Listen: Episode 76
Lifewords Q&A is the podcast where we explore answers to your tricky questions about faith – with journalist Clare Bruce, and pastor & writer David Reay. Explore all episodes
Episode 76: “When I’m Standing Up for my Faith, How Do I Avoid Sounding Like a Spiritual Snob?”
CB: When we speak up publicly on some issue of our faith, there’s always a risk we can sound arrogant or superior, like we’re sitting on our moral high horse and judging others. How can we make sure our speech in public is both truthful but also gracious to people?
DR: Part of the problem is, I can talk to some people privately about different tricky issues, and I’ll speak in one way because there’s eyeball-to-eyeball [contact]; there’s often a relationship. But when it comes to public speech, I might not have any particular relationship [with my audience].
For example, a sign out the front of a church – I’ve seen some church signs that are absolutely dreadful! Not because they’re saying something untrue, but because they’re saying it in such a way that it’s very liable to be misunderstood. So often, the message can be, “Come to church, we’re much better than you are – We are right, you are wrong!” There can be some truth in that, but at the same time, it comes across very harshly. It comes across as proud and superior.
The problem is that our Christian faith is both very simple, but extremely complex, and in public speech it’s very hard to make the complex things simple, without over-simplifying. So we can come across totally misrepresenting what we’re trying to say.
I find this in doing even radio work… and in preaching sermons… sometimes people misunderstand something – because you’ve only got a limited amount of time and space and words to say something. We can easily be misrepresented, misunderstood – so while we might not be feeling morally superior, we come across like ‘spiritual snobs’, as you say.
CB: One thing that’s so important is our tone. The words we say might have a certain intention, but the way in which they’re said might say something completely different. If you’ve got something to say on a hot-button issue, like maybe sex-trafficking, or ethical consumerism, or a politician caught in an extra-marital affair – you might have a strong opinion, but if we just rant in capital letters, it’ll fall on deaf ears, won’t it?
DR: It will, and it fails the test of being gracious.
There’s a verse in the Bible that talks about when we speak, we’ve got to speak both truthfully, and having flavour to our words, that is, having some bite, having some impact, not just simply nice pious clichés, but at the same time being gracious (Colossians 4:6). The trick is to balance all these things.
We can rant and rave, and be saying what might be orthodox things, truthful things, but we’re saying it in such a way, that people are not getting that message – because all people are hearing is the tone of our voice.
We’ve got to be more careful the way we understand the different media of communication.
Writing is different to speaking, and speaking in public is different to speaking in private.
I’ve seen some pronouncements from the head office of church denominations, and I’ve shuddered – not because they’re wrong, but because it’s coming across in such a way, just cold hard words in print, it’s coming across very harshly. It’s not meant to be; those same church people who put out that press release, can speak in a much more gentle, respectful tone of voice, if it’s one to one.
CB: So maybe a good takeaway is: ‘pause before you blurt’, and ‘listen before you speak’?
DR: That’s right, and that comes from the Bible: Be quick to listen, slow to speak (James 1:19). And that is so true. We are often responding to situations and speaking out without having first listened to what the question or what the situation is.
Many years ago, I used to write a little newspaper column called The Church Speaks Out. And so many Christians would write in and say, “Reverend Reay, when are you going to tackle the subject of abortion in your columns?”
Now I had 150 words. And I had to say to them, ‘I’m not going to tackle that vexed subject in 150 words. I have an opinion on it, I have a view on it, I’m happy to teach or lecture on it, but I’m not going to somehow or other speak 150 words into that subject. Some people were saying, “well all you’ve got to do is to say it’s wrong”, or “all you’ve got to do is to say it’s justified”, or something.
No! People will misunderstand. And so therefore that’s one case where I would say, no, if you simply rant and rave and put the Christian view and try to put it across in 150 words, you might be speaking some truth, but you might be being pastorally insensitive. So there’s always this tension between being able to express complex things in a helpful way to people and in a gracious way… and yet refraining from oversimplifying.
CB: Something in the Bible that comes to mind is where Paul speaks to the people who worship ‘the Unknown God’. He’s referencing something in that local culture which will resonate with his audience. He wouldn’t reference the ‘Unknown God’ if he was in the synagogue speaking to Jewish people, for example.
DR: That’s right. What you’re highlighting there is yes, he’s being culturally sensitive: ‘know your audience’. In Acts 17, which you’re referring to, in the Greek marketplace, he spoke as if to Greeks. But yes, if he’s in a Jewish synagogue, he’s understanding his ‘market’, his audience, quite different. And that’s what we’ve got to become better at.
Because when someone comes to me with a particular question, I can hear the words of that question; I can read the words of that question; but I have to [ask myself], “What is behind the question?”
Someone might say to me, “David, why does God allow suffering?” Well that’s a doozie, isn’t it!
They could be saying it from a philosophical point of view: “Let me wrestle with this academically”. But they could be saying it because they’ve just lost a child through a terrible childhood illness. So I’ve got to answer one way to one person, and one way to another. So therefore this issue of sensitivity, of finding out what’s out behind the question, is very important.
With some people, you can have a really good old, robust, one-to-one debate with them. That’s fine. But with other people, you’ve got to ‘hold your punches’, as it were. You’ve got to just step back and be very, very sensitive, because they’re very, very wounded people.