For whatever reason, over the past couple of days, I’ve found myself saying, “We preach a gospel of grace, but in an ungracious tone.” Yesterday, on my way to Sweet Cheeks, I was talking with my friend from my Media Ethics class about this error in Christendom. Ever since our conversation, I’ve been wondering about the solution.
What do I mean by “an ungracious tone”? It could be a number of different sources (radio hosts, televangelists, random billboards, etc.), but essentially it’s a way of sharing the message and promise of Jesus Christ in a forceful, usually loud tone of voice. For example: street preachers. Not all are bad; I’ve heard a couple good ones. But the good ones are far outnumbered by the bad and unfortunately draw fewer crowds. University of Oregon has certainly seen the bad ones.
With their massive signs hoisted up on 10 or 12 foot poles, these street preachers bring a message of torture and pain for those who don’t agree with them. Screaming and shouting, spitting and spiting, they share more news about the destructive power of hell rather than the healing power of Jesus. Quite frankly, this ought not to be. And reading through the very scriptures these preachers cite from, I came across something in Proverbs this afternoon that stands out as the real issue.
“The heart of the wise makes his speech judicious and adds persuasiveness to his lips,” – Proverbs 16:23.
What doesn’t make one’s speech “judicious” and persuasive? Volume. This is a problem for me when I’m watching a Mark Driscoll sermon; he tends to depend on how loud he speaks rather than what words he speaks with. He’s not the only one, though; just using him as an example because he’s more prominent. What irritates me the most about volume preachers is that when they talk about their “oppression” or how people often say mean things to them, they never step back to look at themselves and how they’re preaching; they think it’s simply because they’re Christian that they’re being oppressed. I don’t care what you preach, but if you want to continually shout it in my face and call me mean names, I’m not going to listen to you.
Wisdom, however, offers a solution to the problem. As indicated in today’s Proverb, the real issue is not the words or the tone, but rather the heart. “The heart of the wise…” gets people to listen. People want authenticity. People want something they can relate to. People want, well, people.
We want real humanity; the humanity that admits their flaws, reveals their secret short-comings, and desperately seeks help in order to change. Followers of Christ follow Him because we believe He is the only one who could truly change our lifestyles, our characters, and our hearts. And when our hearts are transformed to be like His, we talk to others in a much different tone. We talk to others with graciousness, kindness, and gentleness – not slandering anyone or demeaning anyone or telling anyone they’re going to hell (as if we could ever truly know that).
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a very argumentative person at times. I’m well aware of this. But instead of letting it carry on unchecked, I realize that others are bothered by this aggressive tone. If I want to share my faith with someone or talk about Jesus, I know that the less imposing tone, the better. When we emphatically and emotionally scream out our beliefs to others, we are in actuality pushing them away. Gracious speech, however, is inviting, not rejecting.
What sums up my distaste for “fire and brimstone” preaching (be it through radio, TV, internet, or wherever) is Paul’s words in Colossians 4:5-6; “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” Yelling in someone’s faith about your beliefs is not gracious by any means.
It’s a difficult thing to do, no doubt. We very easily get deeply and emotionally attached to our beliefs that when someone challenges it, we’re ready to come up with an often aggressive and harsh defense. But this is a part of the Christian life; controlling our emotions. Proverbs 16:32 says, “Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city.” Or as the NIV puts it, “Better a patient man than a warrior, a man who controls his temper than one who takes a city.”
It’s on my heart to go into ministry at some point in my life. As James indicates, the role of a teacher, pastor, or leader in general has a rather high requirement when it comes to speech (James 3). But if everyone is a teacher at some point, some moment in their lives (even if we aren’t aware of it), then it’s probably best to practice gracious speech now and get into that habit, than to risk messing things up further down the road. Children, as the kid’s ministry has taught me, are very attentive and often at inconvenient moments for the parents or teachers. And yet we can start to solve the problem of ungracious speech if we make that change within ourselves right now.