Many people in the history of this country have given up their lives in the fight for freedom of speech. It is a freedom that should never be taken lightly because it is not available in many parts of the world. In fact, I feel safe in saying it is the most important freedom for a free society. If I were a dictator of a country, it would be the first freedom I would remove. It is even more crucial than the right to bear arms. Many countries without gun control do not have freedom, but there are very few places where they have freedom of speech but still live under oppression.
We all learned the phrase, “The pen is mightier than the sword” in elementary school. It has proven true over and over again. Take for example the recent upheavals that have been exacerbated as the result of social media and the ability to communicate. The pen, or Twitter, or Facebook has proven to be far more powerful than weapons. As long as we have the freedom of speech we will be free.
Yet, freedom of speech is not absolute. You cannot scream “fire” in a crowded theater. You cannot lie under oath. To speak an untruth that harms the reputation of another is also not allowed. We have learned that freedom of speech, like any freedom, can be used to excess. It is an extremely valuable possession that is worth protecting.
However, Christians do not have freedom of speech, not even in America. In saying this I am not referring to some “left-wing conspiracy” to rob us of our basic rights as citizens. If you have cast your lot with Jesus then your citizenship is in a different kingdom – you are a citizen of the kingdom of God. It’s like the old song said, “This world is not my home, I just passing through…”
Citizens of God’s kingdom do not have freedom of speech. In other words, we are not free to say whatever we feel like saying. The reason for a limitation on our speech is because it is such a powerful weapon. In the book of James, the power of the tongue is compared to a bridle in a horse’s mouth, the rudder of a ship, and a spark that ignites a forest fire. Every species of animal can be tamed but it is impossible to tame the tongue. In case we miss the point of all these analogies, James simply said, the tongue is “a restless evil full of deadly poison.”
Since speech is such a powerful tool, we are limited in how it can be used. The most basic guideline is that our speech is to be truthful. Therefore, laying aside falsehood, speak truth each one of you with his neighbor, for we are members of one another (Ephesians 4:25). However, even before speaking the truth we should pause to make sure we have heard correctly. This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger… (James 1:19). My father frequently reminded me that God gave me two ears and one mouth for a reason. Simply because we have something to say does not mean it should be said. I have learned that those who speak the least frequently often have the most valuable things to say.
When it comes to speaking, truth is not the only criteria. We are to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). Just because something is true does not mean that it should be said. If we cannot say it in love then we should be silent. This is a difficult task today because of the ability to say random, anonymous things to anyone in the world at anytime of the day via the Internet. We are tempted to say things we would never speak if we had to do so face to face.
We still have not exhausted the limitations to our freedom of speech. 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, so that it will give grace to those who hear (Ephesians 4:29). The term “unwholesome” means rotten or corrupt. It is derived from a word that is often translated “evil” and reminds us not to speak words that are designed to harm others. In contrast to this kind of talk, we are encouraged to speak in a much healthier manner: Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person (Colossians 4:6).
I must confess, I would have fewer things to say if I limited myself to only speaking with grace. But Jesus did warn us about the seriousness of this matter when He said, But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment (Matthew 12:36). I don’t know about you but I should probably sort through my Twitter feeds and Facebook posts to see if there is much grace being spoken.
I understand when Americans get all excited over any threat to their freedom of speech. Like everyone else, I certainly want to live in a country where my speech is not limited by political power. I want to be able to discuss and debate issues without fear of punishment. As American citizens we must be vigilant in maintaining this freedom.
Yet, as a Christian, my first allegiance is to another authority, One who does not grant us freedom of speech. As difficult as it would be to live in a country without freedom, it would be even more damaging to not live in God’s kingdom. The First Amendment allows me to say many things that God restricts. If I am to stand up for my rights, I must do so in a way that considers the impact my manner and method of standing has upon others. We are certainly free to voice our support or displeasure with something or someone but we are not free to say and do hurtful things or to say things that do not bring grace into the situation.
Before we stand up for our freedom of speech, perhaps we should first utter this prayer – Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, my rock and my Redeemer (Psalms 19:14).