To be a Christian is to be a person who cares about words. We care about definitions and implications. Our aim is not to be contentious or obstreperous. Our aim is to be true and to speak in a way that strengthens the truth. We care about words because words communicate ideas and ideas have consequences. We pay attention to language because God has revealed himself through it. Words matter to God. They should matter to us.
So says Kevin DeYoung
I could not agree more. Recently I’ve noticed an increase in the “fun” poked at me whenever I utter a word unknown to my co-workers. For example, once I said “ambivalent” and someone responds “What does that mean?” Another time I was asked “Exactly what is a ‘narcissist’?” Or, “why not just say ‘communication’ instead of ‘communiqué’?” The list goes on and on.
Typically I don’t mind giving others an opportunity for laughter. But I have to ask: Is this “fun” really back-handed mockery, even though at face-value it seems harmless? Because I’ve witnessed similar treatment toward others on countless occasions and almost everyday, the buffoonery is not necessarily taken personally. This is not to say that my co-workers are intentionally mocking others. This is to say that the question of intentionality and motivation has been raised in my mind and what is delivered is not always what is received.
Moreover, I wonder if a spotlight is shining not so much on my vocabulary, but on their ignorance of the English language. [Please do note that my use of the word “ignorance” is not meant to disparage or belittle, but used descriptively, intimating a deficit of words.] The actual rub here is this: Words are the very tools of thought given us by God. They matter to God and should matter to us, as DeYoung opines. And yet these gifts from God are used as the very means of “poking fun.”
What are the ethics surrounding humor and our use of words? Are there any? Granted not everything that is funny is necessarily kind. So what did Paul mean when he said “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” (Eph 4:29; see also 5:4)? The word for “unwholesome” (σαπρός) means “diseased” or “having no value.” It’s used by Jesus of a bad tree (σαπρὸν) unable to bear good fruit (Mt 7:18).
In a culture addicted to entertainment, humor is the common currency that conceals the heart’s condition. Pleasures from laughter are a powerful means of displacing the reality of pain or cloaking ignorance. In a culture addicted to entertainment, comedy becomes a kind of elixir that distills all sorrow and provides a mechanism for coping with our Sitz im Leben (life setting/circumstances). Whether in the marketplace, the workplace or the home, humor has a way of masking feelings and hiding motives.
F. F. Bruce’s commentary on John 3:18 may have something to offer:
“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”
“In a gallery where artistic masterpieces are on display, it is not the masterpieces but the visitors that are on trial. The works which they view are not there to abide their question, but they reveal their own taste (or lack of it) by their reactions to what they see. The pop-star who was reported some years ago to have dismissed the Mona Lisa as a load of rubbish…did not tell us anything about the Mona Lisa; he told us much about himself. What is true in the aesthetic realm is equally true in the spiritual realm. The man who depreciates Christ, or thinks him unworthy of his allegiance, passes judgment on himself, not on Christ. He does not need to wait until the day of judgment; the verdict on him has been pronounced already. There will indeed be a final day of judgment…but that day will serve only to confirm the judgment already passed. Those who believe in the name of the Son of God…become God’s children; for those who will not believe there is no alternative but self-incurred judgment.”
–F.F. Bruce, The Gospel of John, p. 91
Similarly, persons who make it their habit to depreciate or contemptuously scorn the use of words, the very tools of thought with which God has gifted us, are passing judgement on themselves, even if couched in humor.
“For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”
Of course, the words of this post fall under Jesus’s warning, too!