Whether in private conversation with friends, family and coworkers, or in the public speech that an increasing number engage in through the Web and social media, we are prone to forget the depravity into which we were born, and the sin that still courses in our veins. But we are called to remember from where we’ve come—and the sinful proclivities we’re still fighting within.
The Christian’s charge is not to respond to fools with folly, but to cultivate the empathy that is fitting when we’re aware that we ourselves were once foolish—but for God’s grace—and still war against our foolishness in many respects.
It is striking in our day of soundbites and the growing polarization of perspectives to “speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle.” It rings of Paul’s charge to another protégé, Timothy, in the cauldron of Ephesus.
The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will. (2 Timothy 2:24–26)
It is remarkable that the apostle would say, related to our engagement with outsiders, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Colossians 4:5–6). Always gracious—always. And that graciousness, he says, is vital to knowing how we ought to answer. As Christians, only by the grace of God, we have no excuse to let any words fly—in speech, tweets, or Facebook comments—that are ungracious.
Called to Engage With Kindness
At the end of the day, our gracious speech may open the door to some, but it doesn’t mean we will avoid being misunderstood, mistreated and maligned.
“A great deal of public opinion,” says Carson, “is shaped by dogmatic heated antitheses. It’s really hard to find people to engage civilly on many topics….It really is increasingly difficult to hold a civil conversation in the broader discourse because when you put your head up above the parapet, you’re labelled and shut down.”
It is inevitable that in such an age our kindness will be rejected, but that doesn’t mean we devolve into the meanness and shrillness that surrounds us. In Christ, we have a higher calling and capacity.
“One of the things that Christians have to learn in this frame of reference is, even if the whole society becomes uncivil in all discourse, we must not descend to that level, we must not project ourselves as screaming angry people but as broken people living under the cross, submitting to the lordship of Christ, wanting to think fairly and accurately and faithfully and truly and hopefully and edifyingly in a Christ-honoring, church-building-up sort of way.
“If that earns us a certain amount of opprobrium, pay the price. That’s what we do. But we don’t want to descend to the screaming level.”