A defining trait of the 21st century is the multitude of voices. There are voices telling us what to value. Voices telling us what to buy and how to vote. Voices telling us what other voices we should disregard.
I think back to a classic cartoon image – the character with a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, both telling him what to do. But this image is from an older analog age. In this digital age of noise, a better image would be a character with his head in a swarm of flying devils with megaphones, with just a few angels sitting on the other shoulder whispering in one ear.
This isn’t to say that all the voices out there are evil, but that there is so much noise now that distracts us from God and doing good, that the din of temptation and distraction is much louder due to the raucous marketplace of voices we encounter today.
Because of this, we are in great need of counter voices in our culture. C.S. Lewis discusses this need even in his day of radio broadcasts:
“Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered. The cool intellect must work not only against cool intellect on the other side, but against the muddy heathen mysticisms which deny intellect altogether.” (The Weight of Glory)
How much more true is this today in our times?
Yet this begs some questions for our lives: “Who am I to speak for God?” “Who has the authority to do so?” “What gives them this authority?”
Lewis dealt with this question: he included a disclaimer many times in his writing that he was not a theologian (he did have a lot of experience in philosophy and history, but he was an English Literature tutor). In fact, he was attacked by various philosophers and theologians in the academic world for daring to speak on religious issues not in his field of expertise. Yet to their chagrin then (as well as to some folks now) Lewis is now credited as having had a huge impact on the world of Christian faith in the 20th and 21st centuries.
I know I’ve struggled with this question of authority in my own life. I’m no theologian or philosopher. I’m an English literature and film degree-holder with long experience working in nonprofit and educational organizations. But I’ve found myself in various conversations and situations in my professional and personal life where I’ve been called to comment on matters of faith. What gives me any right to speak on such matters?
A large part of our Christian witness involves speaking into our personal and professional worlds. We can look around the church (or in the mirror) and see people on one hand who are abusing this responsibility. They (we) often speak like the Pharisees of the Gospels, full of thunder, law, and judgement, regardless of whether that law and judgement is Biblical or secular. On the other hand, we also know many who are too afraid to speak about matters of faith, because of fear of the social consequences. So how do we find a firm foundation for speaking, neither speaking out of our own egos and fears nor being silent in a world that needs voices of good?
While the subject of authority is a vast subject beyond the scale of this piece, I’d like to offer a few practical ideas that might help us become better at using our voices for God.
First, we need to acknowledge that our authority to speak comes from Him, not of our own hearts and flesh. He has given us His words in the Bible, His Son as our savior and example, and His Spirit as guide and helper. Our voices and actions should reflect what we find in all three.
In Proverbs, for example, there are many passages that deal with speech, most often showing a contrast between the wise/righteous and foolish/wicked. The “tongue of the wise brings healing” (Proverbs 12:18). The wise also have restraint (10:19; 13:13) and often remain silent until the right time (15:23; 25:11). It is even said that “a gentle tongue can break a bone” (25:15). The foolish on the other hand, tend to talk quite a bit (10:19; 15:2), blurt out things before thinking them through (12:23; 18:13), and hurt with their speech (16:28; 20:19).
Given that these words of scripture are offered to us for our instruction and correction (2 Timothy 3:6), we can’t assume we already know everything, that we are “the wise.”
Assume you are much more foolish than you think. We all are.
We should always look to the Word for guidance on how to speak as salt and light into this world. There are many passages beyond Proverbs that can help us know how, how much, and when to speak.
Also, we should center Christ in our minds as an example. While “What Would Jesus Do” has become a 1990s cliché, there is merit in working to think like Christ, in being “transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2, NIV).
We also can find authority through spiritual discernment, growing in the spirit through prayer, spiritual disciplines, and listening to the Holy Spirit about when the time may be right to do or say something.
After reading Proverbs about the wisdom of listening and being quiet, you might be thinking, “I’m one of those who doesn’t speak up much. Maybe I’m wise.” But a key point is that timidity doesn’t mean wisdom. The wise do talk; the key is that they speak up at the right times rather than all the time.
Conversely, you might feel righteous because you stick up for what’s right, thinking that “the right time” is all the time. Maybe you tell everyone what they should do. Perhaps you consistently post pointed quotes, memes, or opinions on social media and don’t stop to run them through the holy filters I mention above. Ask yourself when you speak or post – “Is there a purpose here? What means am I using? Am I pointing out the specks in other people’s eyes while ignoring the logs in my own?”
I can’t tell you all the times I’ve fallen or almost fallen into both traps – being too afraid or too nice to say something when I felt the time was right or being too foolishly bold in saying something when I got upset at injustice, but when the time was wrong. Even recently, I posted what I thought was a fair, open, questioning post on Facebook, but then I prayed about it and took it down a few minutes later when I realized there was no purpose or strategy to it – that the time wasn’t right or wise.
Before speaking, we should ask ourselves what our motivations are. How much of our speech comes from our initial, primary emotions? Is it outrage triggered by voices in the world telling us we should be angry? Is it anger? Is it fear or insecurity or hurt? Is it disgust?
Emotions are neither good nor bad in themselves, but are often used by various voices as tools to trigger us to sin.
These voices (remember the swarm of cartoon devils above) can be internal – our sinful patterns or internal negative voices from past trauma – or external – voices in the world wanting to manipulate us into doing something (to buy, vote, support) or voices of the Enemy.
Beyond this, all of us carry wounds from living that affect how we both react and act in this world. We have all survived hurt and pain in our lives. In order to grow spiritually, we must acknowledge and work through these wounds. With God’s help and that of other believers, we can turn our pain and suffering into ways to help others. Living through pain and then healing and growing often gives us the authority to offer hope to others in similar experiences. Use the suffering in your roots to help others through their suffering. Many Christians have been called to redeem their own wounds by helping others redeem similar ones.
Our authority to speak also comes from our God-given callings and gifts. Note that I use the word “callings” plural. God calls us to many things as believers. Our culture often tells us that we have one, singular, true calling that we need to sacrifice everything else for. This lie is often repeated in stories of cultural and historical figures – that they suffered alone, true to their calling, and brought about great change. What is often left out regarding such figures is either all the compatriots they worked with to bring about this change or all the people they caused collateral damage towards.
Rather, we have multiple callings given to us by God and not just one cause to pursue.
Most importantly, we are called to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these’” (Matthew 12:30-31; NIV). These commandments are our top two callings. Our vocations, skills, talents, and experience are tools given to us to do love God above and our neighbors. Our neighbors include our families, friends, coworkers, physical neighbors, and even strangers in need (Luke 10:25-37).
The world’s idea of calling, a “true vocation,” follows after those two commandments.
Your great area of talent is subject to loving God and your neighbor and is a vehicle for doing this. It is not something created for your sole pleasure, domain, or provenance. Whether you are a mechanic, an academic, an artist, or something else, take joy in what God has given you, praise Him, and use your talents to love Him and your neighbors. Using our gifts in the service of the Kingdom of Heaven gives authority to our voices in those areas where we are called to live and work.
One of the great mistaken beliefs in our modern world among Christians is that they can do it alone, that they don’t need the Church. A corollary belief is that the failures of the local churches (as shown in individual members’ sins and weaknesses) mean that the greater, global Church is unnecessary or bad. We can put these two ideas together in the idea that “the particular Christians I’ve met are a bunch of hypocrites, so I can just believe in Christ and do so alone.” I bet we’ve all had this thought at some point or another or know someone who has.
Unfortunately, the result is numerous Christians unmoored and floating about alone in the world. We can only work through our past trauma and sin and towards future growth with the help of others in community.
While it is true that Christ and the Holy Spirit are with us even alone, and there will be transitional times in our lives when we are disconnected from fellowship with others, it is also true that we grow less, are more vulnerable to attack, and are less effective in our callings when we are alone.
There are many Biblical passages about this: some examples are the concept of the body of Christ as spelled out in Corinthians 12, various metaphors of sheep in a flock, the history of the Jewish people and the early Christian church, the calling of the twelve disciples, and the creation of Eve.
Scriptures repeatedly show that we are made to be together, to mourn together, to worship together, to struggle together, and to love together.
If you don’t currently meet in a traditional Sunday worship setting in a local church building, I urge you to find some form of Christian community – a book study, a Bible study, a prayer group – a group of fellow believers that openly discusses faith and helps each other to grow. In fact, even if you are attending church on Sunday, I’d encourage you to find others to meet in addition to this, regularly or periodically. My organization, the C.S. Lewis Foundation, for example, is one such group that meets a few times a year in person and online, but we are just one of many out there.
And you don’t necessarily want to find a club where everyone agrees – all those in your group do not need to share all or even most of your theological, political, philosophical, or dietary preferences – the person who seems so opposed to things you hold dear might just be someone who can teach you something about faith. Approach your encounters with others as opportunities for learning. C.S. Lewis talked about friends that mirrored who he was, but he also discussed the value of friends in opposition – who shared the same broad values but came to very different conclusions.
A group of Christians might take some work to find. My church connects people in small groups, which is how I joined a men’s Bible study. But not all do this. You might have to put yourself out there to attend a conference, find a group, or start one yourself. Regardless of how you find others, the long-term benefits are potentially so much greater than doing it alone. Talking about faith with others regularly can equip you, offer you models, encourage you, and give you practice in being a voice in the larger world around you. Fellow Christians in fellowship can also help give us wisdom of when to speak and how to speak, sharpening our blunt spiritual edges and filing down our thorny fleshly ones.
We see these principles of authority in the lives of people like C.S. Lewis, but also in our own lives. All of this has been true in my own experience and those of godly people I’ve encountered. Perhaps it can help you hone your own voice into an instrument of God’s goodness, truth, and beauty towards the culture around you.
It is crucial that we use our own voices for good in this world filled with so many other competing, noisy voices. But we need to speak with the authority that we are given by our Lord, and not through our own understanding. He has given us many gifts – salvation, prayer, Scripture, talents, spiritual gifts, and a community of fellow believers.
We are called by Him for a purpose, and through that purpose and the gifts He has given comes the authority to speak into this world and spread His good news.
Steven is a lover of deep conversation, literature, film, comic books, video games, and travel. He is a father of a daughter more talented than he, husband to a wife more creative, and a leader of many people who are more skilled, but he manages to get by. He writes memoir, poetry, essays, and fiction. Loving balance in all things, he makes this exception: he doesn’t believe there are such things as thinking too much, learning too much, or caring too much. He spends his non-hobby time as President at the C.S. Lewis Foundation, working with great joy planning and managing events with his merry band of volunteer superheroes.
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