Some years ago, I witnessed a conversation that changed my perspectives on conversation – as well as on thoughts, reasoning and fairness. A man in a position of authority, we’ll call him Mr. A, was required to investigate a rather vague accusation brought by Mr. B against Mr. C. He knew Mr. B to be a troublemaker, but, nevertheless, was required to follow up. While questioning Mr. C, Mr. A realized that the implied offense could not have taken place. Upon that realization, he dropped the investigation with the observation, “He didn’t make any specific charge. There’s no substance here.”
“No substance here.” An accusation was made, implying wrong-doing and disparaging a man’s character. It sounded serious. Yet, there were no facts or evidence offered, only emotionally-charged words.
It’s easy to engage in name-calling without explaining the reason. “S/he’s a jerk, a gossip, a slacker, a cheat, a liar, a lousy friend.” Name-calling is not merely the province of children; adults freely and without shame engage in it publicly.
It’s easy to make accusations that seem terrible, without actually naming any offense. “She abused me.” What was the abuse – name calling, slander, physical attack, demanding too much work, not delivering your cheeseburger and fries on time? Never mind; the accusation has been made and the accused is a bad person. “He made me look bad.” To whom? By lying? By telling the truth? By doing well? Never mind; the accusation has been made and the implied criticism stands. “Yes, I did it, but it was her fault.” She actually caused your behavior? Or you reacted to her with anger, vanity, or revenge in mind? Never mind, the blame has been laid.
Making an accusation or calling a name without naming an actual offense is a form of dishonesty. God feels pretty strongly about “empty words” and the accompanying dishonesty. “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for it is because of these things that the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.” Eph. 5:6.
Just by our human nature, it’s easy to fall into a “default mode” of criticizing everything and everyone. The world around us is daily pouring over us a deluge of dishonest criticism without substance; it is too easy to follow along, to agree, to repeat and, internally, to despair.
We who are Christ-followers would never do such a thing. Except maybe in a private conversation. Or on Facebook. Or to the news media. Or to the resident authority, whether boss, pastor, parent, personnel director or teacher.
Colossians 4:5,6 says, “Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer every one.” (ESV) “Be wise in your behavior towards non-Christians and make the best possible use of your time. Speak pleasantly to them, but never sentimentally, and learn to give a proper answer to every questioner.” (Phillips translation)
If we wish to speak on issues of the day or merely comment on someone’s ideas or behavior, let us be honest and straightforward. Kind, specific and encouraging speech should characterize every one of us. The word used is “always.” If the world is to know we are Christians by the love we have for one another, our words are certainly a large part of that. If we can encourage non-believers toward Christ, also requiring love, we must have “substance” in our words. When we hear accusations or religious claims or political speech or accounts of events from others, we need to ask ourselves, “Is there any substance here?” and reject those if the answer is “No.”
The best way to put “substance” into our words is to speak the precepts of Scripture. Some of those are positive and some are negative, but all have substance. God does not waste His time or ours on empty words. If we would be beautiful representatives of the Beautiful One, we need to make sure our own conversation is like that of Him Who said, “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” Jn. 6:63