How many times have you been told that you shouldn’t be sarcastic? Do you think that sarcasm is inherently bad? Or do you believe it can be used for good?
In order to successfully delve into this subject I think we need to start by looking at what sarcasm is. This in itself is a contentious exercise as, I suggest, even dictionaries present highly biased and narrow definitions of it. Various dictionaries describe sarcasm as: “a cutting, often ironic remark intended to wound”; “a sharp, bitter, or cutting expression or remark; a bitter jibe or taunt”; and “a form of wit that is marked by the use of sarcastic language and is intended to make its victim the butt of contempt or ridicule”.
There is no denying that sarcasm can, and often is, used to wound and to cut people down. Clearly its basis can be in bitterness. However, I believe that there is another aspect of this subject that is seldom considered, but important to acknowledge.
As Christians we believe that all evil in our world is a perversion of that which is good. So, for example, lust is the corruption of desire, selfishness is the corruption of stewardship, and people’s point of greatest weakness is often a corruption of their greatest strength.
From this standpoint we can deduce that the character assassination that many refer to as sarcasm does in fact have a healthy counterpart.
So what does such a version of sarcasm look like? Well, most misgivings about sarcasm is that it attacks the person. Clearly, attacking a person’s identity, i.e. condemning them, is never right, as God never condemns, He only convicts. Condemnation constitutes of telling someone that a negative behaviour is an inherent part of their identity, hence implying that they will never change. None of us like being placed under condemnation! In contrast conviction is an act of love that exhorts someone to change their conduct, the implication being that they are worth more than such behaviour, and that such behaviour is not what they were designed for.
From this we can establish that “righteous sarcasm” (as I’d like to call it) won’t attack the person, but will instead attack the ungodly and destructive nature of their conduct. Its intention won’t be to destroy the recipient, but to destroy the evil they are engaged in. So the purpose of this kind of sarcasm isn’t to wound, but, on the contrary, to restore.
While such righteous sarcasm is often full of contempt, its contempt isn’t aimed at the person. It’s aimed at their sinful attitude or at their sinful behaviour, sometimes at both.
Now, I know that some believers struggle with the idea of a Christian expressing contempt. But what do we stand for if we don’t have contempt for evil? How can we say we have God’s character if we don’t feel righteously angry about the destruction that evil is wielding in the world?! Throughout the Old and the New Testament we see countless examples of God both describing and demonstrating exceeding hatred of anything that harms His creation. On this basis I firmly believe that we, His followers, are to follow Him in utter hatred of all that is corrupt, perverted, and destructive.
This established one could raise the question of why righteous sarcasm is necessary. Why can’t we just confront people directly about their evil behaviour? Well, direct confrontation should certainly always be the first line of approach. However direct confrontation often doesn’t work, and so heavier artillery sometimes needs to be deployed. In instances like this, righteous sarcasm can be highly useful.
People who are caught in deception often lack the perspective to heed rebuke, especially when they have become desensitized to an issue. Conviction is a gift that if ignored for long enough will eventually die, at which point direct confrontation can be frustratingly unproductive. In addition to this the person may be stuck in stubbornness and pride – a result of their having turned their back to God regarding the issue. As such it can take quite something to get through to them!
Dr Henry Cloud and Dr John Townsend write in “How People Grow”: “The kinds and dosage of pain differ according to our need. A person with a receptive heart needs less pain to get the message. Someone who is egocentric or naturally strong-willed may need more…Our attitude towards growth and accepting discipline is a key character quality that dramatically affects the amount of pain we must endure.”
Righteous sarcasm is one of several powerful tools we can use to get through to deeply deceived and stubborn people. The reason it is so effective in such situations is that it functions by employing irony and satire, stances that force the recipient to see their behaviour from a different perspective. Righteous sarcasm essentially mirrors back to the receiver their mindset, explicitly verbalizing what their behaviour is implying. As such it actually undercuts the passive aggressive nature of their behaviour.
Indeed, while ungodly sarcasm is an act of passive aggression, righteous sarcasm actually exposes passive aggression. It does so in a highly cunning and often humorous manner. I contend that when Jesus instructed us to “be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16) it was this very sort of shrewdness that he was referring to.
So when, for example, someone is repeatedly cheating on their spouse, or is engaged in a cycle of denial regarding alcoholism, or is systematically placing their work before their family, righteous sarcasm can prove a helpful tool. Righteous sarcasm can place a mirror in front of such repetitive perpetrators, reflecting back what their behaviour looks like to others. It can be a means to disempower passive aggression. It can be an astute method of verbalizing sinful attitudes and demonstrating the folly of such thinking.
Essentially sarcasm is like a surgeon’s scalpel. Scalpels are razor sharp knives, capable of cutting through flesh with great ease. When used in surgery, they save lives. But when used as a weapon, they cause great injury. Clearly, a scalpel in itself isn’t good or evil. It’s merely a tool. Whether it is used to heal or to destroy is completely dependant on the intentions of the person using it. In the same way, sarcasm in itself isn’t good or evil, it’s just a tool. The outcome of its use is entirely dependant on the intentions of the person wielding it. It depends the posturing of their heart.
Indeed we see this reflected in Hebrews 4:12: “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”
Interestingly, the root of the word “sarcasm” from the Greek “sarkasmos” literally means “to cut a piece of flesh”. We can apply this definition to both kinds of sarcasm. Unloving sarcasm is most definitely designed to wound. However righteous sarcasm is designed to cut through our fleshly nature, helping to reconcile us to the truth found in Galatians 5:24 that “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”
I believe that the true litmus test for whether we should employ a certain conduct is to see whether it is demonstrated by God in scripture. In this instance, if we look at the Bible, we see a number of examples of God’s use of righteous sarcasm:
In Job 38 we read of how Job had been speaking very confidently about his situation, as if he understood it, until God showed up and asked him an extremely long series of increasingly sarcastic questions such as, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?…Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!…Have you ever given orders to the morning, or shown the dawn its place, that it might take the earth by the edges and shake the wicked out of it?…Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep? Have the gates of death been shown to you? Have you seen the gates of the deepest darkness? Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth? Tell me, if you know all this.” This long stream of righteous sarcasm worked to great effect, because Job ended up repenting of his foolishness and responding to God, “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know…Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”
Another instance of God’s use of righteous sarcasm is to be found in the book of Judges when the Israelites abandoned Him and worshiped idols instead. God replied to their subsequent request for help, “Go and cry out to the gods you have chosen. Let them save you when you are in trouble!” (Judges 10:14). By indulging in their foolish thinking God showed them just how imprudent it had been. His sarcasm had its desired effect, as the people repented and got rid of all their idols.
In the New Testament we see Jesus using much wit, hyperbole, and sarcasm to tear through religious pretence. One such instance is in Matthew 7:4 when Jesus sarcastically reprimanded “How will you say to your brother, let me pull out the sawdust out of your eye; and, behold, a plank is in your own eye?” (Matt. 7:4) This sarcastic hyperbole was designed to expose to the audience just how hypocritical their attitude was.
There are also a number of examples in the Bible of God’s leaders using righteous sarcasm. In 1 Kings we read of a showdown between the prophet Elijah and a large group of pagan priests who he had challenged to demonstrate the power of the “god” they worshiped. Chapter 18 verse 27 says “About noontime, Elijah began mocking them. ‘You’ll have to shout louder than that,’ he scoffed, ‘to catch the attention of your god! Perhaps he is talking to someone, or is out sitting on the toilet, or maybe he is away on a trip, or is asleep and needs to be wakened.” This bold use of provocative righteous sarcasm emphasized the pagans foolishness and by doing so exposed the level of deception that they were operating in.
And in 1 Corinthians 4 we read of an instance in which the apostle Paul used righteous sarcasm. Some of the members of the church in Corinth were acting as though they knew better than their leaders, and so Paul used a highly sarcastic tone to admonish them: “Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings!” If one studies the context of this passage, and understands just how advanced Paul was as a leader, one realizes just how sarcastic he was being when he essentially said “Wow, you guys are right, you’ve got it made, who needs me?!”
We also read of how Paul reprimanded some early Christians who were being foolish in the way they were imparting revelation. He mocked their presumption and pride by sarcastically declaring: “Was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached?” (1 Corinthians 14:36) By verbalizing the mindset that their conduct implied, he articulated their thinking in a way that exposed its presumption and delusion.
From these few examples we see that righteous sarcasm has been used with great effect by both God and His leaders. Can you imagine how much poorer scripture would be if these figures had not felt at liberty to use this powerful tool?!
Sadly, as most of us don’t like being rebuked, and as most of us know that sarcasm isn’t widely accepted in modern western “Christian” culture, it’s all too easy for us to shut down someone who is employing righteous sarcasm by shaming them. We know that if we self-righteously nit pick we will most likely successfully detract them from the crux of the matter, and that by doing so we’ll evade the spotlight of truth that is being shone directly in our face. This is the spirit of religion and ignorance, and I believe that this is exactly the sort of attitude Jesus spoke of when He talked of those who “strain out a gnat and swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:24).
Before I finish there are some important caveats that I feel compelled to mention. I am highly aware that many, if not all of us, have experienced being “lovingly rebuked” by a person who is actually completely lacking in love. Sadly this happens quite often within certain fellowships, usually ones that are dominated by the spirit of religion, typically characterized by pride, self-righteousness, and judgmentalism. Such environments are skilled in the art of justifying how their vicious attacks constitute “love”. They are fundamentally deceived about the posturing of their heart, and as a result are deeply deceived about the intentions fuelling their behaviour. My purpose in writing this article is absolutely not to endorse the twisted attacks of such individuals. Nor do I seek to justify such behaviour to those who have been genuinely wounded by this kind of religious evil.
Another point I feel duty bound to mention is that even those of us who don’t typify such extreme behaviour are quite capable of temporary lapses of judgement. When we feel hurt it’s very tempting to viciously attack, and to deceive ourselves that our intention was righteous. As such it’s absolutely vital that we check the posturing of our hearts before we open our mouth. In ongoing conflict it’s crucial that we reassess whether we are “for” the person, or “against” them on a regular basis. As our intentions can quickly shift we must regularly and habitually go through prayerful assessment, confession, repentance, and forgiveness. If we fail to do so we can easily be tempted into attacking the person’s identity, which may lead to our being compelled into self-righteousness in order to justify our behaviour. When this happens, as it easily can do, it is important that we repent and seek to restore what we have broken.
So, to summarize, I propose that sarcasm is not inherently good or bad, but that its value is completely dependent on the posturing of the heart of the person imparting it, and on the discernment and wisdom with which it is used.
Sarcasm is a double-edged sword that can be used to murder people or to free them. And like any sharp sword it needs to be wielded very carefully, with great discernment and discipline. But in our desire to avoid contention we must be careful of unwittingly casting off Jesus’ words in Matthew 10:34: “I come not to bring peace, but to bring a sword” !
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