It seems that the internet has enabled a decline in civility in society and even among Christians. In the days before the internet, the letters to the editor column in the newspaper was one way that people could make their voice heard. The letters were generally quite civil in tone, perhaps because the newspapers required writers to clearly identify themselves. On occasion, lengthy discussions were carried on in these columns, with knowledgeable individuals casting more light on a subject than the original news article had done.
In the internet age, it seems that many individuals feel that perceived misinformation needs to be addressed immediately. And address it they do, ofttimes with a woeful lack of civility, as though feeling that others will only listen to the most strident posts. Perhaps they are encouraged in this by the fact that the internet offers a certain level of anonymity.
Mark Twain wrote that historical researchers attempting to discover the route that Hannibal had taken in crossing the Alps had shed much darkness upon the subject and that if they continued it was probable that in a few years time they would know nothing at all of the route. (The quote is inexact as I am quoting from memory – Google couldn’t help me in this case.) In our connected world, it should be obvious by now that heated emotions and heated words don’t produce much light. This is not the way Christians should present themselves in public discussions (or private, for that matter.)
Jesus, on the road to Jerusalem for the last time, sent messengers ahead to a Samaritan village to arrange for night lodgings. They were refused. Two of the disciples, James and John, wanted Jesus to call down fire from heaven as Elijah had done and destroy this village. Jesus rebuked them, saying “Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of” (Luke 9:55). Later, another James wrote that the followers of Jesus should not be motivated by envy and strife, for “This wisdom descendeth not from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish” (James 3:15) The apostle Paul wrote: “But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another” (Galatians 5:15).
Pride, contention, envy, strife, anger, hatred, bitterness and all such emotions are not evidence that we are right or that we have the Spirit of Jesus. When a Christian permits himself to be carried away by these emotions, he becomes ineffective in defending the truth he so fervently believes in. In fact, his words could turn others away from the truth.
Proverbs 13:10 says, “Only by pride cometh contention.” How can that be? Jude instructs us to “earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3). How can I do that without being contentious? So many misconceptions, distortions, half-truths and outright lies are being disseminated about the faith in Jesus Christ that we just have to do something! So we do. However, doing it in an angry, contentious spirit will do more harm than good. We will only be useful witnesses of the truth when our attitudes and words bear the imprint of the Spirit of Truth.
We are called to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:14). Paul instructs Timothy: “the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, in meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth” (2 Timothy 2:24-25). Peter says, “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear” (1 Peter 3:15).
These are things that I have learned the hard way. No doubt that learning is not yet as complete as it should be. Nevertheless, I want to live and speak and write in the manner that the apostle Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 4:2: “ But [I] have renounced the hidden things of dishonesty, not walking in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully; but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.”
I would be very thankful if someone could correct the quote from Mark Twain and tell me where it is found.