The Word is pretty clear: your tongue is a raging forest fire… to which the anonymity of the interwebs is gasoline.
Let me ask you to consider three things as you discourse to the glory of God online, or even in person. By which I don’t mean texting each other in the same room. “In person” is that quaint old-fashioned notion of looking another human being in the eye and fully communicating, with all its verbal and non-verbal components. Give it a try sometime!
Gracious in our speech often comes down to our consideration of the person with whom we are speaking…
Do we consider them as a human being, with feelings, thoughts, ideas, and desires, none of which completely line up with our own?
This is not to say that every idea holds equal merit, but to recognize that we start at different places, travel along different trains of thought, and arrive at different places. Things connect for one person very logically or very emotionally, and the next person might not follow their reasoning or the chain of feeling. Take the time to think it through. Ask clarifying questions before you decide you know exactly what someone means, how they got there, and where they’re going. Think especially hard before you tell them where to go and how to get there.
Do we consider that a person’s goal should be differentiated from their methods?
Take the oft-very-calmly-discussed (/end sarcasm) issue of gun control. Vehement disagreement surrounds this issue, but let me point something out. Many of the people on both sides of the issue have the same goal in mind. We read a story about a child accidentally getting shot, or a man killing his co-workers, or a government oppressing its citizens, and what do we want? We want fewer dead children. We want those co-workers to still be alive. We want citizens to thrive under good government.
In other words, the goal is the same, for both sides. An enormous difference lies in the various methods we advocate to get there. But if you want to keep the conversation civil, simply continue to call to mind (even when insulted) the heart of the other person, this living person made in the image of God with whom you are disagreeing. Generally, they want what you want. They want a better world. They disagree about how to get there. As an aside to Christians reading this, it is often a better witness to interact with a person like Christ would than to cram the Gospel down their throat as quickly as possible. The time may come for an explicit conversation about Jesus: in the meantime, trying speaking like Him as often as you may be tempted to speak about Him.
Do we consider why a person holds the positions they do? Often the issue is not the issue.
It is so very easy to classify and label people, then dismissively file them away in our brains as if we completely understand them. This really ties into my first point above, but why someone believes what they believe is critical to truly understanding them. That gun control nut you can’t stand might have had a curious nephew who found a loaded gun. If you’ve ever attended the funeral of a child, the reaction is visceral. You passionately never want anyone to go through that experience. That gun wacko with 15 assault rifles that you know is just waiting to shoot an innocent person could have a family that was home and unprotected at the wrong time and place. What would your opinion be about a gun in the home if you were robbed, your kids beaten and your wife raped? Would you want others to experience that helpless agony?
When someone believes you care about them enough to understand the deep motivations behind their beliefs, trust is built, the type of trust that can survive even the most profound disagreement. Seek to know a person’s heart, follow their path to understand their goals and their methods for achieving them, and you’ll have a solid foundation for real discourse. As another aside for Christians, you’ll begin to show a person the love of Christ. When the Word speaks of not judging others, its not that we don’t call sin, sin, and everyone just does what they feel is right. It means at the deepest level, we freaking care. And very few do. This level of caring would set the Church far apart. This level of caring could – and will – make the hard ethical truths we espouse much more intelligible to those we are called to love.