I had an “episode” last night that gets repeated all too frequently these days. While browsing social media, I came across a captioned photo that had been posted by a Christian friend of mine. The photo itself seemed to be the obvious result of a rather poor Photoshop editing job; and the political message of the post — while not exactly one that I would embrace — discouraged me less because of its politics and more because of its mean-spirited and divisive nature. It was as if this friend, who I generally find to be a devoted and caring person, derived satisfaction from tearing down those of a different perspective. I thought about sending a private message — not to “correct” this friend (since I don’t necessarily feel like I’m in a position to say what’s “correct” in this situation) — but to share the way I perceived the post, in the hope that this might encourage more “gracious tact” in the future. But in the end, I wimped out. We live in a harshly-divided time; and sometimes, the “pseudo-peace” that is maintained by silence seems preferable to the conflict that might come from naming and working through our differences.
Of course, it could be argued that by failing to speak out I’m simply enabling the kind of unhealthy culture I lament. But I don’t imagine I’m the only one who runs across expressions with which I disagree and who is left wondering what, if anything, I should say. And that, perhaps, is why I find a timely and helpful bit of guidance in one of today’s readings from the Book of Psalms (Psalm 39). As the psalm begins, the poet seems to be in a situation not all that different from the one that I’ve described:
I said, “I will watch my ways
and keep my tongue from sin;
I will put a muzzle on my mouth
while in the presence of the wicked.”
So I remained utterly silent,
not even saying anything good.
But my anguish increased;
my heart grew hot within me.
While I meditated, the fire burned;
then I spoke with my tongue:
Verses 1 to 3
The psalmist sees behavior that he knows to be wicked. But rather than inflame the situation, he chooses to remain silent, “not even saying anything good,” until the conviction that he feels becomes so powerful that he has to speak. And what does he say? Well, here there is a somewhat unexpected twist:
Show me, Lord, my life’s end
and the number of my days;
let me know how fleeting my life is.
Rather than berating the wicked for their sins and shortcomings, the psalmist speaks to God about his own limitations. He seeks the perspective that can only come from remembering his own mortality and the “Audience of One” before whom he will be held accountable.
Does this solve the riddle of how and when to “speak truth” in the midst of a divided world? Sadly, no. But if I can remember (and if more of my brothers and sisters in Christ can remember) that “judgment begins with the house of God” — and if we can live with the awareness that we’re responsible not only for “putting off” sin but also “putting on” the spirit of Christ — perhaps, when we speak, our words will help to heal divisions rather than inflame them.
May we be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” today (James 1:19). And may both our silence and our speaking promote the spirit of mutual understanding that befits the servants of God.