Bestselling author Rob Parsons believes Christians are increasingly violating the Church community’s standards with waspish critique and verbal attacks. He explains why we must be wise in how we handle the power of the tongue
I was speaking at a church leaders’ event when, during the coffee break, I noticed a man standing alone and gazing out of a window. I ambled over and began to engage him in conversation. As he turned to look at me, I saw tears running down his face. He told me he’d been deeply moved during my talk about handling criticism. “I have somebody in my church who is very hard to please,” he explained. “They recently wrote to me about 30 things that are wrong with the church.” I smiled. “That’s quite a list. What did you do?” He said: “I wrote back and answered every one of them.” I sighed. “I’m not sure that was a good idea.” He looked puzzled. “Why ever not?” he asked. “Because your reply didn’t satisfy them, did it?” His eyes widened in surprise, as though I had some deep prophetic gift. “No. They’ve just sent me another list.” As he went on to tell me more about the situation, I felt it was a story I had heard many times: an account of the effect one negative person can have on a whole church.
In truth, the problem wasn’t that this church member had some concerns they wanted to air. No, the real killer was the vitriolic words in the accompanying email.
Some time ago, after seeing an email that had been sent from one student to another, the authorities at Harvard University issued a declaration: “This email is a violation of our community’s standards.” I believe, too, that much of the communication we have with those both inside and outside the Church is a violation of the Christian community’s standards. A Member of Parliament, who was not at all unused to receiving criticism, commented to me about some very derogatory emails he had been sent by a group of Christians: “I don’t know what kind of God these people believe in, but he is certainly not compassionate and loving.”
I am tired of Christians sharing video clips, memes or GIFs about celebrities or politicians who have done something with which they disagree. It is dressed up as a protest but it is often just plain nasty
And it’s not just email. I am tired of Christians sharing WhatsApp jokes, video clips, memes or GIFs about celebrities or politicians who have done something with which they disagree. It is sometimes dressed up as a protest against unrighteousness, but, to be honest, it is often just plain nasty. It reminds me of a father who expressed his disgust about the lifestyle of a well-known television personality. His son said: “You know, Dad, you say you hate the sin and love the sinner, but sometimes I wonder if you actually hate both.”
Not long ago a man, his face drawn with pain, showed me some correspondence sent to his son who is involved in Christian ministry. Some people don’t agree with the new direction the organisation is taking and said so – nothing new or wrong there. But what was hurting this father so much was the sheer venom contained in some of the emails, one of which accused his son of an alliance with Satan.
It was while dealing with a similar accusation – of conspiring with the devil, that Jesus issued a terrifying warning: “On the day of judgement 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” (Matthew 12:36-37, ESV).
I think one of the problems we face today is that digital technology has made it so easy to say harsh and hurtful things quickly. I recently heard a politician comment that many of the complaint emails he receives arrive in the late evening. He said: “I think what happens is that people watch the ten o’clock news and feel they must write to their MP immediately. I’m sure that before the ease of email, people would sometimes write a letter, leave it on the mantelpiece for a few days, and then perhaps decide not to send it after all.” Of course, it’s important that people lobby their MPs, but I sometimes wonder if, in the cold light of day, any of my fellow constituents regret some of the things they wrote the night before. A friend once counselled me to never send a critical email late at night when I am tired. Perhaps he’s right.
THE LAW OF LOVE
Sometimes, hasty communication will cause us to pay a heavy price in our most intimate relationships. A journalist wrote of how years of love and affection in her family had been shattered by thoughtless postings on social media. She admitted: “The truth is, I am far more likely to send a hurried email or text to a friend who has offended me than take the time to have it out with them face to face.” As she thought about why she and others do that to each other, she concluded that the instant gratification of “getting it off your chest” is so great that it often overrides considerations of perspective, kindness and even common decency.
The apostle Paul wasn’t one to hold back when he felt that hard things needed to be said, but one gets the sense of a deep reluctance to bring hurt unnecessarily. It cost him something to use harsh words. In one of his most critical letters to the New Testament Church he writes: “For I wrote to you out of deep distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to grieve you but to let you know the depth of my love for you” (2 Corinthians 2:4).
A lack of the love that Paul spoke of sometimes comes out when we see those with whom we disagree fall on hard times. The Germans have a word for enjoying the misfortunes or mistakes of others: schadenfreude. Unfortunately, I sometimes see schadenfreude in the Church. Perhaps we hear that a Christian leader has had a moral lapse and we somehow convince ourselves that it’s our duty to inform ourselves about every element of it. We scour the web for details and then discuss these with other Christians. Or it may be that a thriving local church (a more ‘successful’ one than ours) goes through an almighty split. We talk to some who have left and quiz them for details, we speculate on what we don’t know and talk about it – a lot. We may well dress up our various conversations as “Have you heard the sad news…?”, or “Let’s pray for…”, or (if we are particularly ungracious): “Well, let’s hope they learn from this.” We do it in church, we do it in coffee shops and we do it on social media. The Old Testament sets a high standard in these areas: “Do not gloat when your enemy falls” (Proverbs 24:17). And the New Testament says simply: “Love does not delight in evil” (1 Corinthians 13:6).
A friend once counselled me to never send a critical email late at night when I am tired
Of course, it’s not always wrong to talk about these situations – especially if it’s part of our responsibility to protect victims – and, after all, we are called to pray for those involved. But we must avoid an attitude in our hearts that is secretly pleased when those with whom we disagree theologically, who seem to have known blessing greater than ours, or even those we just don’t like, go through troubled times.
James puts it clearly: “Don’t bad mouth each other, friends. It’s God’s Word, his Message, his Royal Rule, that takes a beating in that kind of talk. You’re supposed to be honoring the Message, not writing graffiti all over it” (James 4:11, The Message).
We all have to learn to take criticism. And there are times when it is right to give it.
You may upset me. You may do things, write things or say things that I believe are wrong. And I may decide to let you know what I think about all of that. It may be absolutely necessary that I do so. But we should know that the stakes are high when it comes to our words. Proverbs 18:21 says: “The tongue has the power of life and death.” Jesus’ warning that everyone will have to give an account for every careless word is one worth musing on. We all dread the possibility of hitting ‘reply to all’ by mistake, but even if we avoid that particular faux pax or delete every hasty critical email we ever sent, our words will never be completely erased. He still has a copy.
Let’s not shy away from giving or receiving criticism when it is helpful. But it’s worth remembering that our critics generally fall into one of two categories. Firstly, there are those who genuinely desire our good. They criticise to make us better, to keep us from running ahead too quickly or from falling into foolish pride. What they say may hurt us, but we need them. The Bible says of this kind of critic: “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Proverbs 27:6, ESV).
Those in the second category are not on our side. They do not criticise to build us up, but to bring us down. We may try to satisfy them by changing but, the truth is, we will never please them; they do not want to be pleased. If we rectify one problem, they will move on to another. We would be wise to take a moment to consider what they say – there may be a helpful grain of truth in it – but we should not live our lives always trying to make them happy. It will rob us of both joy and effectiveness. This is the person who comes up to the pastor on a Sunday morning and says: “Lots of people in this church are very concerned about the youth work and the style of worship”. When the pastor asks: “Who are these people?” they get the eternal reply of the malevolent critic: “Oh, I can’t give you names.”
This is how Professor Lewis Smedes paraphrases Paul’s wisdom in 1 Corinthians 4:3 on handling critics: “You will evaluate my conduct and you will make an assessment of me, I know, and when you do I will listen to you. I know that you will size up my work; when you do, I will consider what you say…What you say and what you think about me matters to me. But I want you to know that after I have wrestled with my own conscience, after I have consulted my own convictions, and after I have made my decisions, your judgment will not matter much. It matters some, but not much…I will not rest my case with you.”
DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY HAS MADE IT EASY TO SAY HURTFUL THINGS QUICKLY
There are times in all our lives when we are criticised justifiably and we have to be big enough to take it on the chin. But there will also be occasions when we believe that criticism is unjust, unkind and perhaps both. At such times, I take heart from something that the late David Pawson said to me: “Criticism can be hard and rumours are hard. The other day, I said to God: ‘These rumours are hurtful,’ and I felt him whisper to me: ‘Well, David, they’re not as bad as the truth. And I know the truth and I still love you.’”
Now that’s a critic worth having.
Rob’s latest book is From the Heart: An honest look at life and faith (Hodder & Stoughton) which brings together a rich collection of articles, most of which were first published in Premier Christianity
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