The Burden of Public Expression
How Did We Get Here?
Blogging, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media have dramatically changed the ways we communicate, interact, influence, and even teach! Years ago, a person generally became an influential teacher through trial and appointment. Whether a large church with a multitude of members, a storied university with a multitude of students, or a prestigious journal with a loyal following - whatever the institution, a person generally received notoriety, credibility, and influence only by being interviewed, vetted, accepted, and appointed by some established center of influence. Such organizations and individual résumés required large investments in financial and personal resources. This presented a barrier of entry into the world of influence, education, and teaching. Not everyone could raise his or her voice and be heard without some enormous measure of dedication and private proving. It is not so any more. Now anyone can publicly blog his or her daily thoughts, update spiritual musings, or tweet platitudes to the entire world! By just clicking a “Like” button, a person can publicly support and fellowship any teacher or doctrine, instantly becoming a vocal proponent to all of their friends and even their friends’ friends! All a person needs is an ubiquitous internet connection to reach out and touch the world! Anybody can be an influential public teacher or personality through the internet and social media. There is virtually no longer any barrier to entry.
This article is in no way intended to discourage people from feeding on Scriptures, meditating on them, transforming themselves, and vocally encouraging others to do the same. However, we all need to pause before the next post, tweet, blog, or like and consider the following dangers and verses of caution. Whenever we express ourselves publicly, we need to realize the associated responsibility and be prepared to accept its consequences.
A Deceptively Heavy Burden
The modern ease with which one can publicly express his or her thoughts to such a broad audience can seduce us into believing that the spiritual burden is equally as light and inconsequential. However, whenever we raise our voices in a public spiritual forum, we accept a heavy burden, whether we realize it or not:
My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment. (James 3:1)
Do you wish to endure “stricter judgment”? Neither, do I! But, whenever we offer our thoughts on spiritual matters, evidently with the goal to persuade or influence, we undertake such a responsibility.
Please consider, if we seek to influence others, will we receive “stricter judgment” from God or from man? Could it be from both? Before God who tests and knows our hearts (Psalm 7:9; Proverbs 17:3; Jeremiah 17:10), we open ourselves to the challenge of pride and hypocrisy, which we know the Lord does not take lightly (Matthew 7:1-5; 23:1-39). Before men whose motives are not always entirely pure, and whose knowledge is not always sound, we invite public rebuke and criticism whether deserved or not. Those who are unwilling to face this “stricter judgment” should study, meditate, and pray more until their thoughts become more distilled, conviction becomes more sure, and love becomes uncontainable.
Why might one receive a “stricter judgment” from both God and man? One possible reason could be the potentially negative influence of our public words.
Then He said to the disciples, “It is impossible that no offenses should come, but woe to him through whom they do come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.” (Luke 17:1-2)
Too often we chase the praise and honor of men, while seeking to validate our own unique wit (II Corinthians 10:12, 18; Proverbs 14:3); consequently, we rush to release an opinion or analysis of Scripture, while never fully considering the unintended impact it might produce. Even if we offer advanced warning of our potential error, that does not grant us a license, which frees us from the consequences of our speech, because we have influence, and our words may be persuasive, and they may be destructive. Can you imagine standing before Christ in judgment and Him producing an assembly of people, who consumed your words and were deceived, discouraged, or otherwise “fell into the ditch” (Luke 6:39)? It is a terrifying thought that often causes me to shudder and check my mouth. It would be terrible to find myself in a Devil's hell due to my own wants, self-delusion, or negligence. How worse would it be to know that I was partly responsible for others finding the same eternal abode, because I blindly pursued my pride's satisfaction or some other personal agenda? Oh, Lord, may it never be!
Is it any wonder that we are encouraged to keep our words to a minimum?
In the multitude of words sin is not lacking, But he who restrains his lips is wise. (Proverbs 10:19)
He who guards his mouth preserves his life, But he who opens wide his lips shall have destruction. (Proverbs 13:3)
Whoever guards his mouth and tongue keeps his soul from troubles. (Proverbs 21:23)
He who has knowledge spares his words, And a man of understanding is of a calm spirit. Even a fool is counted wise when he holds his peace; When he shuts his lips, he is considered perceptive. (Proverbs 17:27-28)
A fool has no delight in understanding, But in expressing his own heart. (Proverbs 18:2)
A fool vents all his feelings, But a wise man holds them back. (Proverbs 29:11)
The more we say, the more risks we take, not to mention the increased energy we demand from our readers. Let us say what needs to be said, but little more, so that we cause no one to stumble, lest we in part bear their sin.
Airing Doubts Publicly
We may all recognize that a false-teacher, whether deceived or deceiving, can cause great harm though his public error. However, we may not realize that by carelessly raising a public question - yes, just a question - we can also “destroy much good”. Please consider the Psalmist’s following observation:
Behold, these are the ungodly, Who are always at ease; They increase in riches. Surely I have cleansed my heart in vain, And washed my hands in innocence. For all day long I have been plagued, And chastened every morning. If I had said, "I will speak thus," Behold, I would have been untrue to the generation of Your children. When I thought how to understand this, It was too painful for me — Until I went into the sanctuary of God; Then I understood their end. (Psalm 73:12-17)
In the above passage, the Psalmist was vexed by a common question and problem, “Why do the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper?” Although this troubled him greatly, he did not post this sore question as his Facebook status, neither did he bemoan his confusion and discouragement under his Tweeter feed. No, he kept this problem to himself and kept working privately on it. Eventually, he realized the answer, and his faith was secured! However, can you imagine the havoc that could have been wreaked, if he had vented his soul in a public forum before he recognized the truth? Imagine how many friends were following the Psalmist? Although we might not have so many influential friends in today’s world, we do live in a modern “generation of Your children”, who we can easily confuse and discourage, if we prematurely air our doubts or questions publicly.
Remember, once words are spoken it is impossible to take them back without consequence!
The beginning of strife is like releasing water; therefore stop contention before a quarrel starts. (Proverbs 17:14)
A brother offended is harder to win than a strong city, And contentions are like the bars of a castle. (Proverbs 18:19)
Does this mean that we should never raise questions or even “open a can of worms”? Does this mean that we should generally shy away from questions? Does this mean we can only study questions, when the conclusion is predetermined? Not at all! To present that extreme as our only other option is to argue a false dichotomy and a fallacious dilemma. Yet, whenever we publicly raise questions, we necessarily accept the responsibility to answer them convincingly in the same setting if at all possible; otherwise, we accept the responsibility of the unavoidable error, strife, insecurity, and discouragement that stems from all lingering unanswered doubts, because we will be their instigators.
Furthermore, we need to realize that false teachers often deliberately raise questions as a subtle way of inserting error:
... having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away! For of this sort are those who creep into households and make captives of gullible women loaded down with sins, led away by various lusts, always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth. Now as Jannes and Jambres resisted Moses, so do these also resist the truth: men of corrupt minds, disapproved concerning the faith; (II Timothy 3:5-8)
Regardless if this describes the predator or the prey, be warned. Just because someone raises a question, it does not mean that he does not already have a firm conviction. Too often, insistent questioning that refuses to accept a clear answer is veiling ulterior designs. Beyond the above passage, the Bible clearly indicates how we must ultimately handle those who drive wedges, regardless if it is with unsatisfiable questioning or some other technique of guile:
Fervent lips with a wicked heart are like earthenware covered with silver dross. He who hates, disguises it with his lips, and lays up deceit within himself; When he speaks kindly, do not believe him, for there are seven abominations in his heart; (Proverbs 26:23-25)
But avoid foolish disputes, genealogies, contentions, and strivings about the law; for they are unprofitable and useless. Reject a divisive man after the first and second admonition, knowing that such a person is warped and sinning, being self-condemned. (Titus 3:9-11)
Yes, we must be careful not to run to an opposite extreme by hastily shielding our own ineptitude or our own personal following through portrayal of staunch conviction. But, let us also always check our motives and ponder the consequences of any question we raise, and let us avoid posing public questions knowing that neither we nor someone else involved can yet answer.
It is very difficult to clearly communicate to a large, broad audience. Often, someone will approach our words with a unique background that may move them to fixate upon some poorly chosen word, overlook a critical clarification, or read between the lines in an unintended way. Experienced speakers, teachers, and communicators try to anticipate such misunderstandings. Have you ever heard someone say, “Now, I am not saying ..., but I am saying ...”? Why does a person do that? Is it not to correct any misinterpretation in advance? Of course, a person can qualify their statements so exhaustively that the primary meaning is lost. Experience and refined judgment will prove the best course there. That being understood, it appears that we too often take too little care to be clear. This also is irresponsible:
Even things without life, whether flute or harp, when they make a sound, unless they make a distinction in the sounds, how will it be known what is piped or played? For if the trumpet makes an uncertain sound, who will prepare himself for battle? So likewise you, unless you utter by the tongue words easy to understand, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air. (I Corinthians 14:7-9)
If we are not careful to choose words so as to maximize our chances of being clearly understood, our efforts can be entirely lost! A good teacher recognizes his audience and adapts himself as much as possible to remove whatever unnecessary barriers prohibit ready acceptance of his message (“to the Jews I became a Jew ... to the weak I became as weak”, I Corinthians 9:19-23). (Of course, we cannot alter the gospel message itself without sacrificing its saving power, Romans 1:16; Galatians 1:6-8.) This may mean that we need to read and reread our posts multiple times before sharing. If we expect any controversy, we should consider obtaining in advance the opinion of someone older and wiser. This may require tedious patience and attention to detail, but such effort is not only worth it, it is also expected:
Do you see a man hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him. (Proverbs 29:20)
The heart of the righteous studies how to answer, But the mouth of the wicked pours forth evil. (Proverbs 15:28)
The heart of the wise teaches his mouth, and adds learning to his lips. Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the bones. (Proverbs 16:23-24)
By long forbearance a ruler is persuaded, and a gentle tongue breaks a bone. (Proverbs 25:15)
If we are not careful to be clear, then something even worse may happen than the realization of our wasted efforts:
Therefore if the whole church comes together in one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those who are uninformed or unbelievers, will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an uninformed person comes in, he is convinced by all, he is convicted by all. And thus the secrets of his heart are revealed; and so, falling down on his face, he will worship God and report that God is truly among you. (I Corinthians 14:23-25)
Through pride and other immaturity (I Corinthians 12:1, 20-25; 13:1-7; 14:12, 20), the Corinthians had forsaken the clarity of simple speech for the flashiness of miraculous “tongues”. As a consequence, they created the opportunity for their worship to not only be ineffective but to be destructive to the “uninformed”! Although we cannot speak in miraculous tongues as did the Corinthians, if we are likewise vague or ambiguous, our language may also be easily misinterpreted to communicate a message contrary to our intent, even to the confusion and destruction of the listener. Although the listener is not without responsibility (“take heed how you hear”, Luke 8:18), the one who speaks bears an unavoidable responsibility (James 3:1; I Corinthians 9:19-23).
Not all vagueness and ambiguity is the result of inexperience or carelessness. On occasion the opposite is true. Skilled, divisive false teachers frequently exploit ambiguity and deliberately hide in an unclear realm of innuendo and prejudicial interpretation. For example, when someone decries the lack of preaching on grace and love, often what they really mean is that there is too much preaching on obedience and diligence. I would prefer to spend all of my teaching on the pleasant, comforting aspects of God’s Word, like grace, love, hope, assurance, and so forth. However, rampant error, which perverts God’s grace as a cloak to sin and fellowship without conscience (Jude 3-4, 12-20), demands we spend a greater part of our teaching answering it, where the need is more urgent. As Joab and Abishai millennia ago divided their forces to face their enemies’ attack on multiple fronts, so we must also “declare the whole counsel of God”, while temporarily focusing our efforts wherever the enemy is “too strong” (II Samuel 10:9-12; Acts 20:26-27). Please be careful that you do not inadvertently support a false teacher through a Facebook “like” or “share”, who is promoting his agenda of error with vague platitudes that generally push the momentum toward his error without fully committing him so as to be exposed. No one wants to be an unwitting pawn, but too often the young or naïve are exploited in this way.
Reluctance To Retract
It should be self-evident that anyone who accepts the burden of public expression likewise accepts the responsibility to retract an erroneous message or to clarify an easily misunderstood segment. However, too often pride takes hold and our disdain for shame prohibits us from admitting that we were wrong or should have done better. Too often we bristle when we are approached with potential rebuke. Our attitude needs to move towards humility and gratitude while moving away from arrogance and self-defense. The words of Proverbs point us toward this wisdom:
Do not correct a scoffer, lest he hate you; Rebuke a wise man, and he will love you. (Proverbs 9:8)
The ear that hears the rebukes of life will abide among the wise. He who disdains instruction despises his own soul, But he who heeds rebuke gets understanding. The fear of the LORD is the instruction of wisdom, and before honor is humility. (Proverbs 15:31-33)
Open rebuke is better than love carefully concealed. Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful. (Proverbs 27:5-6)
The measure of our humility over our pride dictates how well we listen to correction regardless of the rebuker’s intent, delivery, credibility, and station. Often people come to us nervously with concerns and are fearful of a hasty reaction. We can make the experience as pleasant as possible for them while gaining as much instruction and wisdom from them as possible. Or, we can answer harshly, gruffly, and tersely thereby communicating our disdain for their judgment, while cutting off all opportunity for both parties to grow closer to the Lord and each other. If we make ourselves unapproachable, eventually people will not bother to help us any more, and we will seal our own solitary doom.
Occasionally, one will point to the past glorious deeds accomplished by a false teacher either in brotherly service or brotherhood teaching; however, neither the glory of our past nor the brightness of our future buys us a pass!
Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed; for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision. And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter before them all, "If you, being a Jew, live in the manner of Gentiles and not as the Jews, why do you compel Gentiles to live as Jews?” (Galatians 2:11-14)
If the apostle Peter’s station, past deeds, and future glory did not warrant him a pass from public correction, who are we to expect more for lesser men?
What is the responsibility of the corrected public speaker to make right his or her wrong words? If one steals and is caught, does he not have to repay (Proverbs 6:30-31)? If one damages another’s goods, does he not have to make restitution (Exodus 21:18-22:17)? Then if one has spoken incorrectly, rashly, or unclearly, does he not need to correct his error as far as he originally projected it? In other words, if a Facebook post brought shame on the Lord or His people, is not a Facebook post warranted to correct and apologize? If a blog has spread error, then should not its full retraction with explanation also be posted to correct the evils that have consequently spread? Simply deleting a post, blog, or tweet only indicates remorse, not true repentance. It is similar to the difference between the responses of Peter’s remorse and Judas’ regret (Luke 22:47-48, 60-62; Matthew 27:3-5; Acts 1:15-2:14). Both manifested a kind of sorrow, but only one was willing to humble himself, repent, and face a new day (II Corinthians 7:9-11). Admitting the error privately but failing to make any form of public correction also falls short of what is needed. If one is convinced that his actions were wrong and harmful, then he will want to do everything he can do to prevent that harm from spreading for all others’ sake, and lest a fate befall him that is truly worse than having a “millstone hung around his neck and ... thrown into the sea” (Luke 17:1-2). As long as one is just trying to deflect shame and minimize the collateral damage to his reputation, true repentance has not taken hold. If a brother truly cares about others, then he will gladly sacrifice his own honor to restore the truth to its rightful honor to save those seduced by his previously proclaimed error.
The internet and social media has made it incredibly easy to publicly express oneself on serious spiritual matters. Unfortunately, the simplicity of the technical details can deceive us into believing the spiritual complications are equally simplified. Whenever we seek to influence others spiritually, we must recognize the great spiritual burden we are accepting (James 3:1; Luke 17:1-2). Such sobriety will lead us to contain our doubts and seek help privately (Psalm 73:12-17), and whenever we do speak, it will lead us to seek words that most clearly express God’s Word, and we will never deliberately hide in the darkness of ambiguity (John 3:19-21). Finally, we will realize that such public expressions bring us into the debt of all who digest them. We owe it to them to entertain whatever questions, comments, and even rebukes they may offer for the sake of unity, truth, mutual salvation, the Lord, and His people. And, if we are convicted of error, then as far as we hurled the error we must chase it with an admission, a correction, and the truth.
Although we should always examine ourselves before expressing ourselves publicly, this writing is not intended to discourage anyone - especially the young - from preparing themselves for just such expression. There is great need, and the world will not correct itself (I John 2:15-17; Matthew 5:13-16). Therefore, wise words are always needed to shed light, even the light of correction. Consequently, rather than interpret this essay as discouragement to those unqualified from speaking (which may be temporarily required), please see it as an encouragement to get oneself qualified to so speak! Whenever we study God’s Word and help others to see the glory of His gospel, we are blessed to sample tremendous joy:
A man has joy by the answer of his mouth, And a word spoken in due season, how good it is! (Proverbs 15:23)
He who rebukes a man will find more favor afterward than he who flatters with the tongue. (Proverbs 28:23)
A man will be satisfied with good by the fruit of his mouth, and the recompense of a man's hands will be rendered to him. (Proverbs 12:14)
There is gold and a multitude of rubies, but the lips of knowledge are a precious jewel. (Proverbs 20:15)
Ointment and perfume delight the heart, and the sweetness of a man’s friend gives delight by hearty counsel. (Proverbs 27:9)
A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver. (Proverbs 25:11)
And, what is this joy and satisfaction that ultimately pleases the mature Christian? Is it the thrill of knowing your own value and achievement? Is it the vindication of your faith? No, it is the joy of seeing loved ones flourish truly, our Lord glorified, and our loving Heavenly Father satisfied:
For I rejoiced greatly when brethren came and testified of the truth that is in you, just as you walk in the truth. I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth. (III John 3-4)
If anyone speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God. If anyone ministers, let him do it as with the ability which God supplies, that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belong the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen. (I Peter 4:11)
“His lord said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.’” (Matthew 25:21)
May we only ever so speak!
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