As a young writer, I was eager to get something published, but the first time I actually sent something in for publication an unexpected terror descended over me. Considerations I’d never considered before suddenly popped into my mind. What if there was a factor I hadn’t known existed, and therefore hadn’t taken into account when I wrote my article? What if I didn’t have enough knowledge to actually take a position on this topic? What if, in the future, I look back on this article with shame because I was so very hasty in writing it?
I remembered this feeling recently because a new trailer for “I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye” just came out. This is a documentary about the impact Joshua Harris’ book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye, had on Christians. “My book made people feel like they had to do things a certain way,” Joshua Harris says in this trailer. “And I regret that.” This is an incredibly brave thing to say! Imagine pouring your heart and soul into a book when you’re young, firmly believing your message is something the world needs to hear. And then later, as time goes by, starting to realize you missed the mark on what you were trying to say. Or that people interpreted your words more strictly than you meant them to. Or, even worse, that what you firmly believe now has changed just a bit from what you firmly believed back then. What would you do? Would you take a deep breath and tell the world about this?
Here is the trailer:
Now, in the blog post I don’t intend to get into whether Joshua Harris’ book was helpful or harmful. (I did read it in highschool, by the way, but I don’t know if it affected me in any way.) I want to examine the responsibility a writer has when his or her work impacts an audience a certain way. To be fair to Joshua Harris, he wrote his book when he was twenty-three or so, and it’s absolutely normal for a person’s opinions to become more nuanced as they grow up. But does this mean all young writers should hesitate before they publish?
James’s words in James 3:1 comes to mind here: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.” In other words, I have taken on an enormous responsibility by saying things in public to people—things other people might take and follow. I was right to hesitate.
But I see two more observations in this verse. First, that those who teach will be judged. Ultimately our deeds are judged by God, of course, but I think this also includes the judgment of other Christians. And by judgment, I don’t mean the type of judgment Jesus condemns in the Sermon on the Mount, but rather the weighing of words and teachings that Christians ought to do. When Joshua Harris sought out the opinion of other Christians on his book, he opened his teaching up to the judgment of his brothers and sisters in the body of Christ. Not every opinion he received was necessarily useful or valid. But through this weighing process, the worth of his opinion is tested and refined.
Perhaps the wisest way of testing your words and opinions is to get feedback on them from experienced Christians around you. Perhaps the right Christian person in young Joshua Harris’ life could have noticed issues in his book that snowballed into bigger issues later on. However, not all issues are apparent beforehand, and I highly doubt Harris’ book was completely un-evaluated before it was published. Therefore, the feedback process that comes after releasing your words is important as well. In a certain way, all of us are participants in an unending dialogue of ideas.
This brings us to the second observation I see in the verse from James: that we all stumble in many ways. That, in fact, it is impossible to say something without what you say falling short. “If anyone does not stumble, he is a perfect man…” Who of us claim possibly claim this perfection?
I am often afraid of the ways I will stumble when I put words onto paper. But on the other hand, the opposite consideration occurs to me. What if these words are never spoken? We are all frail human beings scrambling to find words that communicate the truth about reality. If we know we fail to communicate what is true, we should not speak. But if we see a truth lying there, unspoken, there is often a time and place for it to be said.
Writers should hesitate, especially young writers who eagerly believe they have the whole world figured out. There can be terrible consequences for saying something wrong. You can deeply affect the lives of others who follow your opinion, and this should be a major consideration in your mind. There were many hurt by extreme interpretations of Joshua Harris’ words, after all. You ought to count the cost of potentially saying something wrong before you say it, and think about whether you’re willing to pay that cost. Would you humbly face your mistakes and do you utmost to fix your mistakes, if such mistakes became clear to you later? If not, perhaps you should keep silent after all.
But all I am trying to say here is that I think it is healthy for people to learn to formulate and speak their opinions, despite the necessity of hesitating before speaking or writing. A nebulous fear of an unknown mistake hiding in our own words should not seal our lips forever. If we commit to a willingness to find our mistakes beforehand, and take responsibility for our mistakes after publication if some do arise, then perhaps we are on the right path. Perhaps we can speak out.
Therefore I try to pen my thoughts only when I have something to contribute, something to contribute that someone older and wiser hasn’t already said in better words. And when I toss my thoughts out into the crowd, I do so in the expectation that judgments will come back at me. If what I write is worthwhile at all, it will be refined by its exposure to the world.
So now it’s your turn! What are your thoughts on this?
Side note: I do include writing as teaching for the purposes of this post. I think by stating your opinion in public in any kind of authoritative way invites others to follow your words. By the nature of stating your opinion, you invite people to either agree or disagree. I don’t want to hide from the fact that my words might influence people, no matter how casually I speak them. I don’t mean to say, by this, that this type of teaching is the same kind of ‘teaching of the Word of God’ that pastors do to their flocks. I would never presume my words ought to fit into that category.