The Battle of Gettysburg was a watershed moment in the Civil War. The South’s greatest general had lost a major battle. The Confederacy was on the ropes. As Lee’s shattered divisions retreated in a driving summer rainstorm toward friendlier ground in Virginia, it seemed as if a concentrated assault by the Northerners might end the war. But Major General George Meade, commanding the Union troops, ordered no attack while Lee made his escape.
Lincoln was beside himself. He wrote a stinging letter to Meade. Lincoln, however, never mailed it. It joined a stack of other “hot letters” he had written which ended up in his personal files. He waited a few days and then wrote a different kind of letter to Meade, thanking him for his leadership and the good he had accomplished at Gettysburg.
Lincoln had mastered the discipline of the unsent letter. A number of other famous individuals, including Winston Churchill, Mark Twain and Harry Truman, chose the same path. They poured out their feelings in raging, cathartic notes, then set them aside. A few nights’ sleep almost always tempered their emotions.
In the era of social media, it’s so tempting to unhesitatingly blast away at people who disappoint us by sending a scathing text while we’re still immersed in our feelings. Or tweet about “that person,” getting our feelings off our chest without accountability.
Scripture calls us to a different path. Proverbs 12:18 has two parts. The first reads, “Reckless words pierce like a sword.” The angry letter – the one that explodes from the magma chamber of our unfiltered emotions – can kill. We can crush someone’s hope or steal someone’s confidence. A flash of rage can destroy another.
But there’s a second part to the proverb. Reckless words may pierce like a sword, “but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” Your words can heal. You can restore someone’s confidence. You can reassure another that it’s good they are in the world, even if you happen to disagree with them.
It’s worth mastering the discipline of the unsent letter. The second communication – the one that comes after we have stepped back, regathered our thoughts, and asked God for a fresh supply of grace and wisdom – can accomplish something remarkable. It can offer hope for a better tomorrow.
Rev Dr William Lewis