When my parents bought a 14-inch black and white Samsung TV in the early ’80s, our family catapulted right to the top of the viewing food chain. Those days, homes with TVs were few and far between. You could pick out the homes by the presence of long vertical poles with aerials perched at the topmost part of the roof.
This was the era of one broadcast channel and only a few transmission hours, making TV viewing a luxury. So we watched everything that was on offer. I specifically remember championships between famous wrestlers with memorable names like Big Daddy and British Bulldog. We would join the televised crowd in cheering as the punches were exchanged. Our hearts would pound as the referee counted down to knockout. With fingers crossed, we would will our favourite wrestlers back to their feet.
With the addition of more channels, many of us moved on from those wrestling competitions. However, they seem to have made a comeback in recent times — albeit on a different forum.
Now, when I log onto social media, scrolling through the posts and the comments, I feel my head swivelling back and forth in a familiar way. I watch the heavyweights, featherweights and everything in between do their thing in the ring. I find myself wincing at the punches of painful comebacks and chops of loaded words. Sometimes even a knockout of character assassination. The fans, meanwhile, are doing their own cheering and booing by way of likes, comments, shares and assorted emoji.
How are we to engage as Christians? What is our aim and motivation as we enter into the wrestling ring of words? We enter with a hope to share wisdom, enlighten, encourage and spur to right action. In the ring, we are pitted against a wide range of persuasions from those mirroring our own to those who are antagonistic. How should we respond when we encounter people whose points of view are very different from ours?
Small but formidable
In the Book of James, a lot of airplay is devoted to speech and the power of the tongue. The tongue is variously described as a small bit in the mouth of a horse by which you can make it go wherever you want. It can also be described as the rudder on a huge ship that, in the hands of a skilled captain, sets a course in the face of the strongest winds; or a spark that can set off a forest fire.
The point is, this small part of the body has such a great effect, both for good and for evil. With different research claiming that we speak anything from 7,000 to 20,000 words daily, this is formidable power at our disposal. The Proverbs of Solomon tells us that “the tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.”
As we now navigate our lives in the wake of COVID-19, much of our speech has moved online and onto social media. Our keyboards, computers, and mobile phones have become our tongues. The tongue’s superpower has been transferred to our tweets, posts, and comments. Our words are not only the sounds from our voice boxes but also the characters we type out, string together, and send off into cyberspace.
Can it be controlled?
These powerful weapons—words—need to be well stewarded. Proverbs offers us wisdom on how to ensure that they do not turn into weapons of mass destruction. The first safeguard that cannot be overemphasized is to listen before we speak. This is so that we do not become, as Solomon warned, “fools who find no pleasure in understanding but delight in airing their own opinions.”
We should avoid gossip and slander, including the all-pervasive forwarding of unconfirmed information. “The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to the inmost parts” —carrying in their wake the untold pain, heartache, and destruction of lives and families.
By using strong imagery and word pictures, the message from Proverbs clarifies that “the words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”’
“This is scary: You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue—it’s never been done. The tongue runs wild, a wanton killer.” Proverbs.
On the other hand, “A gentle answer deflects anger, but harsh words make tempers flare.” This means that we have the choice and power to change the outcome of a situation with our words. After all: “A cheerful look brings joy to the heart; good news makes for good health.”
Wisdom for the ring
However, wisdom with our words does not necessarily mean silence. There is nothing wrong with a robust discussion or holding different points of view. It’s okay to try and persuade others to our perspective or candidly accept our error or misinformation. In the ring, though, we have the choice of which tactics to use. We can choose to wrestle with ideas, allowing their strength to be tested, or we can resort to shaming and putting others down.
Let us choose the path of careful stewardship of our words. May we be fruitful in building a shared understanding and passing across the all-important message that has been entrusted to us.