ.
McEntyre laments, “Conversation is not simple. Good conversation is rare. We do not live in a culture in which the art of conversation is widely cultivated.” While I agree with her observation, I also recognize that I’m part of the “culture” of which she speaks. Consequently, it’s necessary for me to cultivate my abilities when it comes to the art of conversation in order to help the cause. In this post, we’ll look at why good conversation is important, why it can be challenging for someone like me, and what I need from God to improve my conversation.
Why Good Conversation Is Important
Human beings were made for community. It’s part of who we are as creatures made in the image of God. The Lord has revealed himself to us as the divine Three-in-One, a single, triune community of love, joy, and mutuality. Moreover, God has said it is not good for people to be alone. He designed us for relationship—with him and with each other. Thankfully, the gospel makes both possible.
Indeed, the twelve disciples were a community group, formed by Jesus himself. This band of petty and pugnacious men had little in common with each other besides Jesus, yet within three years, their lives and their communities were transformed into a world-changing movement. They lived, loved, learned, and talked together as they followed Jesus, overcoming their differences as they did. Divine grace was the glue that held them together.
William Ham has said, “There are many things which a person can do alone, but being a Christian is not one of them. As the Christian life is, above all things, a state of union with Christ, and of union of his followers with one another, love of the brethren is inseparable from love of God. Resentment toward any human being cannot exist in the same heart with love to God.” Ouch. Staying in conversation can be tough, especially when there’s tension or grievance in the air, right?
Moreover, we live in a culture that prizes individualism, one that views community as something to consume rather than commit to. On top of that, community is not always easy. But when we abandon community—and the rich conversation that holds it together—we deprive ourselves of the very gifts God may want to bring into our lives. McEntyre writes, “Conversation is an exchange of gifts. Native American tribal wisdom teaches that when you encounter a person on your life path, you must seek to find out what gifts you have for one another so that you may exchange them before going your separate ways.” Such verbal hospitality is a form of loving one another. It’s the way we share life experiences, thus caring for people by learning their stories and practicing the “one anothers” of Scripture.
“How rich is anyone who can simply see human faces,” said Corrie ten Boom. She was right, especially as applied to our age of digital technology, media saturation, and personal isolation, especially during a pandemic. Quality conversation in the context of genuine Christian community is the antidote to such trends of depersonalization. As C. S. Lewis said, true friendship is born when one person says to another, “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . . .” Loneliness is thus pushed back in the course of dialog, and the image of God is lived out through us as we do life together. Conversation, then, fulfills the image of God in us, even as it serves to deliver God’s good gifts to us.
Why Good Conversation Can Be Challenging
As already noted, I’m introvert. I say this by way of description, not by way of excuse. I simply tend to focus my attention on the inner world of my own ideas and impressions. It’s a natural preference for me, and it always has been. Conversation, then, sometimes pulls me out of my comfort zone and into a world of apprehension. As McEntyre observes, “To ‘converse’ originally meant to live among or together, or to act together, to foster community, to commune with. It was a large verb that implied public, cooperative, and deliberate action. When we converse, we act together toward a common end, and we act upon one another.” Ouch again. Introverts don’t like being acted upon.
When I was young, my imagination was my favorite toy. Consequently, I came across to others as distant, aloof, and sometimes even arrogant—largely because I spent most of my time in my own thought world. Playing around in the sandbox of my own mind was fun, and it still is. Taken to the extreme, however, introversion can be a rank form of selfishness. Others need to be heard, and I need to listen, but that takes energy and concentration. As McEntyre notes, “A good conversationalist directs attention, inspires, corrects, affirms, and empowers others. It is a demanding vocation that involves attentiveness, skilled listening, awareness of one’s own interpretative frames, and a will to understand and discern what is true.”
On the very first performance evaluation for my entry level job out of college, I received high marks and good feedback in every are except one. My boss said, “You’re not a very good listener.” She was right. Two dynamics were at work in those days. First, if I ever heard an interesting thought or idea from an external source, my mind would secretly “run with it” to new and deeper places in the moment, causing me to miss other elements of the conversation.
Second, if I ever heard a banal thought or idea from an external source, I would quietly realize that what was going on in my own head at the time was much more interesting, again causing me to miss other elements of the conversation. Consequently, I was never seen as “a people person.” In fact, my own dear mother, upon hearing my announcement that I was going to be a pastor, said with utter incredulity, “You???” She was shocked.
Truth be told, there was a third dynamic at work in those days, and it was the same family of origin issue I’ve struggled with my whole life—a tendency toward perfectionism. That was a coping mechanism I utilized to help calm the troubled waters at home. I was determined to earn parental approval, but I seemingly fell short every time. For a sensitive kid like me, that feeling of failure was a recurring source of pain and disappointment. Sadly, it wound up affecting numerous areas of my life, and the sting of it lingers to this day.
Along with everything else in our lives, perfectionists have to converse perfectly, too. That feels threatening. “What if I say something wrong?” “What if I say something stupid?” “What if I say something that doesn’t go over well in a group?” As a result of this fear, patterns of isolation developed early in life. Even into my twenties and early thirties, those patterns were there and seemed to be set in stone. I could say of myself, in the words of Simon and Garfunkel, “I am a rock.”
A winter’s day In a deep and dark December I am alone Gazing from my window to the streets below On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow
I am a rock I am an island
I’ve built walls A fortress deep and mighty That none may penetrate I have no need of friendship Friendship causes pain It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain
I am a rock I am an island
Don’t talk of love But I’ve heard the words before It’s sleeping in my memory I won’t disturb the slumber of feelings that have died If I never loved I never would have cried
I am a rock I am an island
I have my books And my poetry to protect me I am shielded in my armor Hiding in my room Safe within my womb I touch no one and no one touches me
I am a rock I am an island
And a rock feels no pain And an island never cries
Simon said it was his most neurotic song ever.
A related aversion I have to conversation is connected to the internal struggle I experience whenever someone is overly domineering or acting like a “word hog” in discourse. (That aversion is likely connected to my family of origin issues, too, as my dad could be quite intimidating.) I tend to be much more persuaded by logic, substance, and good argumentation than by mere volume, emotion, or trivia. One interesting fellow comes to mind in this regard. Bob (not his real name) has a lot of volume and copious gesticulations to go with his big words, myriad insults, and theatrical pronouncements of useless information. Nevertheless, he thinks he’s clever. Most of us, however, think he has a lot more to be humble about than he realizes. If I ever write his biography, it might be titled, The Lucubrations of a Loquacious Ultracrepidarian, just to illustrate the point. People like Bob tend to make me clam up, and I haven’t learned yet how to deal with them in a healthy way. I have a lot to be humble about, too.
What I Need from God to Improve My Conversation
Despite these personal challenges, I know I need to “stay in conversation,” which means I need to stay in community. As Charles Colson once said, “Though I know intellectually how vulnerable I am to pride and power, I am the last one to know when I succumb to their seduction. That’s why spiritual Lone Rangers are so dangerous—and why we must depend on trusted brothers and sisters who love us enough to tell us the truth.”
Consequently, what I need from God is grace to overcome the feeling that I need to “perform” while talking, thinking that every statement I make in a conversation is being evaluated by others. Without that grace, I could easily revert to those days of being “a rock” or an “island.” But it’s far better to be vulnerable than to be isolated. The last thing this world needs is another neurotic introvert.
Several years ago, a man joined a monastery, where, in addition to the vows of celibacy and poverty, he was required to make a vow of silence. According to the rules of the monastery, the man was allowed to speak only two words a year, and only during his annual review in front of the evaluation board. The new monk served his first year in absolute silence. At year’s end, when his performance was being evaluated, he finally was permitted to speak. The two words he uttered were, “Food cold.”
The monk served his second year in absolute silence. At year’s end, his two words to the evaluation board were, “Bed hard.” The man then served his third year in absolute silence. At the end of the year, when he showed up for his final review, his two words were, “I quit.” To which the monastery leader responded, “Your decision doesn’t surprise us; after all, you’ve done nothing but complain since you got here.”
If only my complaining were limited to two words a year, how much more peaceful and quieter my life would be! “Do all things without complaining,” said Paul in Philippians 2:14. But is that really possible? Can a believer truly live a complaint-free life? It sounds unattainable, but God’s commands are meant to challenge the ruts and routines we sometimes carve out for ourselves in this life.
What Is Complaining?
Believers who want to heed Paul’s admonition first need to know what complaining is. Simply put, complaining is giving expression to one’s self-centered discontentment. It’s a spiritual heart murmur with vocal chords. It’s the verbal vomit that spews forth when we don’t get our own way. Sometimes our complaining takes on less verbal forms, too—a rolling of the eyes, a grinding of the teeth, huffing and puffing, stomping off, or body language that conveys defiance, disrespect, or disapproval.
It’s important to point out that complaining is not the same as grieving. God invites us to mourn when it is time to mourn. Neither is complaining the same as speaking out against injustice, danger, or heresy. Scripture gives us guidelines on when and how to do those things. Complaining is not even vocalizing the deep distresses of theheart when life is insanely difficult, provided we do so in a godly way. The Psalms are loaded with vivid laments to God that are both real and raw. Complaining is much more sinister because it involves the assertion of self to secure one’s comfort at all cost. It’s a lashing out rather than a looking up.
What We Usually Complain About
What do I find myself complaining about the most? In a word—people. People! (I wonder if some of them complain about me.) As I reflect on this dynamic in my own life, I find that most of my internal complaining (which may be quiet but is still sinister) usually revolves around people who don’t think the way I do. They’re different from me in their interests, worldview, politics, attitude, demeanor, etc. They may be media figures who mislead the public. They may be pundits who cram eight or nine logical fallacies into a single sentence. They may be church members who refuse to change and enter the 21st century. They may be curmudgeons who have little good to say about anything. Irritating people come in many forms.
Other sources of my complaints include life situations I don’t particularly like but are usually out of my control. The weather. The stock market. Long lines at the store. Excessive taxes and regulations on small businesses. Slow cars in the passing lane. The Phillies and the Eagles. What are the things in life that irk you enough to complain? I don’t really like myself when I go down the path of internal negativity.
Shackled Yet Free
Significantly, Paul denounces complaining whileshackled in a jail cell—not exactly the best of circumstances to endure. Apparently for Paul, complaining is not a legitimate response even to the lousy accommodations of a first-century prison system. Instead, recognizing that God is in charge of the affairs of this life, Paul views himself as a prisoner of the Lord, not as a prisoner of Rome. He may have reasoned, “If I’m incarcerated right now, it must be because God wants the people around me to hear the gospel. I can tell them my own bad news through complaining, or I can tell them God’s good news through service and proclamation.” Paul chooses the latter, in part because he discovered an important clue to victorious living and gospel winsomeness.
I tend to think that I’ll stop complaining when I finally get happy. Paul seems to suggest that I’ll get happy when I finally stop complaining. The difference is practical and profound. He argues in Philippians 2:14-16 that murmuring Christians look and sound like the depraved generation of which we’re are a part. That’s a serious charge, but the stakes are high. What unbeliever would want to follow Christ if he apparently makes little difference in my own life?
Paul’s admonition to avoid complaining is rooted in Israel’s history. One of the saddest cases of the nation’s griping is recorded in Numbers 14, where God says, “In this desert your bodies will fall—every one of you . . . who has grumbled against me.” For them, entry into the Promised Land was denied, in large measure because of their complaining. What a tragedy! Israel griped about their leaders, groused about their food, and grumbled about their difficult challenge to occupy Canaan. God was fed up with their incessant carping, as their long and hot wanderings in the desert reveal.
According to Deuteronomy 1:2, it should have taken the Israelites less than two weeks to travel from where they had received the Ten Commandments to the edge of the Promised Land. As it turned out, their trip took forty years. No doubt the scenic route was God’s way of telling them to “walk it off!” Why such a storm of judgment? From God’s perspective, to complain is to doubt his promises and provisions. To complain is to slander his sovereignty and assault his lordship. To complain is to accuse God of being a bad Father.
Thoughts of complaint easily become words of criticism—verbal grenades launched against other people’s character, beliefs, speech, or behavior. Recently I found myself in a meeting trying to debrief a certain event with others when I felt myself verbally “crossing the line” in my critique. Evaluative assessments—even negative ones—are sometimes necessary, but they should never be used to make someone look small. I feared that I had unnecessarily diminished someone, so I quickly apologized and reeled myself in. Others didn’t think I was being unkind, but my own perception was that I could have said it better. Avoiding the desert is a conscious choice.
Jesus and the ‘Complainiacs’
Interestingly enough, the Bible indicates that Jesus was every bit as intolerant of complaining as his Father. In fact, Jesus repeatedly set himself against the most menacing and destructive type of complaining there was—the kind where people complained about other people. In other words, criticism. In the face of that kind of speech, Jesus responded the same way every time.
All told, Jesus fields complaints against five different types of “other people” in the Gospels—the fortunate, the insensitive, the outsider, the unspiritual, and the wicked. Two of the fourteen complaints about other people occur within parables, which Jesus may have crafted from real-life scenarios common in his day.
Complaints about Those ‘Fortunate’ People
The Heir’s Complaint about His Brother (Luke 12:13-21)
Peter’s Complaint about John (John 21:20-25)
The Ten Disciples’ Complaint about the Two Disciples (Matthew 20:20-28)
The Hired Worker’s Complaint about the Landowner (Matthew 20:1-16)
Complaints about Those ‘Insensitive’ People
Martha’s Complaint about Mary (Luke 10:38-42)
The Invalid’s Complaint about Those Who Ignore Him (John 5:1-8, 14)
Complaints about Those ‘Outside’ People
John’s Complaint about the Unknown Exorcist (Luke 9:49-50)
James’ and John’s Complaint about the Samaritans (Luke 9:51-56)
Complaints about Those ‘Unspiritual’ People
The Disciples of John’s Complaint about the Disciples of Jesus (Matthew 9:14-17)
The Pharisees’ Complaint about Jesus’ Disciples (Luke 5:27-32)
Judas Iscariot’s Complaint about Mary (John 12:1-8)
Complaints about Those ‘Wicked’ People
The Jews’ Complaint about Pilate (Luke 13:1-9)
The Pharisees’ Complaint about the Adulterous Woman (John 8:1-9)
The Man’s Complaint about His Younger Brother (Luke 15:25-32)
When all the complaint stories are taken together, several truths emerge about how Jesus handled people’s complaints about other people:
(1) Jesus never gave the complainer the satisfaction he was looking for;
(2) Jesus never allowed the complainer to persist in his complaining;
(3) Jesus never tolerated the excessive ripping apart of another person’s character, even the ungodly;
(4) Jesus often turned the tables and offered a telling insight about the complainer’s own heart; and
(5) Jesus sometimes even issued a spiritual warning to the complainer himself.
Essentially, Jesus responded to every complaint about other people with a simple and sobering challenge: “Complaint denied!” (Such consistency may be a subtle hint at his deity.)
The story of the heir and his brother in Luke 12:13-21 is a case in point. A man complains to Jesus about his brother’s failure to divide the family inheritance with him. Jesus responds by stating that his own sacred mission does not involve being wedged into the middle of such disputes. Furthermore, Jesus warns the complainer about his own inclination toward covetousness, and then tells an instructive parable about the foolishness of greed. The warning is severe, and the man’s complaint is ultimately denied.
The Antidote to Complaining
Are you a complainiac? Have you ever grumbled about people who were more fortunate than you, insensitive toward you, outside your group, less spiritual than you, or just plain wicked? In light of the biblical evidence, believers should take to heart that such complaining does not enjoy the sanction of heaven. Jesus himself rejected these types of complaints and often used them as boomerangs to spiritually challenge the complainer.
As it was in the days when Jesus walked the earth, so it is today. Wanting his followers in this generation to “do all things without complaining,” Jesus often says to us, in love, “Complaint denied!” While that can be a tough message to hear, the good news is that Scripture goes beyond pointing out our faults; it also shows us a better way.
The antidote to my complaining and criticizing is not just a matter of changing my speech. God deals with each of his children uniquely and deeply—at the heart level, where real transformation begins. His emphatic “no” to one type of behavior is an invitation to practice his emphatic “yes” to other types of behavior.
For example, liars do not cease to be liars when they stop telling lies; they cease to be liars when they start telling the truth. Likewise, complainers do not cease to be complainers when they stop complaining; they cease to be complainers when they start giving thanks as a way of life. Christian gratitude is the attitude that must be cultivated in order to conquer complaining and criticizing. As with all spiritual disciplines, this is a lifelong journey of trial and error, cultivation and pruning.
Ultimately, we do well to remember that Jesus himself was not a complainer. Instead, he gave thanks as a way of life. Before he fed the 5,000 (Matt 14:19), before he fed the 4,000 (Matt 15:36), before he raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11:41), before he distributed the bread and cup of Holy Communion (Matt 26:26-27), before he broke bread with the Emmaus disciples (Luke 24:30), Jesus expressed sincere gratitude to his Father. Undergirding this lifelong gratitude was the world-changing prayer he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father . . . not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). May that be our prayer as well.
It really makes a difference what we say, the words that come out of our mouth. I learned this from a woman that survived Auschwitz, one of the rare survivors. She went to Auschwitz when she was just fifteen years old. And her brother was eight. And the parents were lost. She told me this. She said, “We were in the train going to Auschwitz, and I looked down and saw my brother’s shoes were missing. And I said, ‘Why are you so stupid? Why can’t you keep your things together for goodness sake?’” The way an elder sister would speak to a younger brother. Unfortunately, it was the last thing she ever said to him because she never saw him again. He did not survive. And so, when she came out of Auschwitz she made a vow. She told me this. She said, “I walked out of Auschwitz into life, and I made a vow. And the vow was: I will never say anything that couldn’t stand as the last thing I ever say.” Now can we do that? No, and we’ll make ourselves wrong, and others wrong. But it is a possibility to live into.
It’s a possibility I want to live into, as well. And with God, all things are possible.
Words have the power to captivate and communicate, sometimes even better than images do. That’s one of the reasons movie adaptations of our favorite books can fall flat. They deviate from what our own imaginations did with the words we read. Take, for example, this silly sentence from an unknown source: “The bulbous woman ballooned toward me.” No picture is needed for such a sight; the mental image conjured by the words is amusing enough.
Likewise, this famous line from Carl Sandburg needs no help from a video: “The fog comes on little cat feet. It sits looking over harbor and city on silent haunches and then moves on.” Such a scene can’t be filmed; it can only be conveyed by a creative and strategic use of words. Similarly, Truman Capote painted a feast of images with this memorable line: “Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go.” I can almost taste the town just by reading the sentence.
My all-time favorite line in English comes from Alexander Pope’s description of Jesus turning the water into wine. The verse he crafted portrays the miracle performed in Cana in a rich and unforgettable way: “The conscious water saw its master and blushed.”
Here the poet personifies the water, giving it a consciousness, the capacity to see, and the ability to feel embarrassed. The profound theological message conveyed in this one verse speaks volumes about the relationship of the creation to its creator (one of subordinate humility), as well as the exalted identity of the one who performed the miracle (the creator himself, incarnated and living humbly as a craftsman in Galilee). Can a picture do all that? Probably not.
I happen to love words, and I enjoy learning new ones. I also love reading the works of others who use them better than I do, sharpening my own craft in the process. I was an English major in college, so I had the opportunity to read broadly across the literature spectrum. Anchored now in the truths of a biblical worldview, I’m untroubled by reading works outside my own tradition. It expands my perspective and allows me to peer into how other people think and use words.
I also enjoy the weekly challenge of crafting a “big idea” for my sermons, encapsulating the entire message in a single sentence. Vivid, pithy language with turns of phrases and symmetrical touches can serve the homiletical task well. There’s no shortage of good examples on how to do this.
“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” (President John F. Kennedy)
“Do I love you because you’re beautiful? Or are you beautiful because I love you?” (Oscar Hammerstein)
“In the blue grass region, a paradox was born: the corn was full of kernels, and the colonels full of corn.” (John Marshall)
“I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.” Steve Allen (though variously attributed)
Factor in the gospel, and there are all kinds of possibilities when it comes to words that evoke vivid images and big ideas. Who can forget the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial? Over time his big idea became the title of his message. As Winston Churchill once said, “If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time—a tremendous whack.” Dr. King did exactly that.
Good communicators get this. Andy Stanley writes, “Every time I stand to communicate, I want to take one simple truth and lodge it in the heart of the listener. I want them to know that one thing and know what to do with it.” Finally, as if to model the very technique he advocated for so many years, Haddon Robinson said, “A sermon should be a bullet, not buckshot.” Here are some big idea bullets I’ve fired recently on Sunday mornings:
Hope never dies because the God of the impossible lives.
To outlive your life, yield it completely to the Author of life.
Many babies have become kings, but only one king has ever become a baby.
When God stretches your faith, he will also strengthen your heart.
Love God not to get him to love you but because he already does.
The activation of God’s promise is joined to the asking of God’s people.
If you’re wandering around in a spiritual desert, you need to have a moral compass.
A fake gospel cannot deliver a real salvation.
The grace of God will remove sin, but it will not redefine sin.
Finite human beings are like crossword puzzle addicts with a limited vocabulary.
The big idea of the biblical text must always be located within the Big Story of the biblical plot, lest the forest be missed for the trees. (Big ideas and big stories need each other.) For this reason, I read both exegetical and hermeneutical materials. I do this out of enjoyment but also out of a sense of calling to “tell the people the full message of this new life” (Acts 5:20), as described in a previous post. For me it’s a labor of love.
But sometimes my words are not vehicles of love—toward God or toward others. Too often they’re self-centered or dispiriting. Too often they’re unhelpful or unkind. That’s why this is yet another area where I need to keep making progress. Specifically, I need wisdom, power, and grace from God to eradicate my complaining and eliminate my criticism—even when such impulses remain unarticulated. They’re still under the surface.
How can I properly handle God’s words in Scripture if I continually mishandle my own words in life? The incongruity is a red flag. As Marilyn McEntyre writes, “What is our task as a logocentric people if not to cherish the word? God, who became, as Eliot so beautifully put it, the ‘word within a word, unable to speak a word,’ has put a measure of God’s own power into our hands and on our tongues. May we use it to good purpose.”
On those occasions when I become a “negaholic” or a “complainiac,” I’m not using the power God gave me to a good purpose. More on these two verbal vices next time.
God the Father inscribed the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone. God the Son wrote in the dirt while preparing to respond to a thorny question about law and grace. God the Holy Spirit inspired the apostles, prophets, and evangelists to write sacred Scripture. Indeed, each member of the Holy Trinity revealed divine truth to human beings using human language, the currency of which is words. Moreover, heaven’s ultimate revelation, Jesus Christ, is called ὁ λόγος, “the Word” (John 1:1).
In his book Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books, Tony Reinke notes how Christianity is a Word-centered faith, which stands in sharp contrast to ancient Near Eastern religions—faith systems that typically focused on visual representations of the deities through idols. Contrary to these image-based religions, he argues, Christians are a people of books, texts, and words, a reality that has deep implications for not only what we learn about God and his world but also how we learn it:
“Words are a more precise way of communicating the meaning behind the images of our world. . . . What is real extends far deeper than what we can see. Our holy God is real. . . . Our Savior is real. Heaven is real. Angels are real. But for now these realities are invisible.” The author of Hebrews might agree with Reinke, at least to a point (cf. 11:1-2).
On the other hand, Dr. Leonard Sweet, with whom I teach on a weekly basis, would bristle at the claim. Sweet thinks it’s high time for the church to emphasize images, metaphors, and stories again. Word-centeredness, he contends, is a product of the enlightenment and modernism. The postmodernism era needs a more image-based approach if believers are to be effective in communicating the gospel in our day. He may be on to something.
In our visually saturated culture today, the church (and the world) might be well served by God’s people recapturing some of the artistic passion we lost in the Reformation period. Ironically, though, Sweet makes his case for this approach whileusing words, a point even he is happy to concede. In class he once showed a few story-based commercials lacking anything verbal—until the very end when the company tag line appeared on the screen. “The story always ends with words,” he admitted.
Doctoral programs end with words, too—a lot of them—all carefully poured into a document we call the dissertation. They also feature spirited online interactions and residency conversations by students with vastly different backgrounds and viewpoints. We do well, then, to remember Proverbs 18:21a, which says, “The tongue has the power of life and death.” The word “tongue” here is a metonymy for “words.” The proverb teaches that words have the power of life and death.
With our words we can unleash quarrels and traumatize people’s hearts. We can hurt people’s feelings and multiply their insecurities. We can consternate people and plunge them into despair. We can mislead people into danger and thrust them into war. Words have the power to kill.
On the other hand, with our words we can motivate people toward deeper thinking and loftier accomplishments. We can help heal the damage done to their wounded souls and restore their faith in God. We can share the good news of Jesus Christ and lead them to find peace in a chaotic world. We can talk them up from the emotional pits they’re in and talk them down from the suicidal ledges they’re on. Words have the power to give life.
While divine words can bring life into existence out of nothing, human words can bring life into existence out of people’s brokenness. It’s a privilege entrusted to every person of faith. How are we doing in this regard?
If an inventory of your words leaves you feeling down, just find someone to whom you can speak life this day. The journey of a thousand conversations begins with the first word. Make it a good one!
Image Credits: catholic.com; iStock.com.
 Tony Reinke, Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 40-42.
I’ve often said to my friends at church, “The reason I preach long sermons is that I get paid by the word.” After the chuckling dies down, I’m usually haunted for a few moments by Solomon’s proverb, “When words are many, sin is not absent” (Prov 10:19a). As Eugene Peterson has famously said, “We cannot be too careful about the words we use; we start out using them and they end up using us.” His call is for believers to cultivate the practice of integrity and winsomeness in our daily speech.
That call is echoed by Marilyn McEntyre, who writes, “Like any other life-sustaining resource, language can be depleted, polluted, contaminated, eroded, and filled with artificial stimulants.” Her mission is to motivate people “to be good stewards of language,” retrieving words from “the kinds of misuse, abuse, and distortion to which they’ve been subjected of late, and to reinvigorate them for use as bearers of truth and instruments of love.” In today’s polarized environment, that sounds like a good and necessary vision.
In the next few posts, I’ll try to tease out a mini-theology of words. I may even disclose some of those areas where I believe my own verbalizations still need improvement. By the grace of God, gone are the days when I was an immature high school swimmer “cussin’ with the best of ’em” on the pool deck and in the locker room. But, oh, there’s still a long way for me to go when it comes to my mouth! Even so, words start much deeper down, said Jesus, long before they ever vibrate across our vocal chords and flow past our lips (cf. Matt 12:34b). That’s why Warren Wiersbe used to say, “The tongue is a tattletale on the heart.”
So, it’s really our hearts that need extra doses of grace, not just our tongues. Can you relate?
 Eugene H. Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 54.
 Marilyn McEntyre, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 1.