Recently, a woman from East Point, GA was arrested for something she posted online. On Facebook, she posted a status threatening cops nationwide. Race issues aside, this scenario reveals a pretty common issue that social media has brought to our culture—the abuse and misunderstanding of the first amendment.
As a high school teacher, I’m very familiar with this attitude. I hear students all the time saying degrading things to others and justifying it with, “I’ve got the freedom of speech.” They don’t understand why they get in trouble for their rude comments. What they, and apparently many others, don’t understand is that freedom of speech is limited when it interferes with someone else’s personal freedoms. You can’t just go around making threats and not expect repercussions.
As Christians, however, we are held to an even higher standard of living. Jesus says in Matthew 12:36,37, “I tell you, on the day of judgment 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.”
We will give account for every careless word we speak?
Every careless word.
That seems a bit harsh, doesn’t it?
That’s talking about a lot more than threatening someone else. But what does Jesus mean by careless words?
Like many other issues that Jesus teaches about, it all has to do with the heart. A few chapters later in Matthew 15, Jesus says, “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person.” In chapter 5, he says, “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”
The problem we tend to have with this issue of careless words is that we focus on the words, not the heart. We put taboos on certain words in our culture but fail to acknowledge the intentions behind the words. Most of our taboo words originally had normal meanings and connotations. At some point, though, they became taboo because they were connected to derogatory meanings.
The same is true of Jesus’s statement. The original Aramaic phrase raca, translated as “You fool!” in our translations, is a derogatory phrase. What Jesus reveals here is that it’s the intention behind those words that is sinful. It’s the same as when he says that a man who looks at a woman has committed adultery. Once you’ve committed it in your heart, you may as well have followed through with it because it’s all sinful.
We have to be careful about the things we say to other people. It’s not just about four-letter words that we utter; it’s a deeper issue, an issue of the heart. Saying derogatory things to others is not just an anger issue, it’s a pride issue. When we degrade people, we are essentially saying that we are better than them. If we’re talking like this, then we aren’t uttering the godly things we should be. We are conceited rather than loving.
As James poses, “Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water?” You either have one or the other, but you can’t have both. You’re either offering uplifting words or derogatory words.You’re either known for being an encouraging person or a jerk. And as we’ve seen from Jesus, derogatory words reveal a deeper sin issue.
I have to admit that I’m often guilty of careless words. Not necessarily the four-letter words either. Others words, like “stupid” and “idiot” and the like. I have said things to others in moments of anger that still hurt years later. I’ve carelessly thrown around degrading phrases, often times under the guise of a jest.
Yet, we constantly justify this kind of talk by making the excuses that they aren’t cuss words or that we were only joking. But we’re called to a higher level of living. One that goes beyond the mere following of rules, one that follows the rules of grace, one which Paul clarifies in Ephesians 4 when he tells us, “Let no corrupting talk come our of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”
We should be building up others, not tearing them down, believers and non-believers alike. And that’s not always easy to do. People are fallible. They make mistakes. They hurt us. They wrong us. Intentionally and unintentionally. And we often hang onto those feelings and wait for the perfect moment to strike back. But just a couple of verses later, Paul encourages us, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
It’s not enough to simply not say the few words our culture considers taboo. We have to rid ourselves of the sinful intentions inside our hearts. Otherwise, they begin to take root and poison our lives. We have to dig those roots out and get rid of them.
Maybe you’re in that same boat. Maybe you say things that you end up regretting later because of the effect it has on others. If that’s the case, don’t try to just clean up your tongue. Dig deeper down and find whatever bitterness or anger or hurt that is the real cause of it. Get rid of that and the tongue will then tame itself.