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The Way With Words6 min read

As Christians, we need to be careful with what we say. James famously warns us of the damage that our tongue can cause, saying “the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness… setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell” (James 3:6). So as Christians we try not to use foul language, obscenities, and “four-letter words.” We obviously steer clear of taking the Lord’s name in vain for the second commandment clearly prohibits it, as does the first petition of the Lord’s Prayer. St. Paul also reinforces this when he writes: “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).

The world, on the other hand, is very enamored with certain four-letter words and loves to use them in movies and music. For example, the “F-word” is one of their favorites for (surprisingly) it still seems to retain enough shock value to be provocative. Thankfully, words like that are still more or less censored from traditional network television, and for the most part are still not considered acceptable in public or in “mixed company.” But I’m finding that there remains a four-letter word that the world really doesn’t like, and doesn’t know quite what to do with. It’s a four-letter word that has become increasingly taboo, suspicious, and even illegal in our society. I’m referring to the word “hate.” Because intolerance is now considered by our current culture to be the most heinous of sins, and hate speech and hate crimes the most inexcusable of behaviors, the word “hate” seems to be inappropriate in most any context.

But then there is the Bible, which (at least in English) uses the word “hate” 400 times. As much as we might try to soften it and say that we only hate sin and not sinners, the Bible doesn’t always neatly draw a distinction between the two. For example, the same beautiful Psalm that affirms God’s creation of all human life in the womb, and concludes with “Search me, O God, and know my heart! … lead me in the way everlasting,” also boasts to God: “Do I not hate those who hate You, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against You? I hate them with complete hatred” (Psalm 139). This sort of thing is so frequently found in the Psalter that theologians have given it a name—imprecatory psalms. An imprecatory psalm is one that invokes judgment, calamity or curses upon one’s enemies and especially those perceived to be God’s enemies. Two major examples would be Psalm 69 and 109, but imprecatory portions can be found in in many places (see Psalms 5, 6, 11, 12, 35, 37, 40, 52, 54, 56, 57, 58, 59, 79, 83, 94, 137, 139, and 143).

These kinds of passages obviously present a problem for interpretation (and for use in worship). They can certainly be taken out of context to justify violent behavior. But rather than seeing them as prescriptive for us, we can read them as descriptive of the strong feelings people might understandably have who have been abused, victimized, violated, discriminated against, and otherwise taken advantage of by others for a long period of time (perhaps generations). In other words, they can be a cathartic venting of anger rather than actual threats or encouragement to violent behavior. An African-American theology professor at Mercer University named Chanequa Walker-Barnes recently decided to use this style of imprecatory psalms in her prayer which was included in a New York Times best-selling book entitled, A Rhythm of Prayer: A Collection of Meditations for Renewal. In her entry, she asks God to help her “hate white people.” As one might expect, this has been extremely offensive to many people, especially white people, who find her attempt to decry racism to be itself racist. She attempts to justify her prayer saying: “In all truth, my family and my personal experiences have given me millions of reasons to hate white people” and that she can “even find biblical precedent for it.” She then indicates that she is in fact using an imprecatory style of prayer when she says: “The folks critiquing have clearly never read Psalms (other than 23 and 100). Cause then they’d recognize what it’s modeled after.”

I’ve been an ivory tower professor myself for a time, so I sort of see where she’s coming from, but I’ve also been a pastor long enough to know that what she was attempting to do was very ill-advised, and not informed by the Gospel. As New Testament Christians, we need to look to Jesus as the ultimate example of what to do and what not to do. There was a time in Jesus’ earthly ministry for Him very appropriately to speak hard-hitting words of rebuke to those who really needed to hear them (even though they clearly did not appreciate them) in order that they might see their sin and turn from their evil and abusive ways. It is true that Jesus didn’t mince any words when He called out the Pharisees as hypocrites, blind guides, and fools (e.g., Matthew 23), but His harsh rebukes were reserved not for those who were mistreating Him personally, but for those who were mistreating others. When He was on the receiving end of the gravest injustice, He suffered in silence. As the prophet predicted, when Jesus was oppressed and afflicted, “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,” He was silent and “opened not His mouth” (Isaiah 53:7). When Christ suffered for us it was certainly for our forgiveness and eternal salvation. But at the same time He was also “leaving you an example so that you might follow in His steps” (see 1 Peter 2:21–23). We are never more like Jesus than, when we are reviled, we do not revile in return.

When Jesus did speak from the cross, the first thing out of His mouth was “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Under unjust suffering, these are the most charitable words imaginable, and the most Christ-like attitude that anyone can have. Forgiving people unconditionally in our hearts is really quite freeing, and it enables us to get beyond the traumas of the past and to move forward. This is the way of the cross of Christ, who said, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on My account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven” (Matthew 5:12). It is the way of our Savior who pointed out in His Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:43–44). The “more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31) is not the way of the world, nor is it the way of revenge, or retaliation, or hate. It is the way of love, which can only be found in the One who is the way, the truth, and the life.

[Author’s note: My intention in writing this article was not to point a finger at anyone, but rather provide an open invitation for conversation on an important topic. If you would like engage in a conversation with me, please contact me at naumann@mightymessengers.org].

Photo © Glen Carrie/Unsplash


About the Author

Rev. Dr. Paul R. Naumann currently serves as Senior Pastor at St. Michael Lutheran Church in Portage, Mich. During his over thirty-five years of ministry, Naumann has been active in positions in the Circuit, District, and Synod, working especially in the areas of Youth Ministry, Outreach, Worship, Campus Ministry, and Small Group Ministry. He has been published in various periodicals and has been a speaker at a number of seminars and workshops.

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