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Should Israel Folau Have Said What He Said?

Photo by Tremain Focused on Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

 

Words can build up or destroy. For Australia rugby star Israel Folau, it was a lesson he had to learn the hard way after his response to a comment on his Instagram post went viral—and awry.

The Instagram post itself was a pretty standard one from the sporting celebrity with over 300K followers. Widely known to be an outspoken Christian, there was nothing out of the ordinary in the image he had posted earlier this month which quoted James 1:2-4, along with a diagram that showed the difference between our plans and God’s plan.

But amid the thousands of comments that streamed in, Folau’s response to one comment in particular would completely affect his life, put him in the headlines of multiple media outlets, and potentially ruin his rugby career.*

The comment: “what was gods plan for gay people??”

Folau’s response: “HELL..Unless they repent of their sins and turn to God.”

 

 

As soon as his response was published, battle lines were drawn across the internet. Some praised his bravery to speak up for his beliefs and supported his right to free speech. But the vast majority pummeled Folau for what they perceived as an anti-gay and homophobic comment.

The topic “Israel Folau says gay people will go to hell unless they repent” began to trend online. Many people across the country and the sporting world weighed in with their opinions. One of Australian rugby’s biggest sponsors, whose CEO is openly homosexual, threatened to pull their support. Several intense meetings between Folau and the Australian Rugby Union were held behind closed doors, discussing his future in the sport.

Over the last three weeks, I have followed the developing story with much interest and have learned much about the incredible power that words can have, particularly on social media.

 

To Communicate Truth Effectively

From a Biblical standpoint, Folau’s words seem to echo what the Bible has stated plainly. Romans 3:23 tells us that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” and a few chapters later, that “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus.” (Romans 6:23). What this means is that all of us are destined for hell because of sin—regardless of whether our struggle is with homosexuality, selfishness, greed, pornography, lying, gossiping etc. But it doesn’t end there, as the second half of Romans 6:23 tells us that there is a way of escape in the free gift of eternal life, made possible through the unconditional, sacrificial love of Jesus who died for us.

Unfortunately, not all of that was communicated in the 11-word reply by Israel Folau. He did however, write a 2000+ word article two weeks later entitled “I’m a Sinner Too” to communicate those truths and his intent. In his response, he shared about the struggles he went through in his sporting career—letting fame get to his head early on, sinning with other women and battling alcohol addiction. Coming from a place of humility, he then shared how he personally experienced Jesus’ love and the peace he received when he opened his heart to God.

But it seemed as though his response may have come a bit too late—damage had already been done.

Words obviously have an incredible power, and as we have seen in the backlash to Folau’s Instagram comment, even a few words have the potential to hurt an entire community of people and possibly push them away from learning more about God. In a world hostile to the faith, it is ever so pertinent that we as believers in Christ speak truthfully, but also wisely and lovingly.

 

Would We Lay Down Our Rights?

The other major debate surrounding this episode was on the right of free speech. Was it Folau’s right to express his religious beliefs unreservedly? This seemed to be how Folau also felt, based on his tweet which quoted Matthew 5:11-12, suggesting that he felt persecuted for his comments.

Although I respect Folau for standing up for the Christian faith, particularly in the face of immense backlash from the world and at the risk of his own career, I wonder if the shift in conversation to the rights that Christians should have to defend our faith, rather than towards the truth about a loving Savior who wishes for us all to have relationship with Him, including those in LGBT community, is helpful.

I think of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9. Referring to a culturally accepted right that he had to request financial support from the Corinthian church, Paul says in verse 12 that he and Barnabas “did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.”

In the realm of online debates and “keyboard warriors”, believers can be caught up in our right to express our beliefs. No doubt there are many times when we should stand up for our faith in the face of evil and adversity, but we must be cautious about our intentions behind our actions. Are we speaking out just so we can prove to ourselves and others that we are “right”? Do the words we say and the actions we make actively lead others toward Christ?

Paul continues in verse 19 that “though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.” Admittedly, I find that incredibly tough to live out. As human beings, there is a strong yearning in us to want to show and prove that our beliefs and ideas are correct and right. But Paul challenges us to flip that human desire on its head and instead make ourselves slaves, give up the rights we have to prove ourselves correct in order that the gospel can be shared freely and effectively to the world around us.

If there is one takeaway for all of us from this episode, it is this: To come before God and plead with the Holy Spirit to guide us daily, to speak through us, and to help us act wisely. May all that we do with our lives point others towards God and lead others to relationship with a Savior who desires more than we can ever imagine to save us from HELL. (2 Peter 3:9)

 

*At the time of this writing, Folau’s future in Australian rugby is still uncertain.

A Quick Summary Of James 2:18-3:16

How has your reading of James been this week? What have you learned? Here’s a quick reminder of this week’s key truths.

(Once again, do note that no devotions will be sent over the weekend.)

 

Hypocrisy in Speech

Day 18 | Today’s passage: James 3:9-12 | Historical context of James

9 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.

I slammed down the phone with a bang and let out a long suffering sigh.
“That was the longest call of my life!” I exclaimed in anger. “Next time he calls, could somebody else answer and tell him I’m not here? What does he think I do all day?”

Lately, one of my clients had taken to calling me multiple times each day to “talk through” one of his projects. These one-sided conversations often had zero results—except for wasting my time.

My co-worker laughed at my sour expression and said, “Nice announcer voice!”

“What?” I asked.

“Your ‘phone voice’, it sounds like a radio host!” She mimicked my very polite and upbeat receptionist line: “Good morning! This is Karen. Yes, thank you for calling!”

She meant it as a joke, but her words stung. Was that really how I sounded? How could I sound so nice while I was on the phone, and so nasty after I hung up?

James explores this hypocrisy here in verses 9-12. Sometimes our mouths are fountains of “fresh water”—from which authentic, loving, life-giving words spring forth—and sometimes they spew “salt water”—venomous, prideful speech. “Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing,” he observes.
But this dual nature is fundamentally wrong. The same spring cannot produce both fresh and salty water. Neither should our tongues produce both loving and venomous words. Perhaps what James was suggesting was that a tongue which utters curses indicates a heart that is not truly displaying the love of Christ at all.

As Christians, we are called to love not just our friends but our enemies—to show them true love and kindness, not just on-the-phone professional niceness. And one of the first indicators of our real attitude towards people is how we speak of them and to them.

James reminds us that when we curse others through our angry speech, empty flattery, or sarcastic comments, we are attacking someone made in God’s image and likeness (v. 9). Each person carries the imprint of God and is made by His hands. What hypocrisy it is when we become angry and unforgiving with our speech towards another person, all the while knowing how God treats His children with unfailing love and compassion. When we fail to forgive, we have forgotten that God has forgiven us—and furthermore, that He has forgiven them. “Salty” speech promulgates condemnation; “pure” speech proclaims mercy.

So what should we do when we are honestly at a loss for authentic, loving words?

1. Be honest: resist the urge to cover your feelings with a charade. For me, this might mean admitting that I don’t have time for a phone call at the moment and offering to reschedule it to a time when I can give the client my full attention.
2. Be kind: ask God to help you to be patient and to speak with a loving tongue. Now, I offer a short prayer before I even pick up the phone. I bite my tongue when I want to say something sarcastic, and I try to remember the things I truly appreciate about the client and his work.

We have a choice before us today—to offer fresh or salty water.
We can’t do both.
What will you choose?

—Karen Pimpo, USA

Questions for reflection

1. Reflect on the last time you spoke ill of or spoke harshly to another.
How does today’s passage address this?

2. What changes do you need to make in your life today?


Karen Pimpo lives in Michigan, USA, where everybody complains about the weather but secretly loves it. When she was little, she wanted to be a librarian. Not much has changed. Besides literature, listening to and performing music is one of her greatest joys. She sings and writes to help untangle the knots in her head, and because telling stories helps us realize we are not alone. She endeavors to face the unknowns of life with the naive bravery of Bilbo Baggins: “I’m going on an adventure!”

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Who Can Tame the Tongue?

Day 17 | Today’s passage: James 3:7-8 | Historical context of James

7 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

I told myself I wouldn’t speak ill of a colleague when I heard others talking about her. But curiosity got the better of me one day, and I jumped in on the conversation. I told myself I would only listen to what they had to say and wouldn’t add anything to it. Though this colleague was sometimes impossible to work with, I was determined to keep my word. Unfortunately, my resolve faltered, and soon, I was chatting about the said workmate.

Yes, my tongue got the better of me.

I love watching animal performances at zoos or circuses—be it a lion jumping through fiery hoops or sea lions waving on command. These aren’t animals I’d approach out in the wild, yet they have been tamed by humans to obey instructions.

Unlike most wild beasts, however, the human tongue is hard to tame or train. The Bible has called the tongue an untamable animal and a “restless evil, full of deadly poison” (vv. 7-8). It’s restless because it is always itching to pass on the latest gossip. It tries to disguise this as an innocent “Did you know. . . ?” or “Have you heard that . . . ?”, but each tale it spins is a deadly poison to someone’s reputation. It turns a little venting into a huge hate spiel, and kills its victims even before they can defend themselves.

But that is not how we are to live. Realizing this hard but sobering truth about the nature of our tongue and its effects should drive us all the more towards the grace of God. When we see the possible damage we can do to another human being through our words, it should lead us to cry out to God and ask Him for the grace and help to control our speech.

It’s never easy to be nice to a person who has wronged you or rubbed you the wrong way, but we can ask the Holy Spirit to help us speak graciously, avoid “unwholesome talk”, and say “only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29).

May we continue to depend on God, for He alone has the power to tame our tongues and guide our every word.

—Michele Ong, New Zealand

Questions for reflection

1. How can you speak positively about someone today?

2. How can you be more mindful of the words you speak?

3. How will you season your words with grace?

Hand-lettering by Rachel Tu


Michele has an accounting degree but believes God has called her to write, and had spent many years persuading her parents to allow her to pursue a career in journalism. Writing is as essential to Michele as breathing, and knows words have the power to transform lives. She spends her free time buying books but ends up not reading them, chilling with her friends, and lazing at the beach in summer. Every now and then she would push herself out of her comfort zone by agreeing to take part in an outdoor activity like hiking but often with disastrous consequences.

Read 30-day James Devotional