Backpedaling a Bit: A Shift on Sarcasm

Unknown-1Developing what you believe about a given issue or subject is sometimes a work in process. Such is the case with me and sarcasm.

My readers know that recently I took the stance that sarcasm was wrong. Few debated that, because usually and generally, that’s true. But I maintained it was always wrong. Ah, that’s where the rub started. And rightly so—is it always wrong?

After some good feedback and profitable exchanges with many of you, as well as some additional study regarding this subject, I do think an addendum to that statement is in order. So in one sense I’m backpedaling a bit. In another sense I’m simply being more definitive and precise. Regardless, clarity has always been high value for me, and I do think this issue deserves it.

What brought this about was wrestling with some appropriate uses of sarcasm in the Scriptures, namely Elijah (1 Kings 18:26-27) and Paul (2 Corinthians 11:19). Admittedly, it’s not an overwhelming amount, but it is there. And were they wrong? In short, no. Why? Because they were arguing and battling for the truth of the gospel. In these instances it seems the core truth of the gospel was at stake. Twisters and rejectors of the gospel were boldly reshaping God’s truth, shutting their eyes and the eyes of others. What was used to show them their error? Sarcasm. As Pastor Laurence Veinott of New Life Presbyterian Church in Canton, NY said in a message, “God can use our sarcasm to open the eyes of unbelievers. Or He can use it to render them inexcusable. God did both things through Elijah’s taunts. When the opponents of the gospel close their eyes to the truth that is made clear to them—and instead insist on believing the lie—then sarcasm should be used against them.” I prefer to say “can be used” instead of “should be used”; but either way, the use would not be unbiblical.

Additionally, Arthur Pink writes regarding this encounter in 1 Kings 18 that the use of sarcasm “is fully warranted in exposing the ridiculous pretensions of error, and is often quite effective in convincing men of the folly and unreasonableness of their ways.”

Furthermore, the Kairos Journal, associated with BibleMesh, notes that “Elijah and Paul used it in godly fashion.” In fact, their article Holy Sarcasm was thought provoking, concluding that, though these verses do not encourage sarcasm, much less demand it of God’s people, to “dismiss it utterly [is to] rebuke Elijah and Paul – an act of arrogance in its own right.”

Of course, other passages were brought up as uses of sarcasm (1 Corinthians 4:8-13, Matthew 7:5), but I contend that they were actually irony or satire. Still, there are the two situations with Elijah and Paul, and on those alone a reconsideration of how I worded my stance seems in order.

So how would I amend my earlier position? Perhaps like this: When the core truth of the gospel is at stake, sarcasm may be an acceptable, biblical use of language for the defense of truth. But between believers, it is still my contention that the kind of sarcasm we use is generally unbiblical, unhealthy, and unwarranted. As Lindsey Carlson wrote, “It’s nothing but fancy-schmancy passive-aggressiveness, and it leads to bitterness, anger, and unresolved conflict.” Too often we move beyond humorous irony and convicting satire and become malicious with sarcasm that is meant to belittle another and elevate ourself. When this is the intent, sarcasm is never appropriate. Never.

Yes, even in my backpedaling, I want to nudge us towards speech that is more edifying, not less; more constructive, not less. better at building up, not worse. After all, “carefully worded irony or satire may be fitting at times, but malicious sarcasm is not.” There is no biblical precedence for speaking words that “exhausts the patience and joy of all their listeners.”

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