I've been working through the Proverbs with my college students this summer and our pursuit of wisdom this last week led us to a discussion of how we use our words. As a practical matter, the sages had plenty to say about our language: when to keep quiet, speak up, address authority, and dozens of other observations about our everyday use of language.
Looking at it theologically, this shouldn't surprise us. The doctrine of creation teaches us that we are made in the Image of a God who speaks the world into existence and forms it by his words. Indeed, the Gospel itself is bound up with words. Jesus came preaching, teaching, and healing with words about the Kingdom. God redeems us with words of forgiveness and justification through the Word himself. Indeed, Gospel-people are to be 'good word' people whose language gives testimony to this linguistically-accomplished redemption. For those of us then, who are being reformed and conformed to his Image, words matter.
Proverbs for Bloggers
Ironically enough, the week I taught my students about the importance of wise words, I witnessed a number of online brouhahas caused/exacerbated mostly by a foolish use of words. Of course, I could write that about any week as the internet is frequently a horrible place, filled with foolishness, rash language, and "cursing" of all sorts, including the 'Christian' wings of it.
As one who's played the part of the fool far too often in these fracases, I thought it might be helpful apply a few, fairly obvious, but frequently forgotten, proverbs on the wise use of speech for those of us inhabiting Facebook, the blogosophere, and yes, the Twittersphere. Who knows what a little ancient wisdom can do for our modern communication techniques?:
Baby Blogger Chooses Who to Troll Next. Image: UMF via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
"A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh response stirs up anger" (15:1) If I had to pick one proverb for people (ie. myself) to memorize and apply, it would be this one. Probably half of online disputes and fiascos wouldn't get off the ground if somebody would put down their guns quickly and respond gently to criticisms or counter-criticisms. Especially for those feeling themselves questioned, unfairly-criticized, or triggered, your response can either put out a spark or fan it into a flame. This can even happen unintentionally as tone is difficult to communicate in 140 characters. It might even be worth writing something as obvious as "#playfultone," to make your intent clear.
"Whoever belittles his neighbor lacks sense, but a man of understanding remains silent." (11:12) Shutting up is probably appropriate more than most bloggers think it is at any given moment. We tend to believe we have to have an opinion on everything and everyone immediately. Care must be taken, however, when it comes to commenting on people or actions. Rarely are we quickly in a position to know the whole account of a situation, so remaining silent before we go on to belittle our neighbor for a fault is wise. Actually, belittling is rarely the best way to go about thing in any case. While the prophets mocked idolatry and Jesus poked fun at the teachers of the law, pointless or caustic mockery isn't praised highly by the sages. Those of us not possessing infinite wisdom or receiving regular revelations from the Lord might have a care with our mockery.
In the early days of the Twitter wars, children were often forced into trolling by exhausted parents. Image: Extra Ketchup via Flickr (CC SA-BY 2.0).
"There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing." (12:18) Like a man waving around a sword haphazardly, so is one who throws out their words carelessly. You may not mean to, but someone could get hurt with your incautious utterances. This is especially the case for those of us with quick wits and Twitter accounts; a sharp tongue rarely brings healing. Instead of merely thinking before we speak or write, let us pray before writing in order that God might sanctify our speech. Our goal in speaking, or tweeting, must be eventual healing, even when using our most pointed words. Use a scalpel, if you must, but put the dagger away.
"Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent." (17:28) At the risk of repeating myself, everybody with a Twitter account or blog seems to think they have something to say about everything. Hear me on this: you probably don't. At least not something intelligent. Excepting our Lord himself, nobody can speak intelligently to every issue out there. Everyone is necessarily limited in their training, study, and expertise in any given area, and certainly on life as a whole. If you don't have something particularly good to say, don't feel like you have to say anything at all. Again, its best to be silent and thought wise, than open your mouth and disabuse everyone of that notion.
During the Cold War, many women found work for the US government as watch bloggers, exposing and criticizing bloggers who were suspected communist sympathizers. All this work was done on punch cards. Image: Cushing Memorial Library and Archives TX A&M via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
"Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.'" (26:4-5) These couple proverbs are tricky because, on the face of it, they seems to contradict each other. Proverbs as a genre are not comprised of hard and fast rules, but rather generalizations you need to learn to apply at the right time. With these two proverbs you realize that there are times it's beneficial to respond to someone mouthing off. It might be necessary before others are led away by their foolishness, or as the proverb envisions, simply for that person's own benefit. There are other times, however, when you know all that's going to happen is an ugly argument where you end acting just as foolish as the instigator. Sadly those are the times when, in our sin and pride, we most want to respond. Dying to yourself isn't only about the epic sacrifices, but the small decisions to "discard" or not hit "publish" or "send."
Of course, the Proverbs hold much more wisdom than speaking to this one topic. Indeed, the Scriptures as a whole testify to a better way to speak and write–Jesus' love command alone ought to settle things. Still, a few pithy proverbs can help us keep love specific, and wisdom practical–even in our blogging.
About Derek Rishmawy
Derek Rishmawy is the Director of College and Young Adult ministries at Trinity United Presbyterian Church in Orange County, CA, serving college kids for the gospel. He's been graciously adopted by the Triune God. That God has also seen fit to bless him with lovely wife named McKenna. He got his B.A. in Philosophy at UCI and his M.A. in Theological Studies (Biblical Studies) at APU. His passions are theology, the church, some philosophy, cultural criticism, and theology. He has been published at the Gospel Coalition, Mere Orthodoxy, and Out of Ur blog. He writes regularly at his Reformedish blog. You can connect on Facebook and can also follow him on Twitter at @DZRishmawy