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One of the most memorable emails I’ve received in my work as a journalist was from someone unhappy about a story I wrote on climate change. The reader was blunt. “I can’t decide,” he wrote, “whether you’re evil—or an idiot.”
I confess I was more amused than angered by this email. And we ended up having a cordial exchange when I responded to the reader’s concerns. In the end, he told me he had decided I wasn’t evil—probably just an idiot—but only in the classic sense of the word, which means “uninformed.”
Like most other writers, I’ve received plenty of barbs over the years. Many are more saddening than amusing. Recently, I wrote a story about the tragedy of parents and doctors pushing conflicted teenagers toward transgenderism. An activist declared on Twitter that I was “a cancer on society.” I found myself grieving for this person rather than grumbling at the insult.
It isn’t news that our public rhetoric is filled with toxic words. But what makes words toxic? I’d submit it isn’t just because words might be critical or controversial. Criticism is often necessary, and controversy is often inevitable. No, words become toxic when their primary goal is to hurt for the sake of hurting.
Non-Christians aren’t alone in this. Indeed, as Christians we are sometimes masters at this sinful art, both in public and in private. How can we check that impulse? In my writing, I often think of Proverbs 12:18 as a grid for choosing my words. The verse says: “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”
So this is a good test: With the words I choose, is my goal to hurt or to heal? Either way, the words might still be painful. A sword thrust usually wounds or destroys. But a scalpel often lances a wound in order to heal it. In the moments when I must use words that might hurt or offend for the sake of truth, I should still ask: Am I using a sword or a scalpel? Am I seeking to land a blow or to speak in a way that promotes healing by pointing to the truth?
I often fail this test, and I’m sure I fail more in private than in public. Why do we so often fail with the people we know best or love most? We sometimes push each other’s buttons like a thousand little sword thrusts—not usually aimed at seriously injuring, but also not terribly concerned about unnecessarily wounding.
During a sermon series on the book of James, my pastor offered three helpful questions for deciding what to say to or about each other: “Is it true? Is it loving? Is it necessary?”
All of this takes wisdom, since the truth does sometimes hurt. And thankfully there is also grace for our failures. The Apostle Peter recognized this when he pledged his allegiance to Christ after Jesus shared hard words of His own. “Lord, to whom shall we go?” Peter asked. “You have the words of eternal life.”