I am in the middle of a ten-day “word fast” – fasting from certain kinds of speaking for the length of ten days. The idea came from the appropriately-named Ten-Day Word Fast available for the Bible app on my phone, and the premise is simple: abstain from complaining, criticism, judgments, sarcasm, and gossip for ten days.
There’s a little more to the fast than that, and the definition of the words are carefully drawn out (i.e. “criticism” as it’s used here is made distinct from authentic and honest admonishment given in love). But I’ve been working with the first two so far (complaining and criticism) and not complaining or being critical has taught me a lot.
Most importantly, what it’s taught me is this: I often complain and am critical to avoid being direct.
If I have a bad day, for example, I have a tendency to complain about it: my students were indifferent, traffic was bad, I have a cold, the temperature control at work was broken. But what I am actually trying to do with that laundry list of grumbles is to make a confession: I’m tired and I feel sort of bad. Could you empathize with me a little and give me a hug?
Criticism for me works the same way. If I start tearing something down and then become aware I’m doing it, I’m forced to reflect on why I’m critical. And there’s usually an answer: I’m upset about something, I disagree with something, I’m disturbed by something. I’d achieve more by acknowledging the problem and then attempting to solve it, rather than by griping around the edges of it.
So strangely, in the process of fasting from certain types of speech, I’m actually discovering more about how to speak: to be direct and kind, to think about why I’m saying what I’m saying, to make my words matter more when they come out. And that’s a large part of what godly speech is about.
I think that somehow, as we go through our lives, Christians pick up the idea that “godly speech” means never saying anything disagreeable or unpleasant. That to have a godly tongue we must only ever be speaking about Jesus or offering up cheery platitudes. But godly speech isn’t fluff and sparkles: it’s just honest, direct, thoughtful and considered speech made in love. It is speaking with purpose and in service.
As an English professor, I am constantly on my students to say what they really mean in a thoughtful and direct way. I chase them around in their papers through a thicket of half-formed thoughts and qualifiers and hedging and euphemisms to get at their actual, intended meaning. It’s funny to me that after all this time I would discover I was doing something similar, and using complaining and criticism as a shorthand for feelings I was less comfortable expressing outright.
As it turns out, we could all use some time to get the “dead wood” out of our language. It’s easier to speak purposelessly, to ramble our way around topics with the sort of cultural shorthand that keeps us from getting at what we really mean at all. In a culture where our communications can often lack significance, and where they all too often fall into easy and well-worn lines of snark and ingratitude, taking some time to consider what you’re saying can make a world’s worth of difference.