Watching Our Words

May 03, 2019 | Church | Seth Pierce

“If it was not the Lord's will, it would not have taken place.”

That was the statement recently made on a heated Facebook thread by an Adventist pastor when someone questioned a decision made by the pastor’s organization. While it is true we are not always at our best in an argument, especially online, the statement still troubles me. First, the implications of this rationale are frightening. It equates any and all human tragedies with the Lord’s will. I believe it runs counter to clear Scripture: “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one” (James 1:13).

Second, Adventists, despite our Arminian heritage, have a tendency to turn Calvinist from time to time. Part of how we attempt to make sense of the complexity of the world’s experience is telling stories with concrete cause and effect. Christians, with the best intentions, can take this so far as to ascribe everything to the direct intervention of a micromanaging deity even when they have no real knowledge of what caused a particular incident. Theological cliches like “everything happens for a reason” creep into our vocabulary in moments of confusion. Yet, God doesn’t always deliver or even promise a neat explanation.

In the book of Job, we, the readers, get to see all the cosmic workings behind Job’s misfortune. However, even after God restores Job, he is never told why he went through what he did. When Jesus addressed the subject of tragedies, such as the Tower of Siloam falling on people, He didn’t explain the why. Instead, He encouraged the people to have a right relationship with God because no one knows when their life will end (see Luke 13:4).

But what struck me the most about the pastor’s recent online stance was this: Those same thoughts are often also systemic within patterns of abuse. Now, let me be clear — I am not implying that the pastor who made this statement is abusive. But I am concerned about the general nature of these kinds of statements.

To state emphatically that if a thing happens then it must be God’s will is dangerous. When those in power use a phrase like “if it was not the Lord's will, it would not have taken place,” it can lead to a type of spiritual gaslighting where someone is hurt. Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation that allows someone in control to cause another person to question their own perceptions of truth. When hurtful things are attributed to the will of God, it begins to change a person’s concept of God Himself. Even when there is no overt abuse, the normalization or validation of a phrase like this by clergy has the potential to do serious damage in the hands of those who aren’t ethical.

What’s more, statements like this make us look guilty. “Even though you are not treated as you think you should be, do not allow the root of bitterness to spring up; for thereby many will be defiled. By your words you may cause others to become suspicious.”[1] As wisdom says, the gentle answer turns away wrath … not to mention paranoia (Prov. 15:1).

Nobody, including pastors, likes to have their power threatened. It is easy to become defensive instead of vulnerably answering a hard question. In one of the classic power struggles between Jesus and the religious elite of His day, the Pharisees falsely accused Him of having a devil. People were finding healing and freedom not found within the context of the Pharisees’ ministry. So, the religious leaders made a theologically bankrupt statement about what Christ was doing. Jesus corrected them, reminding them (and us) that the devil can’t cast out the devil and a house divided cannot stand.

He also gave a warning we all need to remember in the heat of our debates: “For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:37). Jesus warns us to pay attention to our words. What we say can not only wound others, but us as well. Ancient wisdom says, “Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him” (Prov. 29:20). And, when our modern communication tools value speed over things like grace, love and truth, it may be time for us to take an extra pause before we hit “send.”

All of us need greater accountability for the aphorisms, children’s stories and cliches we carry around with us. Our words matter. So, consider this pastoral reflection a reminder to slow down and think before you speak — or post, as the case may be. Those entrusted with the good news of Jesus should communicate just that — good news, not flippant theological untruths that can lead to more pain and abuse.

 

[1] Ellen White, “Make Straight Paths for Your Feet,” The Review and Herald, August 24, 1897.