The line between a useful conversation and a useless one can be quite thin. Right when we think we’re helping a friend problem-solve, we might be gossiping. Or we could feel like we’re in a good theological discussion until suddenly it steers into hypothetical nonsense. Or maybe you’ve found yourself (like me) helpfully criticizing and deconstructing wrong thinking only to realize that, after a while, you haven’t built anything or anyone up? Maybe you’ve worked hard to “see through” a lot of foolishness only to see nothing at all. Not all discussions bear fruit.
Conversation is not always considered as a prime environment for sin. But the Bible talks a lot about talking: the words we use can be life or death (Proverbs 18:21); our tongues are likened to a fire (James 3:6); what we say to other people out loud reveals the very nature of our character (Luke 6:45). These are dramatic statements because how we talk with other people is a dramatic thing, according to the writers of Scripture. And they were right. We all have memories of a friendship or relationship ending because of something someone said (or didn’t say). People leave churches over words. Divorces happens because of something that was said. It’s hard to argue with the Bible’s high view of conversation.
But let’s set aside the most dramatic stuff. There are plenty of sermons and articles about saying good things (the eye-roll inducing “speaking life” that Christians speak of) and saying bad things. This isn’t an essay about speaking good things or bad things, this is an essay about speaking nonsense. The internet is guilty of awful words — cyber bullying, online harassment, trolls — but, again, plenty is being said about that. Our internet and personal conversations are guilty of something just as bad as all of that: I think we’re guilty of useless conversations.
Nearly every time I have been guilty of participating in a useless conversation I have simultaneously justified it. Because I’m a loud-mouth that loves talking, I can defend myself in nearly every conversation I have about anything (“just hear me out”). But recently, in a study if 1 and 2 Timothy, I noticed just how many times Paul tells his eponymous apprentice to be careful with the kinds of dialogues with which he is involved. Here are a few conversations, according to Paul, for ministry leaders (and probably all Christians) to avoid:
The Vain Discussion: non-experts talking like experts.
“Certain persons…have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions.”
-1 Timothy 1:6–7
I know we’re all thinking about nearly every podcast here because Paul sounds like he’s describing Joe Rogan. But let’s leave the self-righteous finger-pointing on the shelf for just one second and start thinking about our own conversations. How often do you slow down a conversation and say, “I’m not sure we know what we’re talking about here?” Saying, “I don’t have a good answer for that” or “I don’t know what I’m talking about” is a humbling and easy way to silence a conversation that begins gaining ground towards vanity. I like it when people think I have it all together and that I’ve thought through what we’re talking about, but more often than not I’m doing the thinking in real-time because I’m a verbal processor (i.e. “loud-mouth”). One thing to keep our eye on is this: is this conversation creating an over-inflated and inaccurate image of someone? And is that person me?
The Quarrelsome Conversation: picking fights and making enemies
“If anyone teaches a different doctrine [that does not accord with the love in Christ]…he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.
-1 Timothy 6:3–5
Some people want a fight. There are those who love starting them and those that love jumping in. In middle school, when fists was all we boys had, I remember there was always the kid who would jump into the fight late, when people were warn down, and act like he won when he just came to clean up. But there was also always a kid who threw the first punch. The internet is guilty of this, but again, so are we. If you’re in a conversation and you cannot wait to show the person that you are right, you are actually not in a conversation at all. You’re in a fight. So long as you’re waiting to “say my piece” you’re not listening. And if you’re not listening, again, you’re actually not in a real conversation. If you’re ready to prove your point, you’re not engaging with a human being, you’re displaying your own selfishness and pride. It’s time to end that conversation because it’s useless—it’s not even a real one to begin with.
On the flip side of this, we need to be aware if someone is picking a fight with us. Many people are just not wired to start a fight. But I have found that nearly everyone becomes defensive when a fight comes their way. Then, through a defensive posture, they become participants in a fight they never asked for but are down to join. “I had to say something!” we often cry out—but did we? I have been learning what Dallas Willard has called, “the discipline of not getting the last word.” I honestly think Christians should be fine with losing an argument. It seems like something Christ himself did. He let a lot of people fester in their indignation. Why give them more fuel? You can walk away from any conversation. Beware of the person who wants a fight and not a conversation.
The Babble: foolishness, stupidity, and useless words
“O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you. Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called ‘knowledge,’ for by professing it some have swerved from the faith”
-1 Timothy 6:20–21
“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene.”
-2 Timothy 2:15–17
The phrase “irreverent babble” is two Greek words that might be helpful. The first is βέβηλος (beblos), which pertains to “being profane” in a godless sense — saying something that offends the heart of God because of its wicked or deprived nature. But the second Greek word in this sentence is κενοφωνία (kenoponia), which is all about conversation that “lacks significant content.” These are those conversations we have that are about nothing but foolishness. These comments from Paul are about when the content of our conversation is far from the heart of God. It’s “babble.”
But notice the consequences of such talk. In both instances, Paul underscores how this kind of talk affects other people. In the first (1 Timothy 6:20–21), Paul says “some have swerved from the faith.” I know this to be true. There are people who are no longer Christians because they just started talking with people about foolishness. Their conversations turned sour, critical, self-centered, and culture-obsessed. They stopped considering — or never considered — important, large questions (why are we here? What is the value of life and a human being? What are the origins of the universe?) and started considering foolish ones (not sure I want to give examples here).
Something I have noticed is the ways in which our personal conversations can parrot the internet. We reenact feuds online with our friends or regurgitate something we heard on a podcast. I guess this is fine to an extent, but it leaves us far from real thinking. We no longer take time to consider what we think about something because we heard a good thought on it already and simply adapted that as our own. Paul says that babbling like this “will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene.” What an image. A great question is a simple one: is this conversation leading the people in it towards God? That question alone can help you find the line between a good conversation and a useless one.