Human beings have the ability to speak because we have been made in the image of the speaking God. The great majority of us live in societies in which we enjoy the privilege of free speech, but this privilege is not universal, and neither is it guaranteed by God. This quote from Luke Davis’s True Hope: A Concise Journey Through Christian Ethics shows that we ought to have a higher interest than just free speech.
God is more interested in your speech and your communication being faithful than free. For one reason: Not every Christian lives in a free society. A number of believers inhabit oppressive nations like North Korea, China, Turkey, Vietnam and others, where they do not have the benefits of free expression but always are under the biblical directive to obey Christ with what they say. Another reason is that God gives us different parameters for judging the quality of our words.
(1) Is what I say true? That is, does it match with reality? The Apostle Paul urges Christians to emphasize ‘whatever is true… honorable… just… pure… lovely… commendable’ (Phil. 4:8). As a follower of Jesus, you do not get to pop words out of your mouth indiscriminately without measuring them well. God is a God of truth. Everything Jesus spoke was truth, and everything the Holy Spirit reveals to Jesus’ followers is true. So, if we are to imitate Jesus and grow in His nature, then our speech and communication should follow the same truthful trajectory.
(2) Is what I say helpful? As the Christians in ancient Thessalonica looked with anxiety toward the future, Paul reminded them of our mutual life in Christ, and then he says, ‘Therefore, encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing’ (1 Thess. 5:11, my emphasis). Rather than sucking the life out of someone, we should seek to strengthen them with what we say. This doesn’t mean we can’t ever criticize someone when it’s called for. However, the goal of our communication should be pouring hope and healing into others by what we share. Are people lifted up when you are around them? Do people view you as an encourager?
One of my former college room-mates has spent a great deal of time as a public school principal in Alabama. One of Danny’s greatest gifts is his strategic desire to mingle with students and seek out kids who might need encouragement. Whether it is a positive statement or a question of how they are doing that day or giving them a high-five slap with a smile, Danny knows how to take a student and empower them and lift up their head a little more. This is an intentional attitude which takes dedication and practice, and the more we seek to turn that spirit into habitual action, the more clearly we will communicate helpful, encouraging, strengthening hope.
(3) Is it necessary? Jesus counsels his disciples in Matthew 5: 33-37 about taking oaths, such as in the court of law. Technically, He is speaking to this specific matter when He tells them ‘Let what you say be simply “Yes” or “No”; anything more than this comes from evil.’ But surely there is no problem with broadening this to a more general application here. Yes, we should tell nothing but the truth, but does that mean we should go into a mind-boggling amount of detail every time? This is especially important when people have told us information we should hold in confidence. If your friend Tyler is facing the divorce of his parents, he might let you know about his struggles but ask you to keep this matter private for now. Perhaps your other friend Maggie asks, “What’s going on with Tyler?” In that case, you don’t need to give the details. You can say “Who can say?” Or something innocuous like that. Or just shrug and say nothing. Or perhaps a ferocious argument breaks out near you, and it’s clear no one is wanting constructive dialogue, so any engagement in the verbal struggle is fruitless. Have you thought that you can just walk away or disengage? You don’t have to attend every fight that invites you in.
There are other questions to consider, but these should get you started on a road toward more thoughtful speech. If you live in a society where you can speak freely, be thankful. But remember also that your freedom of speech does not free you from the consequences of opening your mouth.