Friday, March 22, 2019

Helpful Words

      Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.  
-Ephesians 4:29-32 (NIV)

Feel like you need a little encouragement? Just want someone to tell you how great and attractive and intelligent you are? Feeling bad about yourself and would just like for someone — anyone — to give you a no-strings, no-judgment compliment? 
     Turns out there’s an app for that.
     Well, there is in China, at least. Wechat, the most popular social media group in China, has started sponsoring chat groups called Kua kua groups. If you happen to know that Kua is Chinese for “praise,” it would probably come as no surprise for you to learn that these groups are full of people who are just waiting to give you a nice “atta boy” or “atta girl”. There are no free lunches, though, or compliments either; your session of compliments will cost you anywhere from $7.50 to $28.00, depending on how long you want to be complimented and how many people you want piling on the praise.   
     Here’s how it works. When you pay your money and sign into your group, you’re put in a queue until your turn comes up. When it’s your moment in the spotlight, you tell everyone your name and a little about yourself. It can even be something negative, and apparently it often is. (I suppose that stands to reason. When are you most in need of a compliment if not when you’re feeling like there’s not much about you that’s admirable?)
     Once you’ve identified yourself, people start to compliment you. The compliments are varied, apparently, and may have nothing to do with whatever you’ve just said about yourself. Your complimenters might tell you that you’re attractive (you can upload a photo, apparently), that you write well, that you seem like a good person, or even something along the lines of “you’re fantastic.”  
     My first thought on seeing this was that it’s a little strange: Does anyone need compliments so much that they’d pay to have perfect strangers give them props for nothing in particular? Having thought about it a little more, though, it does bear remembering that a lot of people I know do use social media in exactly this way. After all, why do we post photos we’ve taken, or photos of ourselves, or what our kids are up to, or our political opinions, or (even) a post we’ve written(!) if not at least partially for the compliments we might receive from our friends and associates? Why post the details of a bad day, or of being mistreated or misunderstood, if not to have that negative input offset by some positive comments? 
     Really, social media operates largely on the idea that most of us enjoy compliments and are willing to put the details of our lives out there if we think there’s a reasonable chance we’ll get a few.
     Ironically, though, social media can just as often be a source of nastiness, personal attack, and abuse.
     It says something, doesn’t it, that we’re willing to chance the negative stuff to receive the positive?
     I think what it says is that human beings need, at least now and then, to have someone speak a kind word to them. Even the most cynical, hardened, and jaded of us need to be encouraged now and then.
     It also suggests that when people are looking for positive words that encourage and build up, they aren’t looking for it at church. Some people get built up at work. Some find it in their families. For some, it’s good friends who provide those encouraging words. Some find it primarily in their online communities. 
     Far too many have experiences with church that make them question whether they’d find encouragement with us. 
     Now, I know what you might be saying to yourself. Not everyone deserves encouragement for everything. That is, of course, very true. Not for everything. The view that’s sort of current in our world that any criticism, however gentle or well-intended, is judgment doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. But I would insist that everyone does deserve encouragement. Everyone deserves to hear words of kindness, compassion, and grace. No one deserves to be verbally piled on. 
     And from whom should words like that come if not from people who claim to follow Jesus?
     Think about the way Jesus used words. Think about what he said to people. He could be pretty far from all sweetness and light at times. He could be critical, and occasionally he was even harsh. But he never used words to demean others. He never used them simply to vent anger and frustration on another person. His words weren’t bitter, and no matter how much he might disagree with someone, they never dripped with hatred or contempt. 
     Jesus spoke words of correction, sure. But you also hear him speaking words of forgiveness. He used his words as vehicles for God’s grace, knowing that through his words God could change the way people saw themselves, the world around them, and their relationship with him. His words healed, and they gave hope to those most in need of it, and they reassure those who were weak and overlooked and hated that they were loved, and that because of that love there was hope. 
     When Paul wrote about not allowing “unwholesome talk” to come out of our mouths, he wasn’t just referring to dirty jokes or bad language. According to him, bitterness, rage, anger, brawling, slander, and malice are unwholesome. Instead, he says, the words we use are to reflect the kindness, compassion, and forgiveness that we’ve received from God in Christ.
     Paul says that what we should learn from Jesus about our words is that they should build others up “according to their needs”. Our words should “benefit those who listen.” Following Jesus mandates that we should consider those who hear our words, and how those words affect them. Some of us are perhaps not as good at that as we ought to be. We get to thinking sometimes that whatever we want to say needs to be said. That we’ll burst if we don’t say it. That maybe the people who hear us will be impoverished in some way without our words of correction, challenge, or disagreement. That we have to stick up for ourselves, after all, and defend our positions and our perspectives at all costs.
     None of that, of course, has anything to do with caring about what our hearers need at the moment.
     Whatever we say, let’s give a lot of thought to how it will impact our hearers. What marks will those words leave for good or bad? How will these words help? Will they build up, or destroy?
     Let the church be known as a place where people can go to get, not empty compliments, but words that will heal, soothe, and encourage.

     You follow Jesus. His Spirit lives in you. I know you can do it.

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