I remember listening to a sermon years ago about complaining. Many details of the message elude me but the focus of the message was the exodus of the Israelites recorded in Exodus and Numbers. Moral of the story? See how they complained even after God gave them so much. Don’t be like them. Guess what? I probably went home that day and grumbled about internet speed or something similarly mundane.
Negative speech is too easy. As the adage goes, ‘It’s easier to tear down than to build up ‘. As a society, much of our public discourse is dominated by tearing down the opposition. Can you believe he said this? How you vote for someone who believes x? Popular satirical show host Jon Stewart and now John Oliver have built shows around this format. Poke enough holes in anyone who stands against you and your position appears stronger.
And the church is not immune from this tendency towards negativity. Ask the average Canadian what they know about the modern evangelical and they’ll likely reference our anti-abortion, anti-gay rhetoric. Many of us know a lot about our denominations and set up caricatures of others: Paedo-Baptists believe children can inherit salvation, Calvinists believe ‘once-saved-always-saved’, and Roman Catholics worship Mary. Before my non-Credo-Arminian-protestant readers get upset with me, I’m simply relaying what we say about you behind your backs (and sometimes to your faces). Don’t shoot the messenger.
One thing I enjoy about being a full time fundraiser for missions is that I’m constantly communicating with many Christians. One observation I’ve made is that we are generally very aware of any and all public opposition to Christianity. Our mental narrative sees the world slowly, and certainly restricting our rights to worship and influence society. The media is intolerantly liberal. Politicians stand opposed to Christian values. Academic institutions reject any notion of objective morality.
When Vanderbilt and the UCLA revoked club status for Christian groups for demanding their leaders adhere to a Christian code of conduct, our ‘I-told-you-so’ antennas sprang upright. And Katherine Wynne’s new sex education curriculum only serves to further affirm this narrative. But how often do we rejoice in public victories of conservative values? The Supreme Court of Quebec ruled today in favour of a private Catholic school’s ability to teach Christianity from a Christian worldview. Where’s the party? And funny how many Christians overlook a parent’s right to opt-out of Ms. Wynne’s masterpiece.
I point out these things not to argue politics, but to point out that we spend too much energy on complaint.
But why does that matter? Does negative speech cost anything? Again I draw our attention to the Israelites in scripture. The book of Hebrews contains a stunning indictment on the ancient contemporaries of Moses.
“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion,
on the day of testing in the wilderness,
where your fathers put me to the test
and saw my works for forty years.
Therefore I was provoked with that generation,
and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart;
they have not known my ways.’
As I swore in my wrath,
‘They shall not enter my rest.’” – Hebrews 3:7-11
What is the rebellion on the day of testing of which the Lord speaks? The seventeenth chapter of Exodus finds Israel thirsty in the desert. Keeping with a theme running through the book, the people complain and grumble. And it gets quite serious. “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” The grumbling gets so bad Moses fears for his life. He approaches God and God produces a stream from a mountain. End of story? Apparently not.
This incident left behind a legacy. The region got a new name and something changed between the people and their God. Many chapters later, God postponed His promise of a homeland into the next generation because of doubt and complaining (Numbers 14), but this moment laid the foundation. It set a precedent of sweeping complaint.
To this point, Israel had seen the magnitude of God’s power and providence. God led them out of slavery in Egypt, destroyed their enemies and provided food for them miraculously. How then could they doubt God’s provision? How could they entertain such despair at their circumstances? Moral of the story: See how they complained even after God gave them so much. Don’t be like them.
But we do the same.
How we speak matters more than we think. Our speech patterns shape us- for good or ill. When we complain, our words pulls us towards despondence. When we tear down opponents, we don’t become more right; we become haters. Negative speech doesn’t edify.
I think on the influence of Martin Luther King Jr. on civil rights in America. Reflect on the words of his famous speech
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”… I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character… This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with. (Source: US National Archives)
With these words, the Reverend demonstrates the power of positive oratory. A dream inspires. Hope and faith bring change. Here was a man fighting for the future, not against the present. As Christians, we look forward to the return of Christ, and the fulfillment of God’s kingdom on earth.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” – Revelation 21:1-4
Because of this hope, we don’t despair at the secularization of the West. We continue to strive for righteousness and justice, to care for the widow and the orphan, to tend to the sick, and to speak up for the oppressed. We continue to offer insightful social commentary. But we cannot be defined by complaint, grumbling, or hateful rhetoric. Such is not the fruit of a people defined by hope.
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. – Ephesians 4:29