For those of us who make a living by using words—and that’s pretty much everybody serving in local church and parachurch ministries—Matthew 12:36–37 and James 3:1 have to be among the most frightening passages in all of Scripture:
I [Jesus] tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. (Matt. 12:36–37)
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. (James 3:1)
These words are especially frightening given the estimate that the average human speaks between 10,000 and 20,000 words per day. It’s not hard to imagine that Christians, particularly those in vocational ministry, might multiply that twice over (or more). And as dangerous as spoken words are, the past decade or so has witnessed an explosion in the popularity of social media.
Thanks to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other platforms, there’s more trouble in our words than perhaps at any time in human history. This reality makes the appearance of Dan Darling’s new book, A Way with Words: Using Our Conversations Online for Good (B&H), so welcome as we begin the third decade of the 20th century. There’s trouble in our talk—especially, it seems, when we’re doing it with thumbs on a screen or fingers on a keyboard.
Words Are Weapons
In addition to the above-quoted passages, God inspired dozens of passages warning against the utter danger of sinful words—slanderous words, angry words, cynical words, sarcastic words, lying words, and much more. Consider the relationships fractured, lives ruined, and wars started by by the mere use of words.
There’s more trouble in our words than perhaps at any time in human history.
Darling—senior vice president of National Religious Broadcasters—opens his work with a discussion of the importance of talk and shows how sin has damaged the way we communicate. He outlines the trappings of living online, such as the addictive nature of social media which takes us away from reading serious books, from reading the Bible, from prayer, and instead instills in us FOMO—fear of missing out. For all its benefits, the internet have given us new ways to sin against one another through communication.
Each chapter examines one aspect of online communication—listening, getting the full picture of a situation before responding, the perils of Christians (especially leaders) seeking to build a platform, sensationalism, making our lives look more “put together” than they really are, avoiding online conflict, and the value of real-life, unmediated relationships. Like any faithful minister, the Darling ends with good news: it’s possible for Christians to redeem online communication.
How do we steward our words and images online? I think we first begin with another question: how can I make my corner of the internet a better place? I can’t control the trolls that make sport of attacking public figures. I can’t stop the cycle of shame that greets Twitter every morning with fresh objects of derision. But I can bring joy and humor, courageous truth and gentle grace.
Darling’s book is well-written, humorous at times and, because it’s rooted in Scripture, convicting in a way that’s compelling without being preachy. The book teaches us much about our proclivity toward sinful communication, and it provides wisdom as to how we should treat one another online as followers of Christ. Here are a few key lessons from the book that will help us.
1. Be quick to listen and slow to tweet.
Always take the advice of James and think carefully before you dash off that quick reply or hot take.
2. There’s very little discernment in discernment ministries.
Darling graciously exposes what ought to be clear about many of these so-called ministries: they often traffic in sensation and slander, even when telling truth, but they seldom provide godly discernment.
3. Gatekeepers are a good thing.
The greatest strength of independent online writers is also their greatest weakness: freedom. Liberty in reporting and writing is a good thing when truth has been hidden. However, accountability in the form of editors, proofreaders, and fact-checkers gives our writing—whether reporting news or writing opinion (and strong opinion pieces usually include good reporting)—a greater level of credibility. Peer-review is most always beneficial.
4. Tone matters.
Romans 12:18 calls for Christians to live at peace with everyone as far as it possible, and 1 Peter 3:15 commands us to always be ready to proclaim the gospel “with gentleness and respect.” My wife and I serve as editors for one another when we post something serious on social media or send an important text or email to members of our church. “Does this come off as mean-spirited or insensitive?” we’ll often ask. If I’ve learned one lesson in 34 years of journalism, it’s this: even editors need editors. And if editors need editors, how much more do non-editors. One of the strongest chapters in A Way with Words deals in detail with civility in communication.
5. Don’t write until all the truth is out.
First appearances, in both events and relationships, are often deceiving. Whether we’re offering a prayer request at church, writing our opinion on a controversial issue, or trying to sort through what happened at a tragic event, the hot take is almost never the best take. As Christians, we must avoid violating the ninth commandment by doing our best to get the entire picture. Once we’ve done so, we may decide it’s best not to tweet or weigh in on Facebook. Though this seems to have changed with modern journalism, during my years as a journalist, we almost never went with a story until we were confident we had as full a picture as possible. As Darling points out again and again, online communication desperately needs to be soaked in wisdom.
Talk, Talk, Talk
As we talk and talk and talk—whether with our mouths or our thumbs—we also sin. No doubt this is why God, in his goodness toward us, has spoken so often about our words in his Word.
It’s always a good time for new book on our communications struggles and how Christ empowers us to overcome them.
The Gospel Coalition