By and large, I am a strong proponent of the fact that, as Americans, we can practice what is known as “free speech.”
Free speech is defined in the dictionary like this:
I count it a great privilege to live in a country where I, as well as others, can speak their mind and heart, even if we don’t agree.
Sometimes we forget there are places in this world where people are censored for expressing what they believe. In some cases, attempting to speak out can result in punishment, imprisonment or death.
Political cartoonist Pat Oliphant said this:
The fact that we’re protected under that Constitution in exercising the right of free speech, it’s a wonderful thing. You’ve got to come from somewhere else to realize how valuable it is.
As wonderful as freedom of speech is, it isn’t always easy to deal with. It means that in some cases my ears and brain will be put in the position of absorbing information I vehemently disagree with. Someone else’s speech can annoy, aggravate or agitate me. But when this happens, I try to remember that some of the things I want to say may have the same effect on others.
Bottom line, I’d rather live in a society that allows for such open expression, even when it can sometimes offend…or even hurt me. Trust me, there have been plenty of times I would love to shut down someone’s speech!
Well known (and often controversial) radio host Rush Limbaugh noted:
Free speech gives us the ability to react vigorously with effective arguments and expose the weakness and misdirection of the other side’s claims
Though free speech can be challenging for us, I much more appreciate the opportunities it presents us with. And as Christians who have a very specific message to share, we should be overjoyed by the fact that, as Americans, we are able to (at least for now) share the good news of the Gospel with others.
Of course, legally speaking there are some limitations on free speech. The law says that we can’t say something that incite harm toward others. That’s why we aren’t allowed to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. (Unless, of course, there actually is a fire in the theater.)
A few thoughts on the matter of free speech:
- Just because speech is free, doesn’t mean what’s said is very smart. There have been plenty of foolish and downright ignorant statements made under the banner of free speech.
- Just because a person exercises free speech doesn’t mean I have to agree with them…no matter how loud a person says it, or how often they say it.
- Sometimes people use their free speech in hopes of communicating a certain message, but the method of speech they choose is so distracting or off-putting that hardly anyone understands what the person was seeking to communicate in the first place. The lesson here is this: how you say it can be just important as what you say.
- Effective free speech is much more about persuading than it is pummeling. Attempts at communication without any effort to offer respect won’t go very far. If you don’t seem to care about me, I probably won’t hear much of what you are saying.
- Although we have a right to speak, sometimes the wisest thing we can do is say nothing at all. Proverbs is full of instruction that reveals the wisdom of wisely choosing when to speak and when to keep quiet. Proverbs 21:23 says “Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble.”
As Christians, the practice of free speech must make its way through the grid of Biblical teaching. It’s great that our government offers us the freedom to speech, but as the old Hebrew National hot dog commercials used to say, “We answer to a higher authority.”
See, although we have the right to free speech, we must also recognize the fact that our propensity to sin can cause us to speak in ways that can be downright destructive.
James makes it clear that our tongues can either build up or tear down.
I love the picturesque language James employs to make this point:
We can make a large horse go wherever we want by means of a small bit in its mouth. And a small rudder makes a huge ship turn wherever the pilot chooses to go, even though the winds are strong. In the same way, the tongue is a small thing that makes grand speeches. But a tiny spark can set a great forest on fire. And among all the parts of the body, the tongue is a flame of fire. It is a whole world of wickedness, corrupting your entire body. It can set your whole life on fire, for it is set on fire by hell itself.
People can tame all kinds of animals, birds, reptiles, and fish, but no one can tame the tongue. It is restless and evil, full of deadly poison. Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God. And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth. Surely, my brothers and sisters, this is not right! Does a spring of water bubble out with both fresh water and bitter water? Does a fig tree produce olives, or a grapevine produce figs? No, and you can’t draw fresh water from a salty spring. (James 3:3-13 ESV)
All of us at one time or another have used words that didn’t help a situation, but actually made things worse. As stated above, just because we are given the right to free speech doesn’t guarantee that all of our speech will always be used in a wise, upbuilding manner.
The Bible gives us some helpful direction when it comes to our speech. In fact, I believe that consulting the Bible can help us use speech that is more helpful and effective.
Here are five verses to ponder regarding the successful exercise of our free speech. Put these principles into practice and you will likely end up influencing more people, rather than offending or angering them:
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. (Ephesians 4:29 ESV)
Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person. (Colossians 4:6 ESV)
Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. (Ephesians 5:2 ESV)
A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly. (Ephesians 5:4 ESV)
Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few. (Ecclesiastes 5:2 ESV)