“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” said every kid who grew up in the 90’s. Being a 90’s kid myself, I appreciate the tough mental resilience this children’s rhyme was meant to instill in those who found themselves the victims of cruel name calling or teasing. On a practical level it was also fairly effective at repelling bullies. Bullies thrive on controlling the emotions of their victims, but this children’s rhyme defiantly declares that my emotions won’t be controlled by you!
Of course, it isn’t true…not completely. We have all found words hurtful at times. Yet, “sticks and stones” reminds us that, unlike physical violence, we can choose to ignore words and even rise above them to believe the truth about who we really are. In this way the rhyme is empowering to those kids who have little power. Yet, the rhyme doesn’t take away the fact that words can be hurtful despite what it defiantly professes.
Perhaps this is why we often feel uncomfortable with certain parts of the Bible. Knowing that words can hurt, we find ourselves questioning God’s prophets and Apostles, “Did he really just say that?” Perhaps even judging them, “Christians can’t talk like that!”
We came across one such passage in our sermon series last week in 1 Corinthians 4:8-13. In Pastor Tim’s words, Paul used “biting irony” to get his point across. Biting sounds like it could hurt! Maybe we could even go so far as to say that Paul was being sarcastic. Merriam-Webster defines sarcasm as “a sharp and often satirical or ironic utterance designed to cut or give pain”…i.e…“biting irony.” Perhaps, this passage is not even Paul’s most sarcastic. In Galatians 5:12 he says of the circumcision party who was abandoning the gospel, “As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!” Can a Christian talk like that?!? Well, we certainly have enough examples in the Bible that we can’t simply dismiss it or explain it away. The prophets were adept at using satire to show the absurdity of idol worship (1 Kings 18:27; Isaiah 40:19-20, 44:14-17). Job blasts his proud unsympathetic friends with a bit of sarcasm (Job 12:2). Even Jesus himself responds to threats from the Pharisees and Herod with a biting, “Go and tell that fox…(Luke 13:32)” Equivalent to our modern, “Go and tell that S.O.B…”
Seeing that God’s inspired word makes use of satire, irony, sarcasm, and even name calling, we are forced to ask when it would be appropriate for us to use and to what degree. One article I read on the subject made a distinction between irony and sarcasm saying that irony was acceptable for Christians but sarcasm was not since sarcasm is intended to be hurtful. However, from even our brief survey above I am not convinced the Bible makes such a distinction. Any of these words of Paul, the prophets, Job, or Jesus could be hurtful if you were on the receiving end of them. In fact, God’s word is sometimes intended to wound us in order to draw us near to Christ and mold us more and more into his image (Hebrews 12:5-6). God is not afraid to put a mirror to our face with some “biting irony” in order to show us the pettiness of our idolatry and rebellion against him.
Does that make God a cosmic bully? No, because even when his words hurt they come from a heart of love to wake us from the slumber of our own destructive ways to see our need for him and the salvation that is found in Christ alone. There is a maxim in preaching, “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” The gospel does both, and we need both. Praise Jesus that he afflicts us when we have grown too comfortable with our own sin so that we might find comfort in the gospel alone.
Have I just given Christians free license to use hurtful words? Not exactly. While the Bible does make use of irony and sarcasm, it is not the norm. In fact, the rare use of such rhetorical devices actually makes them more effective when they are used. Furthermore, most examples in the Bible are directed toward people who are deeply entrenched in their idolatry with hard hearts toward gentle correction.
Let’s also be honest – irony and sarcasm are more often used as self-promotion or self-protection than they are to cut someone to the heart in order to comfort with the gospel. Using sarcasm as a passive aggressive attempt to avoid conflict is not biblical. Using hurtful words to simply repay those who have hurt you is not in line with the forgiveness we’ve received in the gospel. Using irony to arrogantly show off your wit is not Christ-like. It is difficult to magnify Jesus if you are always trying to be the cleverest person in the room. After all, Jesus said that the world would know we are his disciples by our love for one another, not by our amazing satirical prowess (John 13:35). Love is the primary mark of a Christian community.
There is also a heavy dose of warnings and exhortations in the Bible concerning our words.
Ephesians 4:29 - 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.
2 Timothy 2:24-25 - And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth,
James 3:17-18 - But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
1 Peter 3:8 - Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.
These verses and many more should shape our words toward each other. So, are we free to use some biting irony? Perhaps - sparingly and in the right context to ultimately point people to Jesus. You alone know the motives behind your words. Keep in mind that hurtful words will flow out of our sinful hearts easily. It takes the Holy Spirit to produce words of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We will do well to not only question our motives but to bear in mind how our words will be received. Biting irony may convict, but it is God’s kindness that will lead us to repentance (Romans 2:4).
And at the end of the day, the maxim repeated by our 90’s mothers is still pretty good advice, “If you don’t have anything kind to say, don’t say anything at all.” More often than not, we would probably do well to simply keep our mouths shut rather than let that sarcastic quip roll from our tongues (Proverbs 21:23).
Either way let us all follow the example of Christ, “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. (1 Peter 2:22–24)” Jesus gives hope to those of us who have misused our words to hurt others and those of us who have been hurt by others’ words. Our Lord bears our sin and judges justly. We can entrust ourselves to him. Whatever wounds we carry – whether lovingly inflicted or not – we have the comforting promise of healing because Jesus was wounded unjustly on our behalf. Praise Jesus for his perfect word to us! Even if it does hurt sometimes it always leads us back to the grace, healing, and good news found in Jesus Christ alone!