Earlier this summer, my daughter came home from Vacation Bible School wearing a thick purple bracelet with bright orange lettering. “Watch for God,” it read. To me, it seemed like an incomplete sentence. Watch for God to what? But my mental sluggishness only revealed a spiritual truth: God seems distant lately, and it’s difficult to see him working.

Overwhelmed with bad news, we tend to view the world through our own small, distorted prisms. Fred Rogers told of how his mother would comfort him as a child when confronted with scary news, “Watch for the helpers,” she’d say. “There’s always someone trying to help.”

But what if we don’t hear about those stories? What if those stories are buried under the rubble of the pessimistic 24-hour news cycle, in which the critical commentator reigns supreme and bad news outweighs the good by 17 to 1?

It’s not just the news’ fault. What really blinds me to the work of God in the world is the troubling public discourse between Christians. We have picked up the cynics’ dialect; we have adopted the tone of negative sensationalism.

Christians too often bury the good and beautiful ways God is working through our constant criticism of one another. Christian bloggers war with one another in battles big and laughably small. Critical articles outweigh positive articles by 3-to-1 on some Christian sites. Almost every viral article or blog post contains a negative component. Out of principle, I’ll refrain from linking to examples, but these headlines should be familiar:

  • “What Christians Get Wrong”
  • “What Christians Need to Stop Saying”
  • “Myths Christians Believe”
  • “The Problem with Christians”
  • “The Bigoted Christian”
  • “Christians Don’t Care About …” (Insert any given cultural issue—war, peace, abortion, women’s rights, marriage equality, traditional marriage, racial reconciliation, the poor, religious freedom.)

And the heart of God is grieved.

Our public discourse drowns out the truth of how he is working in the world and harms our witness. “By this all people will know you are my disciples,” said Jesus in his farewell discourse, “if you have love for one another.” Only this. Scandalously, he does not mention here love for poor or love for disenfranchised, but only love for one another.

What are we saying to unbelievers with all our mud-flinging, with the careless words we toss out to faceless Internet audiences? I’m afraid it may be something like this: “Yes, Jesus is wonderful! Come and join us so you can be as miserable as us, so you can have a community you can count on to bicker with and eventually stab you in the back."

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We who have the key to the only hope in the world have contributed to the growing despair by failing to honor God and one another in our public discourse. In our push to correct and critique the Christians who get it wrong, we forget that they are the exception to all the faithful believers we know in real life.

The heart of God is grieved because our negative speech blinds even us to how he is working in us, through us, and in the world. Our words rot our own heart, implanting within it both bitterness and malice. Throughout the Scriptures, the Lord pleads, “do not bear a grudge against the sons of your own people,” “let all bitterness and wrath and anger and slander be put away from you … be kind to one another,” “let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God,” “anyone who does not love does not know God,” “Why do you pass judgment on your brother?”.

When we slam or denigrate other Christians in the public sphere, we commit the sin of slander. We bear false witness, publicly critiquing only a part. Many of the arguments about cultural issues take place online and outside the context of Christian relationships. Therein lies the trouble. We form judgments about people on the other side of the issue without the incarnational context of how their theory works out in everyday life. The only information we have is a thesis, a position, not information on how that works out in relationships.

But we build our assumptions on the back of our own stereotypes, often for the worse. And thus, people are hurt. Who can bear up under such constant verbal assaults? Warren Wiersbe writes, "It's a painful experience to hear one’s work and ministry maligned, especially when the slander comes from believers who profess to be doing the Lord’s work by exposing the sins of the saints."

It's not that Christians should not argue or should not offer correction or discipline; it's that there is a right way and a right place to do it. When Paul corrected heresy and disputes between Christians, he did so through letters, which would be distributed or shared in the context of that church community. He did not go to the top of Mars Hill and shout about heresy and disputes in front of the Roman public. Much of the critique that clogs the blogosphere can happen offline or not at all, and the critiques we do offer can be graciously offered in a posture of humility, shifting our tone (and our hearts) from negative sensationalism to a tone more suitable to those who have seen God, who are called followers of the Way, children of God, friends of Christ.

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There is a time to correct and shepherd the church community towards the way of the Lord, such as the exposing of sexual sin in congregations. The injunction to offer correction and instruction is always governed by the greater commandment to love, and always in the context of a loving Christian community.

Watch for God. Can we learn to watch for God not only in the world, but also in each other? Can we change our tone, offering fewer critiques in a tone of grace, regardless of what it costs in Facebook likes, social media shares, and popularity? I became a believer because someone dared to see in me—me, a doped-up atheist—what God sees in me. I became a believer because someone treated me as if I had value and though imperfect, I was deeply loved.

Can we continue to do that for one another? This world is not an easy place to dwell; it’s hard enough to bear our daily disappointments, heartache, losses, fear, and anxieties with dignity without the negativity we see so often in Christian discourse. May we be kind to one another, and learn again to view each other through the gracious eyes of Christ.