One evening two or three of my friends staged a mini-intervention with me. Their case was simple: “Sooho, you need to stop using periods and commas and start using more exclamation marks when you text.”
I protested that proper punctuation is grossly undervalued nowadays—clarity is the bedrock of communication! They then made a powerful counter: “Yeah, but you sound mean.”
Whether I like it or not, tone speaks louder than punctuation. While punctuation aims at clarity, tone cultivates receptivity. No matter how clear or simple the message is, if its tone is cold or overbearing it will not be well-received. It may even be misunderstood, contrary to the speaker’s intentions.
Whether I like it or not, tone speaks louder than punctuation.
This is readily obvious in vocal communication, but it’s less clear in written form. How do you hear the tone of someone you’ve never met or heard? In my experience, tone is most often formed by the kind of relationship between speaker and hearer, writer and reader. If the speaker is or seems authoritarian, then the tone will sound authoritarian. If the speaker is or seems warm, then the tone will sound warm. This affects how we perceive the character of God when hearing and reading scripture.
Take the story of the Fall. How do we hear God’s tone in this familiar passage? Perhaps, on more than one occasion we have had doctrines of original sin and total depravity hammered. They shape our perception of God and thereby the tone of divine speech. While these are good and foundational doctrines, even good things go awry in the ears of sinful, broken people. God’s question—Where are you?—could carry an ominous tone, pent up with wrath. Maybe it carries the low sigh of disappointment that flares hot flashes of shame. These are fears of legalism.
…when [wrath and shame] dictate divine tone, we risk losing the gracious God.
To be sure, wrath and shame are not pure evils—they have their good portion in Christian life, say, in repentance. But when they exclusively dominate and dictate divine tone then we risk losing the gracious God—the utterly humble one full of rapturous love for us.
Thinking relationally instead of religiously is not enough to stave off the fears of legalism. As Daniel D. Lee (Intersecting Realities, pg. 19) explains, Christians, especially those of East Asian descent influenced by Confucianism, can be tied to God in a “relational legalism,” or a relationship dominated by filial duty and expectations. If the relationship is just as suffocating as legalism, then how does it fare better? What can combat the fears of legalism? Only divine love, who is God. Crucially, then, the point is how one perceives God: Is your God full of grace and truth or full of wrath and disappointment?
Kosuke Koyama (No Handle on the Cross, pg. 14) offers another way of hearing divine tone in Genesis 3–one thick with profound humility. When Almighty God walks at the cool of the day and asks, Where are you?, God decides to be the God bound to where humanity is—even in their rebellion and shame in the bushes. This utterly holy God decides to be found with unholy people. God goes to Adam and Eve, not vice versa; God is the God who meets us where we are at, not vice versa. This is profound humility guided by divine love.
How we see God and our relationship with God affect how we hear God. Do we dare to hear God’s question afresh? Is the tone thick with terrible anger or with disappointed speechlessness—only able to utter a few words? My friends are privy to questioning my tone. They feel safe to challenge, even demand, that my tone reflect a more warm vibe. I pray also that we will feel safe, even welcomed, to demand that God be heard more graciously and lovingly, not because that’s what we deserve but solely because God truly is.