A web of wisdom: social media to the glory of God #3

So far, the introduction and the first two principles. Today, the most developed of the principles, concerning the power of words. While the applications are specific to social media, I hope that the principles are transferable to any communication.

3. Remember the power of words.
  • The mouth of the righteous is a well of life, But violence covers the mouth of the wicked. (Prv 10.11)
  • There is one who speaks like the piercings of a sword, but the tongue of the wise promotes health. (Prv 12.18)
  • A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. The tongue of the wise uses knowledge rightly, but the mouth of fools pours forth foolishness. (Prv 15.1-2)
  • A wholesome tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit. (Prv 15.4)
  • A man has joy by the answer of his mouth, and a word spoken in due season, how good it is! (Prv 15.23)
  • Righteous lips are the delight of kings, and they love him who speaks what is right. (Prv 16.13)
  • Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the bones. (Prv 16.24)
  • A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver. (Prv 25.11)
  • As cold water to a weary soul, so is good news from a far country. (Prv 25.25)
  • Open your mouth for the speechless, in the cause of all who are appointed to die. Open your mouth, judge righteously, and plead the cause of the poor and needy. (Prv 31.8-9)
  • Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit. (Prv 18.21)
  • The north wind brings forth rain, and a backbiting tongue an angry countenance. (Prv 25.23)

Words are the most powerful tools you have at your disposal for construction or destruction in the lives of men. They can be used for great good or employed for great evil, a means of blessing or a weapon of cruelty. You may know the little ditty: "Sticks and stones may break my bones, / But words can never harm me." It is arrant nonsense. When you have been most deeply hurt, was it not words that were employed to do the damage, damage that lasts? Perverse words break the spirit and crush the soul. Carelessness with words is the mark of a fool. Whether Facebook status updates or comments, tweets, blog posts and their comments, chat room chatter, instant messaging or texting, speech or song, the godly man sets out to use words to do good, to promote health.

a. Note the connection with the heart.
  • The lips of the wise disperse knowledge, but the heart of the fool does not do so. (Prv 15.7)
  • The heart of the wise teaches his mouth, and adds learning to his lips. (Prv 16.23)
  • My son, if your heart is wise, my heart will rejoice - indeed, I myself; yes, my inmost being will rejoice when your lips speak right things. (Prv 23.15-16)
  • Fervent lips with a wicked heart are like earthenware covered with silver dross. (Prv 26.23)

Matthew 12.34 says that "out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks," and, we might add, the finger types and swypes or the pen writes. Other people can and will obtain an accurate readout of your character from your online interactions. The pictures or posts that you comment on and the comments that you make will prove in measure a window on your soul. They will see your priorities and your appetites and your inclinations laid bare. This is why, perhaps, it is not only employers who ought to check the online profiles of potential employees, but pastors who should consider the profiles of potential members. It is one way - not an infallible way - to gauge the spirit that is in a man, taking into account the warning that fervent lips may hide a wicked heart.

b. Contribute sparingly and slowly and discreetly.
  • My son, pay attention to my wisdom; lend your ear to my understanding, that you may preserve discretion, and your lips may keep knowledge. (Prv 5.1-2)
  • In the multitude of words sin is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is wise. (Prv 10.19)
  • A talebearer reveals secrets, but he who is of a faithful spirit conceals a matter. (Prv 11.13)
  • As a ring of gold in a swine's snout, so is a lovely woman who lacks discretion. (Prv 11.22)
  • A fool's wrath is known at once, but a prudent man covers shame. (Prv 12.16)
  • A prudent man conceals knowledge, but the heart of fools proclaims foolishness. (Prv 12.23)
  • He who guards his mouth preserves his life, but he who opens wide his lips shall have destruction. (Prv 13.3)
  • The simple believes every word, but the prudent considers well his steps. (Prv 14.15)
  • He who is slow to wrath has great understanding, but he who is impulsive exalts folly. (Prv 14.29)
  • The heart of the righteous studies how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours forth evil. (Prv 15.28)
  • He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city. (Prv 16.32)
  • He who has knowledge spares his words, and a man of understanding is of a calm spirit. (Prv 17.27)
  • A fool has no delight in understanding, but in expressing his own heart. (Prv 18.2)
  • He who answers a matter before he hears it, it is folly and shame to him. (Prv 18.13)
  • The discretion of a man makes him slow to anger, and his glory is to overlook a transgression. (Prv 19.11)
  • Whoever guards his mouth and tongue keeps his soul from troubles. (Prv 21.23)
  • Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes. (Prv 26.4-5)
  • Like one who binds a stone in a sling is he who gives honour to a fool. (Prv 26.8)
  • A fool vents all his feelings, but a wise man holds them back. (Prv 29.11)
  • Do you see a man hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him. (Prv 29.20)

Social media demands and usually gets spontaneity and immediacy, especially in its briefer forms, prompting many and rapid contributions. The environment calls us to communicate without any real thought. Again, the way that the screen distances our audience can betray us: would you announce to an audience of tens, hundreds or thousands some of the things that you broadcast online? We have no sense of that hunched over our smartphones or slumped in front of our screens. Proverbs reminds us that we should be conscientiously careful as to the number, speed and intended effect of our words. Perhaps we like the idea of being some kind of online first-responder, quick to the scene of the latest crash, showering insights over situations that no-one else has even realised have happened. If slowing down means that our name is not prominent, then so be it. Consider also how even the mechanics of commenting can push you in a certain direction: tiny keyboards and compressed expression keep us from nuance and development in discussion and interaction. How often do we reveal our ignorance by commenting on what we know nothing about simply because we were given an opportunity and a prompt to do so? Bloggers and commenters often speak to matters that they have no business addressing or no competence to address. Social media can become an involuntary verbal diarrhoea. Make yourself conscious of two audiences: God and those who will or may read your words. Does it honour God? What would this sound like if you said this to someone's face? For mankind, strip out all that vocal tone and body language might communicate, and consider what it communicates. Taking time, considering our reactions, weighing our expressions, being aware of our ignorance, speaking what is needful, holding back what need not be revealed about ourselves or others, will be the wisest course, and will likely garner a more valuable reputation in the long run.

c. Speak truly and honestly.
  • Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in the power of your hand to do so. (Prv 3.27)
  • These six things the Lord hates, yes, seven are an abomination to him: a proud look, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that are swift in running to evil, a false witness who speaks lies, and one who sows discord among brethren. (Prv 6.16-19)
  • He who speaks truth declares righteousness, but a false witness, deceit. There is one who speaks like the piercings of a sword, but the tongue of the wise promotes health. The truthful lip shall be established forever, but a lying tongue is but for a moment. Deceit is in the heart of those who devise evil, but counsellors of peace have joy. No grave trouble will overtake the righteous, but the wicked shall be filled with evil. Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who deal truthfully are his delight. (Prv 12.17-22)
  • He who has a deceitful heart finds no good, and he who has a perverse tongue falls into evil. (Prv 17.20)
  • A false witness will not go unpunished, and he who speaks lies will not escape. . . . A false witness will not go unpunished, and he who speaks lies shall perish. (Prv 19.5, 9)
  • 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; though his hatred is covered by deceit, his wickedness will be revealed before the assembly. (Prv 26.24-26)
  • He who rebukes a man will find more favour afterward than he who flatters with the tongue. (Prv 28.23)
  • A man who flatters his neighbour spreads a net for his feet. (Prv 29.5)
  • The fear of man brings a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord shall be safe. (Prv 29.25)

Speak truly about what is good as well as what is bad. Most people react most vigorously to what they dislike, commenting or engaging when they are upset, and perhaps presuming upon anything that is healthy and worthwhile. Consider encouraging what is good and profitable where it is appropriate. At the same time, consider that deceit and flattery are rife in social media, in part because you can so easily put a gap between who you really are and how you wish to be perceived. Even your profile may be a more-or-less deliberate exercise in profile airbrushing, presenting the person you would like to be, or would like to appear to be, rather than what you really are. We must put this principle in context: something may be true, but may not need to be said. If you may or must speak, then speak the truth, even if rebuking sin or foolishness. (Please bear in mind that cyberspace is almost certainly not the best place in which to carry out this sorry but necessary duty.) The Lord hates lies and condemns flattery. Mindless gushing serves no-one; for example, the seeming inability of some to see a photo of their friend without pouring forth a flood of inane congratulation on that friend's alleged beauty or poise ought to be controlled. It goes beyond encouragement, especially if it may have been posted with the aim of eliciting that kind of response. Evasive words and silences can also be dishonest.

d. Avoid empty or bitter engagement.
  • These six things the Lord hates, yes, seven are an abomination to him: a proud look, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that are swift in running to evil, a false witness who speaks lies, and one who sows discord among brethren. (Prv 6.16-19)
  • A wrathful man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to anger allays contention. (Prv 15.18)
  • The beginning of strife is like releasing water; therefore stop contention before a quarrel starts. (Prv 17.14)
  • He who loves transgression loves strife, and he who exalts his gate seeks destruction. (Prv 17.19)
  • A fool's lips enter into contention, and his mouth calls for blows. (Prv 18.6)
  • It is honourable for a man to stop striving, since any fool can start a quarrel. (Prv 20.3)
  • Do not say, "I will recompense evil"; wait for the Lord, and he will save you. (Prv 20.22)
  • Do not speak in the hearing of a fool, for he will despise the wisdom of your words. (Prv 23.9)
  • Whoever has no rule over his own spirit is like a city broken down, without walls. (Prv 25.28)
  • He who passes by and meddles in a quarrel not his own is like one who takes a dog by the ears. (Prv 26.17)
  • As charcoal is to burning coals, and wood to fire, so is a contentious man to kindle strife. (Prv 26.21)
  • A stone is heavy and sand is weighty, but a fool's wrath is heavier than both of them. Wrath is cruel and anger a torrent, but who is able to stand before jealousy? Open rebuke is better than love carefully concealed. (Prv 27.3-5)
  • He who is of a proud heart stirs up strife, but he who trusts in the Lord will be prospered. (Prv 28.25)
  • Scoffers set a city aflame, but wise men turn away wrath. (Prv 29.8)
  • An angry man stirs up strife, and a furious man abounds in transgression. (Prv 29.22)

Be a peacemaker wherever you are. If you must engage, do it graciously and truthfully, as you would wish others to engage with you. Do not seek out and join in fights: like taking a dog by the ears, once you grab hold you cannot let go. Some love to stir up trouble, delighting in pouring fuel on the fire. Some online engagement reads like a verbal drive-by shooting. Especially in the blogging world there are any number of discernment ministries which seem to involve the notion that everyone else has everything else wrong, you have it all right, and you are the (usually self-appointed) guardian(s) of orthodoxy or orthopraxy. There seem to be too many people with a reputation of more-or-less incisive criticism to maintain, too many individuals looking for some kind of argument to get involved in, too many fools participating in other men's quarrels, too many contenders looking for a fight or stirring up trouble. There is so much readiness to quarrel: there are some environments in which it takes no more than three steps for someone to start a fight: someone commends (or challenges) someone, someone queries the commendation (or challenge), the first person (or another) then defends the initial statement, and then everyone else launches off on one side or the other. It is wearying, not least when it takes place among people who ought to know better. Antagonism can bubble up over the most innocuous matters.

e. Shun slander and gossip.
  • Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all sins. (Prv 10.12)
  • Whoever hides hatred has lying lips, and whoever spreads slander is a fool. (Prv 10.18)
  • An ungodly man digs up evil, and it is on his lips like a burning fire. A perverse man sows strife, and a whisperer separates the best of friends. (Prv 16.27-28)
  • He who goes about as a talebearer reveals secrets; therefore do not associate with one who flatters with his lips. (Prv 20.19)
  • Where there is no wood, the fire goes out; and where there is no talebearer, strife ceases. (Prv 26.20)
  • The words of a talebearer are like tasty trifles, and they go down into the inmost body. (Prv 26.22)

Even more innocent sites can be used to destroy someone's character or cripple reputations. Digging up and spreading around tales - even true ones, when and where you have no business meddling in it - will bring no honour to the Lord. God abominates such things. Think of how much 'news' on some sites is nothing more than gossip, sometimes simply slander, both in the world and in the church: who has said what about whom, who is linking up with whom, what is rumoured to be going on behind the scenes at such and such a place. Again, consider the need to know and the need to tell. Consider not speaking or waiting to speak if you are not sure. If the matter hangs in the balance, ask yourself with judgement day honesty whether or not you accurately know and are responsible to tell before you open your mouth or press the appropriate button. If you can, let the fire go out.

#4 to follow . . .