Are You Prophetic? Or Just Grumpy?

no-christmasI recently participated in a little online debate about Christmas tree idolatry.

I wish I was kidding.

A friend of a friend suggested rather forcefully that because Christmas trees were not associated with the birth of Jesus in the Bible, and because Jeremiah 10:3-4 can be (bent, twisted and cut-out-of-context in order to be) applied to Christmas trees, that everyone who puts up a Christmas tree is participating in idolatrous worship.

As a Christmas tree-worshiper myself, well… I just wouldn’t stand for it.

I won’t quote him, but if you read what he wrote you would quickly have picked up on the idea that he viewed himself as something of a prophet—someone who sensed a calling on his life to speak for God primarily by condemning practices, beliefs, political ideologies and customs endemic to our culture that he is convinced are evil or idolatrous. That is, they are falsely worshiped—robbing God of glory that belongs to him alone.

Just to be clear: I believe in the continuity of all of the spiritual gifts. I believe in the gift of prophecy. And I believe that there are some people who are, in fact, called by God to speak for God primarily by condemning practices, beliefs, political ideologies and customs endemic to our culture that are evil or idolatrous.

That said, my sense is that there are far fewer prophets than there are people who think they’re prophets or are acting like prophets.

One might think that (with the growth of Facebook and Twitter) there has been an explosion in the number of prophets God has been anointing over the last 10 years. More people than ever before seem to be making bold, public, unnuanced, typically over-generalized, and almost always unsubstantiated statements that often demonstrate a serious lack of the charity and graciousness required of believers’ speech (Col. 4:6).

(I’m aware that I’m not substantiating the above observation with any hard data, so I may be laying myself open to the charge of hypocrisy. But does anyone out there who’s spent any time on social media want to challenge my observation?)

Social media has had the fascinating effect of providing a microphone of sorts to tens of thousands of people who have never actually been entrusted with a microphone by a community of faith, a board, any kind of overseeing authority, and more often than not do not even see themselves as accountable in their speech to even a circle of trusted friends.

The power of social media isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course. There are voices in the church that should be heard widely that may never have been widely heard without the advent of social media, because the roles of megachurch pastor, conference speaker, book author, etc.—the roles that in the past provided the only real public platforms in the church—didn’t really fit their calling or gift set. I think of bloggers like Tim Challies and Justin Taylor.

And there are genuinely prophetic voices out there, who use social media wisely, for the good of the church, and in a way that exemplifies the careful, nuanced thinking and charitable speech that becomes a follower of Christ. I think of someone like Al Mohler.

But most of the many thousands of self-made Facebook prophets out there aren’t prophets. They’re just grumpy. Filled with angst. Probably bored. And holding a social media microphone.

I would like to offer some humble suggestions and guidelines for those who fancy themselves social media prophets. My aim isn’t to criticize merely for the sake of criticism, and I’m not saying these things (just) because I’m irritated, grumpy, bored or filled with angst. I’d just like to see us do better. I’d like us to raise the quality of our public discourse. I’d like to see us reflect Christ more truly in our words and—maybe more importantly—in the manner in which we convey our thoughts.

First, the degree to which we’re certain we can say, “Thus sayeth the Lord” about our public pronouncements must govern how “loudly” we say them. I’m using the word “loudly” to denote a lot of different potencies of language. Some words are much more potent (i.e. “louder“) than others: “Hate” is louder than “disapprove of.” “Always” is louder than “often.” “Pissed” is louder than “upset.”  “Moron” and “dumbass” are louder than “foolish” or “ill-considered.”

I’m not necessarily opposed to the use of any of these terms. As many self-appointed prophets are quick to point out, at times the biblical prophets used very colorful, crude, even graphic language when a particular situation called for it. It was rare. But blue language is in the Bible, whether the fundamentalists like it or not.

But… We shouldn’t use it unless we have a very high degree of certainty that we can put “Thus sayeth the Lord” at the end our statement. I suggest that we shouldn’t use any sort of derisive, derogatory or defaming language unless we can support our statements directly, carefully and contextually from Scripture itself. Which means, I suggest, no one should be using offensive language when they’re talking about the minimum wage, for example. Because minimum wage isn’t a biblical topic.

Your particular stance on the topic may, in your view, be derived from biblical texts or biblical principles. But unless you have a very high degree of certainty that God would say the exact same thing as you about a given topic, and no Christ-loving, Scripture-reading, reasonably intelligent person could arrive at a different stance on the basis of the same set of biblical texts, you should be sure to keep the “volume” of your words relatively low.

Even if you’re not someone who derives their views from Scripture, I’d caution you to do similarly, but to change the basic question to, “How certain am I that I have expert knowledge of this topic?” This is an especially important criterion to consider when you are an expert in a different field. Because a person is a widely-recognized expert in business in no way makes them a reliable voice in international politics. Because someone is a recognized expert in entertainment in no way means that their views on religion or biblical matters should be widely heard. And because you happen to be an expert in finance and investment… You get the point.

If you don’t have good reason to believe that you are an expert, and that other experts would recognize you as such, keep the volume down. I’m not necessarily saying that you shouldn’t say what you want to say. I’m not saying that if you don’t have a Ph.D. in macroeconomics you can’t weigh in on the minimum wage. I’m saying that you should set the “volume” at a level consummate with your relative expertise.

Second, we should very often check our level of certainty that what we’re about to say is something God wants said. Steve Goold, my co-author on TWOG, has made some brilliant suggestions about what people are often really doing when they post strong statements on Facebook or other social media. It’s something of a working theory of his that I hope he’ll write a post about at some point… hopefully… Steve?…. He suggests that most of the time when someone makes a strong statement on Facebook, they’re not actually trying to convince anyone of anything. They’re merely broadcasting to their listeners their view of themselves. They want everyone to know who they are—not unlike when someone posts a “selfie” (self-portrait photo).

So, for example, when a person gets on Facebook to blast non-organic food, it’s a fair question as to whether they’re really trying to convince their audience to eat organic for the good of their audience, or if they just want everyone to know that they’re the sort of person that eats organic food—securing for them a certain amount of status and admiration among organic food devotees.

Or when a person logs on to blast away at gun-control advocates, is it really that they’re trying to making a reasoned argument aimed at convincing their audience of the virtues of widespread gun ownership (in which case you would expect… a reasoned argument), or are they merely saying to the whole world, “Please view me as someone who is against gun-control, and not one of those gun-control advocates, because I want to be in with the former group and not the latter.”

So, how sure are you that God wants what you’re about to say to be said? Are you saying this for someone’s good? For their joy? For the progress and defense of the gospel? Are you aiming at convincing  someone? In which case, is what you’re saying convincingly stated? Or are you just kind of “e-yelling”? Are there any self-serving motives in your post? Are you “venting,” and is public venting helpful to any person who hears it? And perhaps most telling: Are you imaging applause from those whom you know will agree with what you’re saying? Do you suspect that you’ll be checking back often to see who and how many people have “liked” your post? If so, both your motives and your audience are suspect, and you should think twice.

Third, have you attempted to view your potential statement through the lenses of at least a few other people with different experiences and worldviews than your own? One of the most common mistakes I see self-appointed prophets make is that they assume that their experience and worldview are normative. If you’re a white woman, before you click “post,” re-read your statement and do your best to think through how a black man would hear what you’ve said. Or a Korean-American person. Or a homemaker. Or a teenager. It’s very difficult to do so. And we might not be able to do it very well. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.

Maybe you’d still express the same core idea. But would you say it differently if a hispanic woman were watching you type it? Would you use different words if your mother was in the room? Are you saying what you’re saying in the same way you’d say it if your intended target or an opponent of what you’re saying were in the room? The vast majority of Facebook criticisms of President Obama (or Speaker Boehner or Sarah Palin) would never be phrased the way they are if the author were sitting in a room with President Obama. Then why say it that way? Because you get to hide behind the virtual wall of the internet? Pardon my loud language, but that’s just chicken shit. And I’d say it that way if I were sitting in a room with you.

Fourth, how accomplished are you at receiving criticism well? This is a tricky one, because you can’t really become accomplished at receiving criticism until you’ve done quite a few things that elicit criticism. So, honestly, I hope you don’t become accomplished at this. Because criticism is no fun. But as someone who (both by God’s displeasure and grace) has become quite accomplished at receiving criticism well, I can say that this is vital.

Receiving criticism well means honestly and carefully listening to the criticism, and trying to hear God’s voice in it. Often times critics have their own issues, and their criticism has more to do with what’s going on in their own hearts than anything you’ve said or done. But most criticism should be carefully considered—particularly when the criticism is coming from people who love you, who want your good, and who are offering the criticism charitably.

If your initial response to criticism is to bristle and to assume a defensive posture, you are not ready to make bold or prophetic statements. Not on social media. Not anywhere.

If more often than not you brush aside and/or minimize the counsel or criticism of trusted and obviously well-intended friends, pastors, mentors, etc., because you’d prefer to listen to the voices of whoever might be applauding you—no matter how suspect their own hearts and motivations may be, and no matter how little confidence you have that they genuinely love and care about you—you are not ready to make bold or prophetic statements. Not on social media. Not anywhere.

These are my suggestions, humbly offered. I’m sure there is more to be said. If I’ve overlooked some important consideration, please do feel free to comment and I may add them as an addendum to this post.

I think we can do better. Myself, certainly, included. I think we can raise the quality of our public discourse. I think we can reflect Christ more truly in our words and—most importantly—in the manner in which we convey our thoughts.

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2 thoughts on “Are You Prophetic? Or Just Grumpy?”

  1. It’s so tough to have a conversation with someone who pulls the God-card on you. “Well… I DID disagree with you, but I didn’t realize that I was also disagreeing with God…”

    And, by the way, God told me that this blog-post is heresy and anyone who comments on it or likes it is a lover of the world and not God… Crap.

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