Joe Rigney is a very provocative writer, and his book The Things of Earth is very good. But I cannot agree with part of his recent post at TGC called “Surprised by Scripture: Love and Spirit-Inspired Insults.”
In this post, Rigney argues that we need to have a category for “the Spirit-inspired insult.” Referring to Paul’s words in Acts 13:9-10 to a soothsayer who was leading people away from the truth, Rigney writes:
This doesn’t sound like what we would call kind or civil or gentle. These are biting words, pointed words, sharp words directed at a particular person. In this case, the fruit of the Spirit is name-calling, insults, and harsh words. In this case, Spirit-prompted boldness means not mincing words about the wickedness of this magician.
Certainly Paul was being very direct in this passage. He called the soothsayer a “son of the devil,” “enemy of all righteousness,” and “full of all deceit and villainy.” Those are indeed very strong words.
But are they insults?
I cannot agree with Rigney on this because there is something important being overlooked here, and it is this: an insult involves the intent to harm. Therefore, it is not possible to insult someone in the Spirit.
What is going on in these texts, then?
Paul is making a statement of fact. He is indeed stating things boldly and directly, but he is not intending to harm. He is making a statement of fact.
When you insult someone, you are trying to hurt them. You do not have a constructive aim. Further, you are often exaggerating and misrepresenting things. That is not at all what Paul is doing here.
Technically, what we have here is a criticism, not an insult.
Paul is indeed making a bold assessment of this person’s character. But he is doing so truthfully, and not with an intent to hurt, harm, or put down the person. Rather, his aim is to bring the light of truth to bear on the situation. Making this accurate (though direct) statement of fact does that.
Perhaps this is just a technical difference between Rigney and me. That may completely be the case. Yet, I think this is a very important distinction to make. We are to speak in such a way that our words are always edifying (Ephesians 4:29), and we are to make sure that everything we do is done in love (1 Corinthians 16:14).
Hence, we need to be careful to keep this distinction clear between insults and statements of fact. Otherwise we could easily (and contrary to the intent of Rigney’s article as well) introduce into our relationships with people a way of speaking God does not intend — all the while thinking we are doing good.
Certainly there are times to speak boldly and directly about sin or even what has been manifest about a person’s character who is opposing the gospel. But even then, the intent should never be to harm or put the person down. We should not, therefore, feel comfortable with a category of “the Spirit-inspired insult.” Instead, it might be more helpful to think in terms of “the Spirit-inspired hard truth,” or “the Spirit-inspired constructive criticism.”
For a different angle from Rigney’s on this, let me suggest Glenn Brooke’s recent post at The Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics, Speaking Gracefully: One of the Great Joys of Leadership Under the Authority of Christ.