Nitpicky Word Critics
Perhaps you've seen the 1993 movie "Demolition Man." In it, the revived law enforcement officer John Spartan is issued repeated automated citations for violating a "verbal morality statute." The movie is set in 2032.
Barring the return of Christ and the establishment of His kingdom on earth, somehow I doubt "potty mouth" will be outlawed anytime soon. Certainly not in the next 11 years. However, we don't have to wait until 2032 to experience automatic citations for using taboo words and phrases.
Of course, in many settings these days profanity isn't viewed with nonacceptance at all. BUT there are a seemingly infinite number of innocuous things that nobody can say or write without incurring the wrath of the self-appointed enforcers of politically correct speech. Indeed, it is the polar opposite of our prized free speech. But the enlightened liberals of 2021 don't seem to see the danger.
But it isn't just liberals. Conservative Christians are just as bad. I'll spare you illustrations, but examples abound. We jump all over each other for failing to use (what is subjectively perceived to be) the most precise way of communicating a message. Never mind if the intended meaning is evident and obvious to any reasonable observer.
Paul instructed one of his apprentices (in Second Timothy 2:14) to warn his hearers not to fuss and fight over words, which conflict does nobody any good at all, but only ruins whoever hears it. And yet here we are (2000 years later) doing just that. And feeling morally superior by our efforts.
I have an idea. Give people the benefit of the doubt.
I once encountered a powerful explanation of misunderstanding. Whoever was teaching me claimed that every expression has at least 3 distinct meanings. There is 1: the meaning the speaker intended, 2: the meaning the words actually carry, & 3: whatever meaning the listener infers (or listeners, which multiplies the possible meanings). Often—very often—these various messages are NOT the same, and frequently don't even resemble one another. So, asking sincere questions and listening for more than just a moment should be a minimum strategy for all of us.
But no, that doesn't build an audience does it? That doesn't draw a crowd. We have to nitpick and criticize and assume the worst. We have to accuse and tediously string together the minutia of the errors of others in order to paint them in the worst light possible. How is this helpful? It is nothing less than propaganda.
In the late 1800s it was called yellow journalism. Today we call it clickbait: sensationalizing something that may not even be interesting, much less important or controversial, so that we can serve some selfish (usually short term) goal.
Ok, I was not going to give an example. But I must. I can't get it out of my mind anyway, so here it is...
For years I have heard and read numberless critics of phrases like, "Ask Jesus to come into your heart" or "give your heart to Christ." While truly there is much that can be added to those phrases in a gospel appeal, I have never once doubted or misunderstood what a song or a preacher meant by such a plea. Admittedly, many truths and other angles can more thoroughly explain the nature of conversion. Yet we even read in Scripture (Ephesians 3) that "Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith." Jesus living in my heart is an excellent description of salvation!
The Bible presents salvation from so many different perspectives it's almost dizzying. Do I repent, or believe, or call, or confess, or obey, or drink, or look, or trust, or receive? The answer is, "Yes!" All of the above! These are all good descriptions of "opening the door" and "giving your heart" to Jesus.
To one Jesus said, "You must be born again." To another He said, "Drink of the water that I give." To many He said, "Follow me." And then there was the highly unpopular, "Repent!"
When you get to the apostles, the invitation seems to get even wider. If you had lived in the days of Peter, you could have heard him invite you to be baptized and to receive the gift of the Spirit. Whoah! Hold on there Petros! You're going to confuse someone! Or would he?
Salvation is a work of God. I'm all for clarity and precision. On the other hand, who are we to dismiss the work of the Spirit as He chooses to do so through strange approaches? It is through the absurdity and sometimes even the silliness of preaching that God has chosen to save those who will believe. The glory then is not in the wisdom of our words, but in the power of God.
Who would recommend the strategy Jesus used with the rich young ruler? He challenged the man for saying that He was good (though He was), he pointed him toward law keeping (which saves no one), then He told him to give up his money. No wonder the man went away lost, right?! Wrong. These approaches were exactly what this man needed, otherwise Jesus wouldn't have used them. The man went away lost, but not due to a poor choice of words on Jesus' part. Four levels into the conversation Jesus did tell the young man to follow him, but baggage in the way prevented his conversion. The fault was not in Jesus' presentation, it was in the rebellion that coated the heart of the hearer.
So, be gracious. As a listener, compare what people say to the tenor of Scripture. With context and considering the circumstance, is there a sense in which what is being expressed can be understood as wholesome and good? Then let it be.
I'm reminded of the part of the model prayer where we are commanded to pray, "Lord, forgive us of our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." But no. We would rather write out warnings and tickets to everyone around us for every "slip of the tongue" or perceived error. Why? Because we value truth, or because we feel superior by doing it? If it's the latter, this is what is now called virtue signaling: condemning the speech or actions of someone else in order to justify ourselves.
How pitiful. And yes, I'm guilty too. But it's still useless, senseless, pointless, and gutless.
I read in the Bible that it is by our words that we will be justified and by our words that we will be condemned. I also read a pertinent question in the Bible that goes like this, "Lord, if you were to mark us down for every infraction, who could stand before You?" (Psalm 130:3).
The answer: none of us. Thankfully, I also read that He cleanses us from all sin.
God is not nitpicky with me. His mercy and grace is broad and generous. His forgiveness is ready and extravagant. His demeanor is kind and loving.
Perhaps I can extend the same blessing to those around me?