You won’t find Jesus engaging in “irreverent babble” trying to soften the truth, justify judgment, or find common ground with evil.
- Dr. Ray Rooney, Jr.
They say there are no stupid questions. I don’t know about that. Asking if you can have your fast food order “to go” while in the drive-through line might qualify. I’m sure the aphorism came into being to signal that inquiry is a good thing not to be suppressed for fear of being ridiculed. Still, we’ve all heard questions that made us say to ourselves “Please tell me that wasn’t a serious question.”
But what about inane or ridiculous conversations? In Matt. 12:36 Jesus warned that we would all be on the hook for speaking “idle” words. That Greek word αργος (argos) means worthless, barren, or unfruitful words. Different versions/translations seem to center on “useless” or “careless.” Looking at the context in Matthew 12:33-37, clearly, Jesus is teaching that what comes forth from the heart on our lips becomes our fruit by which we will be judged. I don’t think it does violence to the text to suggest that another way you might put what Jesus is saying would be something like this: “On Judgment Day you better hope you didn’t spend most of your adult life engaging in conversations that only led to dead end arguments that didn’t do anything but further entrench people in their sins.”
If my paraphrase of Matthew 12:36 is anywhere near what Jesus was trying to convey then the body of Christ really needs to search itself by seriously contemplating to what end is it fruitful to continually engage the enemies of the cross in ridiculous conversations. Maybe a better way to say that is to say, “how much longer are we as Christians going to continually give nonsense a legitimate seat at the table?” And at what cost to ourselves and/or our detractors?
In 2 Tim. 2, Paul figuratively sets his young protégé down in front of him to communicate exactly what he and God expect of him after his (Paul’s) execution. He starts off by telling Timothy to “Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2:3). I couldn’t help but think of this passage when I saw Rocky Balboa. There is a scene where Rocky and his son are walking down the street and his son starts to complain that by getting back into the ring Rocky is making his life hard as his friends are mocking both him and his dad. Rocky stops in the street and what begins as a nostalgic trip down memory lane suddenly turns to a discussion on life’s hardships and how to handle them. Rocky’s voice begins to rise as he says to his son, “The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows! It’s a very mean and nasty place…” Share in suffering for Christ. Don’t dodge it or run from it. And quit complaining about standing up for what is right, true, and holy.
Look at what Paul wants Timothy to know should be the central focus of his life no matter what:
The saying is trustworthy, for; If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful-for he cannot deny himself (2:11-13).
What follows that is what you might call Paul’s commissioning of Timothy and by extrapolation all of us:
Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene (2:14-17a).
Irreverent babble is likened to gangrene. This isn’t chasing a rabbit down a side trail. Paul means business. A skilled workman in God’s kingdom rightly handles the word of truth so he/she doesn’t have to become immersed in “irreverent babble” that ends up doing irrevocable damage to the hearers. It reminds me of John Wesley’s first rule for his Methodist societies: do no harm. The problem, of course, is that the Church really doesn’t prioritize “rightly handling the word of truth.” We’ve become Eve allowing ourselves to be drawn into conversations where irreverent babble is lionized: “Did God actually say ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’” That conversation ended up well for Eve and her family didn’t it?
“Did God actually say homosexuality is an abomination? You know, that whole Sodom and Gomorrah thing is really about inhospitality and that Romans 1 stuff is only speaking of pederasty.”
“Does the Bible actually say anything about abortion? I mean, how is it loving or kind to bring a child into the world if the mother or parents can’t afford to give her the things she needs in order to succeed?”
“Did Jesus ever actually say that he was the son of God who alone was the only pathway to eternal life? That’s absolutely egocentric and a slap in the face of all the other religions in the world. What arrogance you Christians promote!”
Yes. Yes, and yes. End of story. Or it least it should be. Instead we have entire communities of faith that have been swayed by “irreverent babble” coming from the opponents of biblical truth. Because they are unskilled in rightly handling the word of truth they have bought into the lie that God’s love supersedes His holiness; that compassion has somehow overwhelmed righteousness; that sin can no longer be defined and therefore will not be judged. And the gangrene continues to spread.
“I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:36-37).
Somewhere down the line we forgot what is at stake when we speak on behalf of God as Christ’s ambassadors (2 Cor. 5:20). We allowed the carnal desire to be liked and accepted by society and culture to replace the biblical obligation of faithfulness. We thought it would be easier to win the lost if we pretended they weren’t lost.
There is nothing wrong with trying to befriend sinners. We know Jesus did. But He never compromised either the truth or its presentation just to make sinners feel better about themselves. He told the woman caught in adultery to stop sinning (John 8:11). He let the rich young ruler go away (Matt. 19:22). He didn’t beg Judas not to betray Him. Read the Gospels. You won’t find Jesus engaging in “irreverent babble” trying to soften the truth, justify judgment, or find common ground with evil. Yet that is exactly what you find a lot of churchgoers doing.
We need to stop being lazy expecting the paid staff to do our theologizing and Bible studying for us. Paul said to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). Not pay someone to do it for you. We have people who have been in church their whole lives who don’t know the difference between the Incarnation and atonement. No wonder it’s easy to bait them with “Did God actually say…?”
That means we need to stop being fearful or sorry for sharing the truth. I’m talking about conviction. Not arrogance. Not condescension. Confidence borne of conviction. “Did God actually say…?” “Yes, He did. He said it here, here, and here too. And I believe it!” I don’t care how wanton culture has become and how many churchgoers have compromised their integrity in order to go along with homosexuality (or any other sexual sin), evolution, and/or pluralism (religious relativism). God’s people are to stand unapologetically (by themselves if need be) for the truths that Scripture reveals. We seem to have been blustered into believing that the only time we should stand for biblical truth is when it is accepted and embraced by people.
Lastly, we need to lead by example, specifically concerning repentance. If the unchurched are ever told they need to repent of their sins what do they see but churchgoers who engage in sinful behaviors with no remorse, apology, or repentance? It invalidates the gospel despite its inherent truth. When we encourage others to turn from their sinful ways with a sorrowful heart but then proceed to live as though what is good for the goose doesn’t apply to the gander we send one of two messages (depending on the life context of the sinner). We’re either hypocrites who like to talk a good religion but not live it or we’re cowards who haven’t got the intestinal fortitude to do for ourselves what we demand of others.
Our job as disciples of Jesus Christ is to accept the Gospel for ourselves, commit to lifelong transformation by it, and stand unapologetically for it no matter the fear, intimidation, or consequence for doing so. Sadly, many of our number have decided that engaging in irreverent babble (religious sounding though it may be) is a fine substitute for that. And the gangrenous smell of rotting flesh is almost overwhelming.