What do you think of when you hear someone use the word “venting?” I’m sure just about all of us have had the experience of stopping mid-sentence in a conversation and saying something like “I’m sorry for venting” or “I know I’m just venting.” Statements like this capture the tension we find ourselves trying to navigate as Christians. We have a complicated relationship with expressing ourselves this way. On the one hand, it feels instinctual and necessary to be able to speak freely and unfiltered about our disappointments and frustrations. On the other hand, we are acutely aware that our verbal expressions can easily go awry, and we typically need to apologize for doing it.
Speaking honestly and openly seems both necessary and precarious. So then how are we to share our stronger thoughts and feelings? Is venting legitimate, constructive, healthy, and faithful? In short, is it okay to “vent”? Scripture offers a nuanced response. It gives permission, admonishes caution, and provides direction. It gives permission for honest expression, caution to avoid harm, and direction to express your heart to God. The resulting outcome is something close to “venting” but yet something qualitatively different. It retains its unfiltered nature but does not go unchecked. Let’s dig a little deeper into these categories.
Permission for Honest Expression
As it relates to the honest, open, and even raw expression of our life experience, Scripture provides ample permission. This permission is most clearly seen in the Psalms, which embody many facets of our inner emotional life. The psalmists pour out their hearts with every flavor of emotion in view. Their honest and open expressions take the form of these common phrases: “my heart cries out,” “I lift my complaint to you,” “How long O Lord?” and “I groan all day long.” For example, Psalm 55 feels like something close to venting as it unleashes a commentary of personal devastation and tragedy. It captures the psalmist’s intense emotional experience.
Psalm 129 is also a good example of this type of expression. Not only does it seem to give us permission to do something like venting, but similar to the other psalms mentioned, it prescribes it. Within the very first verse, and at the beginning of the psalmist’s lament, the psalm adds the phrase, “let Israel say.” In adding these words, the psalmist implores his fellow Jews to speak of their troubles and trials. They are invited to express and give voice to their traumas and disappointments. The psalmist does just this by naming his hurt and tribulation: “They have greatly oppressed me from my youth” and “the plowmen have plowed my back and made their furrows long.”
These psalms give permission and freedom to express our emotions, explore our pain, and acknowledge the impact of our tribulations and trauma.
Caution to Avoid Harm
Though the Scriptures provide us with permission to participate in something close to venting, it also offers plenty of cautions related to the use of our words, especially in conversation with others. This caution reminds us to align our words with God’s kingdom purposes of building others up and encouraging their hearts and minds.
- James 3 reminds us of the dangers of excessive words and the power of an untamed tongue.
- Proverbs 10:19 cautions us that “When words are many, transgression is not lacking.”
- Proverbs 13:3 encourages us to hedge the impulse to speak, as it highlights that “Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life; he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin.”
- And finally, Ephesians 4:29 admonishes us to “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”
The Scriptures permit and provide space for expression and honest sharing, at the same time as it fences and limits this permissive space regarding the contents of our speech and the nature of our words.
Direction of Our Words
Finally, the most important aspect to healthy Christian expression of our inner life, and what truly separates it from common venting, is the direction of our cathartic conversations. Venting, as we commonly use it, is speaking to others without considering the Lord. This was the prophet’s critique levied against Israel in Hosea 7:14: “They do not cry out to me [the LORD] from the heart, but they wail upon their bed.” But a posture of faith gives our words direction and our expressions a destination. These unplugged conversations are radically changed as they take on a Christ-centric quality.
We observe this in the psalmists’ laments, painful commentary, and desperate cries. These expressions are always toward God. The covenantal God and submission to him are always in view. This Jesus-directed, Christ-centered, kingdom-purposed quality transforms words and emotional outbursts into something like venting but also something entirely different.
Three Questions to Ask Yourself
Here are three questions to keep in mind as you take up God’s invitation to speak openly and process thoughtfully.
- Do you speak with God in view? Our permission to participate in something close to venting is based on the assumption that the God of Scripture is present in our minds and hearts. Do you speak words with God in view? Do you recognize that you live and breathe and have your being in his universe, within his kingdom, and in light of his principles of life and righteousness? God needs to be invited in as you consider your words.
- Are your words productive? Do your words go somewhere good? Do they eventually find their way to a redemptive outcome or do they get stuck and begin to spiral and repeat? Is it part of a progression toward love, mercy, and understanding? While our emotions and thoughts often take the long and circuitous route, we want our words to eventually make it to someplace that is productive to our Christian formation and sanctification.
- Are your words beneficial to others? Does your honest and raw expression foster one-anothering, interdependence, and community? Or does it harm, destroy, or cause others to doubt? Is your expression an opportunity for others to listen, help, and share a burden or does it contaminate and toxify the atmosphere? Done well, this thing that is close to venting opens the door to community and bearing one another’s burdens.
Scripture does not present a sanitized version of humanity. It recognizes what it means to be human in a fallen world and offers biblical guardrails of caution and direction. These enable us to be truly human and true image bearers even when we feel strongly about what is going on in our lives.