Preach the Gospel Always, Use Insults if Necessary

A harsh rebuke, even an insult, might be necessary at times to save our fellow men from a path to damnation.

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

We, as a culture, hate insults. We love to accuse people of “verbal abuse” or “hate speech.” Everyone should know better than to insult others. It would be best to completely eradicate insults from all social interactions whatsoever. Why shouldn’t we? Insults are belittling, rude, and may even hurt the feelings of others. All things considered, insults are just plain mean. The very idea of disparaging words serves to send shivers down the spines of even the most resilient souls of our generation.

There are several problems, however, with believing that all insults are bad and should be eradicated. One of these problems is presented by St. Augustine. But just how could a saint such as Augustine approve of something so vile and degrading as insults?

In his Confessions, Augustine writes about a certain incident from his mother’s childhood. As just a young girl, his mother, St. Monica, fell into the habit of sneaking wine from her parent’s cellar. Time only increased the severity of her addiction until, Augustine says, “She had fallen into the habit of gulping down almost-full cups of wine.” 

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

Fortunately for St. Monica—also for Augustine, as he likely would never have been saved had she not first been a most pious woman—she ended up exchanging heated words with a servant. In the middle of this dispute, the servant bitterly insulted her, bringing up the accusation that she was a “boozer.” Monica, realizing how hurt she was by this taunt, “reflected on her own foul addiction, at once condemned it, and stopped the habit.” By this seemingly unlikely means, Monica was saved from herself.

“But oh,” says our culture, “wouldn’t it have been better if the servant had supported Monica, perhaps giving her a little affirmation so she wouldn’t have to feel such guilt? Doesn’t name-calling always make things worse?”

Not so long ago, such insults were much more permissible than they are now. Giving a lustful, gluttonous, or foolish person an ugly name was much more socially acceptable. In the modern world, we are told to never call the lustful, foolish, gluttonous, or otherwise sinful people in our culture any kind of “offensive” name. Instead, we’re told to be “accepting” and to “love people as they are.” At the same time, it seems that sin has not only become more widespread but the shame that used to go along with certain sins has disappeared almost entirely.  In the modern world, we are told to never call the lustful, foolish, gluttonous, or otherwise sinful people in our culture any kind of “offensive” name. Tweet This

But wait! Matthew’s Gospel records Jesus saying, “Whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.” How can insults possibly be ordered toward goodness if Jesus so explicitly condemns them? Once more, Augustine defends his ground, addressing the passage in question in his City of God: “It is not to his brother a man says, ‘Thou fool,’ if when he says it he is indignant not at the brotherhood, but at the sin of the offender,—for otherwise he were guilty of hell fire.” In other words, insult the sin not the sinner. 

In Confessions, Augustine tells us, “Just as flattering friends corrupt, so quarrelsome enemies often bring us correction.” Our current culture tells us that the only good kind of person is a flatterer, a yes-man who doesn’t just turn a blind eye to sin but wholly embraces it. Better, St. Augustine would say, to be surrounded by enemies who brutally abuse one for one’s faults then by fork-tongued friends who numb our souls and leave us rotting in sin. 

Why do we have a society? Is it so we can gather the sins of mankind together into one festering mass? Or is it for, as Paul says, “building each other up?” But building each other up doesn’t mean just stacking random objects as they fall into our hands. Buildings are to be made of solid stones, not cow pies. And if we see our brothers building their houses on the seashore or mortaring their walls with dung, then is it our job to lie through our teeth and tell them their abominations are beautiful, perhaps justifying this with the claim that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” anyway, right? 

Or perhaps it would be better to let them know in ugly words what an ugly thing they’re creating, so God can, through us, bring forth “from another soul a harsh and sharp rebuke, like a surgeon’s knife from (his) secret stores and with one blow…cut away the rottenness,” as he did through St. Monica’s maidservant. 

Sometimes, as Christians, it’s easy for us to see how we might feed the hungry, clothe the naked, or give to the poor or to the Church. But as Catholics, we believe that the Spiritual Works of Mercy are just as important as the Corporal ones. Instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, and admonishing the sinners of our world are just as much the duties of Christians. Almsgiving is likely to win you a good earthly reputation, but are you willing to face the persecution admonishing sinners will likely bring you? 

Too many of the souls of this world are running toward the gaping mouth of Hell, and as Christians we are sternly exhorted not to just casually let them go. If we let this God-hating culture tell us when we may speak and when we must be silent, we are rejecting Christ as surely as if we rejected Him in the poor. Our brothers are trying to throw themselves off bridges and in front of buses. If it takes rebukes—or even insults—to stop them, then let us not be afraid of the charity that requires.

[Image Credit: Shutterstock]


  • Michael Hoffman

    Michael Hoffman is resident of Erie, Pennsylvania. He enjoys playing and composing music, writing fiction, and volunteering for conservative Christian causes.

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...