A friend of mine once said that it is easy to overlook an injustice until it is our ox that gets gored. This is especially true when it comes to one of the more respectable sins like gossip. When the victim is someone with whom we are not close, we are either unconcerned spectators or passive participants. If, however, we are the victim, or someone we care about is maligned, our tendency is to fall into the same trap that Paul warned of in Galatians. We “bite and devour” one another and ultimately contradict the gospel.
Paul spends the first four and a half chapters of Galatians defending the gospel of free grace alone, by faith alone, against those who would corrupt it by adding human works and ceremonies. Then, as is his pattern, he turns to how we are to live out the gospel in relation to one another. He warns that we should not misuse our gospel freedom, but rather should serve one another through love; the fulfillment of God’s Law (Gal 5:13-14). Paul follows this with a striking warning, “But if you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.” Paul’s vivid language reveals his concern that the believers in Galatia were at risk of contradicting the gospel by the way they were treating each other. This sets the stage for Paul’s famous section that calls believers to walk by the Spirit (Gal 5:16), put aside fleshliness with its destructive deeds (Gal 5:19-21), and bear spiritual fruit (Gal 5:22-23). Paul’s primary concern as he describes our inward battle of the flesh and Spirit (Gal. 5:17) is how we treat each other. Sadly, but not surprisingly, Paul’s exhortations are still needed for believers in our day. My heart is deeply grieved as I see professing Christians biting and devouring one another. I would like to offer some specific, biblical exhortations so that we might be more spiritual and less fleshly in our dealings with one another.
- Always be careful of how you speak about others, especially those with whom you disagree. “In your bedchamber do not curse a king and in your sleeping rooms do not curse a rich man, for a bird of the heavens will carry the sound and the winged creature will make the matter known” (Ecclesiastes 10:20). It is easy when speaking publicly or privately to a friendly audience to throw “red meat” by being harsh or sarcastic towards those with whom we differ. The fact, however, is that the world is full of “birds” who will carry the sound and make the matter known online through social media. Our speech should always be characterized by love, kindness, and gentleness (aspects of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23). We should avoid saying or writing that which unnecessarily stirs up strife, enmities, disputes, dissentions and factions (Gal 5:20). One of the most valuable lessons I learned from a favorite professor in seminary is that we should speak of someone with whom we disagree as if he were sitting in the front row with his wife and children. Even if you argue against his position, you would hope that he would say that you represented his views fairly and that you treated him with kindness. I would also add that merely avoiding the mention of an opponent’s name does not give license to be harsh. In a world of searchable e-books, Google, and Twitter, It is not difficult for people to figure out about whom you are speaking.
- The rightness and justice of your cause does not justify fleshly personal attacks. “He who conceals hatred has lying lips, and he who spreads slander is a fool” (Prov 10:18). Social media provides a forum for people to air their disagreements about important issues. Some of the dialog can be constructive. Often the discussion becomes passionate, fleshly, and even hateful[i] as disgruntled people pile on. In recent weeks, I have observed multiple cases[ii] in which people who were deeply offended over what an opponent said or did vented their opposition publicly. They slanderously assumed the worst in the motives and actions of others and repeated hateful gossip and rumors. Proverbs 18:8 warns, “The words of a whisperer are like dainty morsels…” In our flesh, we can find sinful pleasure in hearing and repeating hurtful things about our opponents. Scripture teaches that we should assume the best of others – “Love hopes all things and believes all things” 1 Cor 13:7). When correction is needed, it should be offered gently by those who are spiritual (characterized by the fruit of the Holy Spirit in Galatians 6:1). We must heed James’ warning, “Do not speak against one another, brethren. He who speaks against a brother or judges his brother judges the law, but if you judge the law you are not a doer of the law but a judge of it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and destroy; but who are you to judge your neighbor?” (James 4:11-12)
- Be careful about what you “like.” “Keeping away from strife is an honor for a man, but any fool will quarrel” (Prov 20:3). “Like one who takes a dog by the ears is he who passes by and meddles with strife not belonging to him” (Prov 26:17). Posts on Facebook invite “likes” and comments from “friends.” By liking or signing a post, blog, or petition that is slanderous gossip you participate in the spread of hurtful speech. Even if you agree with the general sentiment of a post or petition, you do not need to affirm it. If it was expressed in an unspiritual/fleshly way you become a participant in the “biting and devouring” against which Paul warns in Galatians 5:15. We can put out the fires of contention as we refuse to listen to, believe, or repeat gossip and slander (Prov 26:20-21).
“Where there are many words, transgression is unavoidable. But he who restrains his lips is wise” (Prov 10:19). Paul was grieved that the believers in his day would bite and devour one another with their fleshly words. He pleaded with them to walk in the Spirit so that they would bear spiritual fruit; especially in their relationships to one another. Believers today also struggle with fleshly speech. Online speech can be especially dangerous because it is more impersonal; the person of whom you speak is not there. In some cases, it may even be anonymous. This means that we need to be all the more careful with what we say or write. While it is good for us to remember the practical lessons of being cautious in what we say (or “like”), Paul states the key to godly relationships (and speech) in Galatians 5:16. If we are walking in the Spirit we will not carry out the deeds of the flesh. Other people’s errors and provocations cannot make us fleshly. Our response reveals what is in our own hearts. “His mouth speaks from that which fills his heart” (Luke 6:45b). As we continue to walk closely with the Lord, living in light of His gracious love for us, we will bear spiritual fruit in our hearts and with our speech.
[i] It is even worse when these harsh statements are posted anonymously.
[ii] Including one case in which it was my ox which was gored.