Is Sarcasm Always Wrong?

images-1Sarcasm. It’s a cultural icon today. From Hollywood to Washington, on TV and radio, sarcasm seems to rule the day.

Unfortunately, the church has followed suit. Instead of defending apologetically, explaining logically, reasoning morally, conversing factually, or supporting theologically, we too often resort to mocking sarcastically. And no issue or person is exempt. These days, anything or anyone can be the target of anger’s ugly cousin.

But is sarcasm always wrong? This was the question posed to me a few weeks back when I taught from James on words. And though I addressed it briefly in person, I want to provide some more insight in this post to help us, the bride of Christ, speak in ways that propel us more towards Ephesians 4:29 (building up) and away from Galatians 5:15 (biting and devouring).

The Eytomology
Some etymology would be helpful here.  Essentially, the word sarcasm has developed from Greek words that indicate a “tearing of the flesh,” especially sarkazein. Over time this Greek verb came to mean “to bite one’s lip in rage,” “to gnash one’s teeth,” or “to sneer.” At its root, this word describes a wounding of sorts; an injury of some kind. Even the mid-16th century French word sarcasme, or the Latin sarcasmos, both retained this root understanding.

The word’s formation, then, is linked to something deeper than humor, irony, or even joking. There is an intent to hurt. Sarcasm aims at ‘tearing the flesh.’ By the word’s very origination, it’s goal is pain.

The Definition
By definition, sarcasm is “the use of words that mean the opposite of what you really want to say especially in order to insult someone, to show irritation, or to be funny.” Of course, though humor is a nuance within this definition by Webster, it is humor at someone else’s expense. I’d contend that is humor gone wildly wrong.

Another source defined it as “the use of irony to mock or convey contempt.” Here again, one might say irony is a legitimate, literary device. But the end-game of that device prompts me to call this use into question. In fact, when its intention is to humiliate or mock, it may very well no longer be irony; at that point it degenerates into sarcasm—a ‘tearing of the flesh’ through words.

The Answer
In my opinion, sarcasm violates the the biblical exhortation to Christians to build one another up, and is thus wrong. Yes, always. I suspect I’m in the minority here among Christians, but nevertheless I maintain, after seeing Scripture’s commands, that sarcasm is always wrong. It never promotes unity or builds relational trust. Instead, it does the opposite. Nothing good comes from sarcasm. And why would we think it would? Could anything good come from “tearing the flesh” of another? I think not.

However, we’ve grown accustomed to living with sarcasm. It is part of the course, rough fabric of everyday life for many of us. Frankly, I know my own sinful tendency to use this carnal tool to make a point or gain an upper hand; to get an edge or drive home a point. It’s a daily battle to reign in sarcasm.

What can one do? Let me suggest a few things.

  1. Let your first words be positive words. Seek to build and affirm first in every conversation. Even when the conversation calls for honesty and perhaps painful disagreement, do so in a way that isn’t painted with the brush of sarcasm.
  2. Enjoy humor, but don’t go beyond humor. This is often only discerned in the moment, so you’ve got to have your radar turned on and tuned in. As we’ve often heard and even said, laugh with, not at. It’s in the “at” that our humor too often disintegrates into sarcasm.
  3. Be willing to live against the grain. Late night shows, political talking heads, and bloggers by the dozens rely on sarcasm. It’s the communication device of choice for far too many. And it creeps into our marriages, small groups, and sermons. I encourage you to swim upstream and display a disciplined, obedient use of your tongue by eliminating sarcasm from your language. I’m confident there’s not a single area of your life that wouldn’t improve by this one, single pursuit.
  4. When you fail, don’t quit. Confess, then resolve yet again to live without sarcasm. Admittedly, this side of the consummated kingdom we will never fully conquer a sinful tongue (James 3:8). But we can, by Gods grace and through his Spirit, sow peace and reap righteousness (Jams 3:18), especially in how we talk.

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