“If you can’t say something nice… don’t say nothing at all.”
Thumper’s parents had it right when they taught him this little phrase and encouraged him to hold his tongue if he couldn’t use it to be nice.
Our words matter. Generally, I think we know this fact because we wouldn’t waste our time sharing them if we didn’t think they were important.
We are especially conscious of the impact of our words when we see the look on the face of the person we’re talking to. When we look them in the eye, we become (sometimes painfully) aware that our words have either blessed or offended.
Most of the time, that matters to us.
A Troubling Trend
But there’s a trend that’s been driving me just a bit insane lately. I’ve regularly been hearing people speak their mind with little regard for feelings or common courtesy. It’s true. They are offensive, unkind, thoughtless, heartless, and rude.
And it seems like they couldn’t care less.
Because the person they’re talking to is someone they can’t see and likely will never meet, it is apparently acceptable to treat them as though they are less than human. They seem to think those they encounter in the virtual world are only virtual people.
Except they aren’t.
People Behind Keyboards Are People Too
Just because we can’t see the person on the other end of the computer screen, that doesn’t mean he or she doesn’t exist. It doesn’t mean she isn’t a real person with real feelings. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a real family or real problems.
If cute little Thumper was around today, his parents would probably tell him that if he couldn’t write something nice, he shouldn’t write anything at all. Those were some wise bunnies, and we could all learn a lesson from them!
But even more, we should learn this lesson from our all-wise God, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up…that it may give grace to those who hear.” (Ephesians 4:29)
Whether spoken or written, our words are important because they matter to God. The words that flow from us reveal what is in our heart. Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. Our words are the fruit of who we are deep down inside. (See Matthew 12:33-37)
Unfortunately, we easily believe these principles when we see a rebellious pop star tweeting smack, but we don’t so easily recognize our own downfall when we’re offering advice on Facebook or leaving a comment on a blog. And we might never consider the lasting impact of our words in that nasty email or hateful book review.
As Christians, we need to set some standards for our interaction with those in the virtual world. These standards should mirror the same commands of scripture that regulate our interactions in the real-life world.
To speak or not to speak? That is the first question.
Ask if the gospel is at stake.
In some situations, the very Word of God is challenged or misrepresented, and you feel you must speak out. But you should carefully weigh if it is beneficial and Christ-honoring to compose a response.
There are a zillion things continually being spewed out against scripture, so sometimes it just isn’t profitable to respond to those who are not Christians and will certainly not listen to the Truth you share. Other times, it may be best to make a very short statement and simply leave the discussion before it turns into a full-blown argument.
Ask yourself if you are enjoying the controversy.
Test your heart to see if you are getting sucked into the pleasure of gossip or tabloid-style comments and articles. If so, run away. Run fast. Carefully consider your motivation in reading, writing, and even thinking about the topic.
Also, don’t be afraid to stop subscribing to websites, unfollow people on Facebook, or leave private Facebook groups if you find yourself continually bombarded with controversy or negativity. If you get a knot in your stomach every time you read their emails or see their status in your feed, it’s probably time to put an end to it.
Ask a level-headed friend if and how you should respond.
Instead of spouting off the first words that come to mind when something gets under your skin, it can be helpful to seek wise counsel from someone who is not emotionally invested in the argument at hand. Let them help you evaluate if it’s God’s glory or your own pride that’s driving you.
As you’re drafting your comment, consider what your friends or family would think if they were to read it. If you would be embarrassed to have someone you know read your response, you probably shouldn’t write it.
If you must speak, then speak the truth in love.
Don’t say anything you wouldn’t say in person.
If you wouldn’t look at the same person in the grocery store or the church foyer and say your piece, then don’t say it online either. Always remember that a real live person is listening. As a matter of fact, usually a whole lot of real live people are listening.
Evaluate if what you write will build up or tear down.
Proverbs 12:18 says that rash words can be like sword thrusts. With that image in mind, perhaps our written words can be more like a rusty knife. They aren’t as likely to cut straight through, going in one ear and out the other. They have the potential to keep sawing back and forth, repeatedly hurting the person they’re aimed at.
Season your words with grace.
The Bible says “to let your speech always be gracious…so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” (Colossians 4:6) God did not intend for us to check this verse at the door when we sit down at the computer or turn on our smartphone. Notice the word always in that verse. Let your comments always be gracious.
Give the other person the benefit of the doubt.
Don’t assume the person you are responding to was intentionally trying to be incorrect, hurtful, or rude. Put yourself in her shoes and consider the heart behind what was originally said. Remember that you don’t always know the full story of her background or life experiences.
Preach the gospel.
Don’t get so caught up in your own thoughts and opinions that you overlook the opportunity to share God’s love and the truth of cross. Don’t feed off mommy-wars and worthless discussions. Petty arguments are just that: Petty. Choose your battles carefully and focus on eternity.
Responding to the critics.
Finally, if you are the victim of heartless words or, worse yet, intentional attacks, you also have a responsibility to respond in a way that glorifies God.
Test your words the way you wish your attacker would have.
Keep in mind that your goal is for the glory of God, not the praise of man. It may be utterly impossible to change his or her mind to see things your way. While you may be perfectly justified in defending yourself and your ideas, don’t allow the discussion to drag on or become ugly.
Offer grace and the gospel.
The person who saw fit to be hateful may have experienced a hurtful situation that has nothing to do with you. Offer kindness in the face of unkindness. “Never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:19, 21)
Put everything into perspective.
Sure, you may decide to graciously defend yourself, but remember that your joy, your salvation, and your life mission do not depend on any other person’s opinions.
That person may decide to hate you or judge you unfairly, but Jesus is the only one whose love and judgement matters. And His death and resurrection speaks the truth that He loves you infinitely and has taken your deserved judgement upon Himself.
When you are in the midst of personal attacks, try to distance yourself emotionally as much as possible. Examine yourself to see if anything in the attack is in some way justified, but don’t allow yourself to dwell on it too much. Take courage from who you are in Christ, and seek the wisdom, love, and encouragement of your family and friends.
Have you been the victim of a personal attack? Have you taken the high road and given a response that was full of grace? Share your experiences in the comments!