“Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned as it were, with salt, so that you may know how you should respond to each person” (Colossians 4:6). “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification, according to the need of the moment, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29).
Mary Todd Lincoln was gifted in the dark art of sarcasm. Her sister Elizabeth said of her, “She was also impulsive and made no attempt to conceal her feelings; indeed, it would have been an impossibility had she desired to do so, for her face was an index to every passing emotion. Without desiring to wound, she occasionally indulged in sarcastic, witty remarks, that cut like a Damascus blade, but there was no malice behind them.” Lincoln’s biographer notes, “A young woman who could wound by words without intending to was presumably even more dangerous when angry or aroused.” (Honor’s Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln by Douglas L. Wilson).
Woe to the person bound in marriage to one gifted in sarcasm. Lincoln bore many a scar from the blade his wife wielded.
Pity the church member sitting under the teachings of a sarcastic pastor week after week. Such ministry will bear bitter fruit.
These days, Christian leaders are finding themselves apologizing for public pronouncements–in the media, on cyberspace, in print, on radio or TV–in which they were sarcastic toward someone who criticized them or opposed them or questioned them.
We even have websites given to satire and sarcasm. And some claim to be Christian.
Sarcasm is best defined as “hostility disguised as humor.” The word sarcasm comes from the Greek word “sarx” (flesh). The idea is to literally “tear the flesh.”
Sarcasm can prick, poke, and wound. Sarcasm can draw blood and leave scars. Sarcasm usually provokes a laugh from the audience, but it leaves a knife sticking in the back of the target.
Sarcasm can surely rip the heart out of a person if done maliciously and “well.”
Sarcasm is not to be confused with satire, although they’re first cousins.
When done right, satire can perform a valuable function in highlighting the weakness or inconsistencies of a public person or program or ministry. But getting it right is a tricky thing and few people can pull it off.
I speak as one who came into the world with a gift for sarcasm. From childhood, I knew how to delivere a comeback with just the right blend of cutting words and humor, truth and hyperbole, to reduce someone to tears. I’ve done it. But if you don’t mind, I’ll give no instances here. I am justifiably ashamed of such behavior, and thus concerned when I see it carried on by supposedly mature men and women of faith.
The best thing that ever happened to me is that people began calling me to account for it. A mother phoned me. “Joe, what did you mean by telling my teenager….?” And I knew I’d been caught. I did a lot of apologizing that day. (I tried to tell the mother I didn’t mean a thing, that it was just a fun remark. She was quick to remind me that her daughter, the recipient of my remark, had gone home in tears that evening. That “you didn’t mean a thing” made it all the more hurtful, she told me.
She was right. Almost every day of my life I pray the words of Psalm 141:3. “Set a guard upon my mouth, O Lord. Keep watch over the door of my lips.” And from Psalm 19:14, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to Thee, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.”
Sarcasm in the pulpit
My dad was visiting in my brother’s church. That Sunday, the guest evangelist, a family friend whom we all admired, opened his sermon by attacking Bill Clinton, in office at the time. He made jokes about Bill and Hillary and had nothing good to say about them. My dad was horrified. “What if there was a Democrat in the house and he needed to be saved? He wouldn’t have heard a thing that preacher said after that bit of foolishness.”
Dad was right, and the preacher was a fool.
No matter who occupies the White House, many preachers will either be defending or attacking him from the pulpit. Each is out of line; this is not the place. Politicians and celebrities are in the news almost daily for revelations about their sexual misbehavior. To many a preacher, this makes them fair game for the roasting and sarcastic putdowns the man of God specializes in.
In former days, many a preacher turned their sarcasm on Elizabeth Taylor. “As she said to her eighth husband, I won’t keep you long.” People laughed. The pastor was giving them permission to be unloving and unkind.
The pulpit is no place for unloving words.
In fact, there is no place anywhere for mean speech. For putdowns and harshness, for mean-spirited jokes and wicked double-entendres. For a joke that belittles anyone, a turn of phrase that everyone finds clever but leaves someone bleeding.
What if that person you are belittling were in the building today? What if that politician had grown so tired of the way the world chews up people and spits them out and had gone to the House of God to worship and get his heart right? And he heard himself being used as the butt of the joke.
God help us.
When a preacher uses sarcasm against politicians and celebrities and other preachers–heard any Joel Osteen jokes lately?–-his misbehavior bears bitter fruit in the lives of his congregation. They are encouraged to become harsh and unloving themselves. And most need no encouragement in that direction; it’s their natural bent.
Honor all men, the Apostle Peter said in I Peter 2:17.
Let your speech be seasoned with the salt of graciousness, said the Apostle in Colossians 4:6.
The law of kindness is on her tongue, said the writer of Proverbs about that wonderful wife (31:26). Earlier he said, Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him (29:20).