How to Put Out a Dumpster Fire

A dumpster fire is like porn: it’s hard to define but you know it when you see it.

Fortunately, Merriam-Webster is here to help. Its lexicographers added the term to the dictionary this year:

Dumpster fire (noun, US informal): “an utterly calamitous or mismanaged situation or occurrence: disaster.”

Depending on who you follow on Twitter, you may not have needed anyone to define it for you. Dumpster fires spread like wildfire through social networks. Whether it’s your beloved sports team’s abysmal season, another campaign nightmare, or a public official’s latest gaffe, you’ve surely witnessed a dumpster fire burning across your social media feeds. This is true even of “Christian Twitter,” where it’s not uncommon to see prominent figures sparring over a blog post or deleted tweet.

If Christians want to present a winsome gospel in this cultural moment (and I hope we do), we can’t get bogged down in the muck and mire. We have to find another way to engage the public square and bring the love of Christ to our neighbors. Fortunately, the book of Proverbs is full of countercultural wisdom for putting out dumpster fires.

Stop Heaping Trash

Everyone’s first reaction to hearing about a dumpster fire is to add their take. Fires need fuel to burn, and all too often, we’re happy to provide the fuel. Our negative reactions and hot-takes might seem clever, but all they’re really doing is heaping trash on already flaming dumpsters. Is this not what social media and infotainment sound like today?

The only way out of a world of dumpster fires is to stop fueling them. Proverbs 26:20 says, “For lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, quarreling ceases.”

John Stonestreet, when asked about the negative tone of public discourse in a recent Q&A, said, “Our ability to not escalate our emotions even when our opponents are is going to be the only way we can really obey Jesus in a cultural moment where our views have gone from being considered wrong or outdated to being considered wrong and evil” (emphasis mine).

If Christians choose not to add opinions and retweets to arguments that are clearly going nowhere, the quarreling would cease, at least in our spheres of influence. But as it is now, we are too often drawn into dumpster fires and come out looking just as foolish as everyone else. Proverbs 26:4 tells us, “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.” The more we answer a fool (especially online), the more foolish we become, and the more foolish we make the Church look.

The best way to extinguish a dumpster fire is to stop feeding it. After all, “If a wise man has an argument with a fool, the fool only rages and laughs, and there is no quiet” (Prov. 29:9). And it’s only in the quiet that we can learn to read the signs of the times. It might feel good at the moment to vent your anger, but as millions of deleted tweets testify, you’ll regret broadcasting those unguarded thoughts soon enough. “A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back” (Prov. 29:11).

The reality is, the more we talk or type, the more we sin. There’s wisdom in keeping quiet at the right times. “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent”  (Prov. 10:19). Stop heaping trash on dumpster fires. Quietly hold back whatever you feel compelled to say. Wait 24 hours and ask yourself if it’s still worth it.

Be Slow to Anger

It would be great if we learned to stop stoking dumpster fires, but the real issue is in our quick-to-anger hearts. James writes, “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” (Jas. 1:19-20). The calamity of a situation dubbed a dumpster fire beckons us to be quick to anger, quick to speak, and slow to listen—the opposite of James’ command.

Christians’ refusal to heed the Holy Spirit’s instruction in James puts our folly on display. Proverbs 14:29 says, “Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly.” When we jump into a dumpster fire, we show a lack of understanding.

But when we control our emotions and exercise self-control, we demonstrate good sense. “Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense” (Prov. 19:11). It’s good sense to be slow to anger. Those who are slow to anger guard themselves from saying something they’ll regret, and, for Christians, they guard the witness and integrity of the church they represent.

Believer, be slow to anger. Not only does this reflect the character of God (see Ex. 34:6), but it makes good sense. What a witness it would be to have churches filled with men and women who gave measured responses and weren’t driven and tossed by the cultural winds.

Give a Soft Answer

There are times when a response to a dumpster fire is called for, times where conscience or faith compels a reply. In these times, believers can dampen the flames with a gracious word. Proverbs 15:1 counsels, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”

Before Gideon led Israel into battle with Midian, God whittled down Israel’s army to just 300 men so it would be clear that God won the battle. The men of Ephraim confronted Gideon afterwards, demanding he explain why he hadn’t called them into battle. Gideon thought quickly and gave a soft reply: “What have I accomplished compared to you? Aren’t even the leftover grapes of Ephraim’s harvest better than the entire crop of my little clan … ? God gave you victory over Oreb and Zeeb, the commanders of the Midianite army. What have I accomplished compared to that?” (Judg. 8:2-3). The Ephraimites’ response? “Then their anger against [Gideon] subsided when he said this” (Judg. 8:3).

Our words can bring peace or pain. This was highlighted by a recent Washington Post article on Kristen Waggoner, the public face of Alliance Defending Freedom, the nonprofit behind high-profile religious liberty cases like Masterpiece Cakeshop. The author doesn’t appear to share Waggoner’s views, but she can’t help but be taken by Waggoner’s joy:

“Waggoner answers all questions about her work, even on the most contentious of issues, with a smile. Her colleagues say she is always, always smiling. Her incessant pleasantness can come off as strategic, a way of dismantling those trying to paint her as cruel or intolerant. She says joy is just the mark of a person of faith.”

Wouldn’t it be great if Christians—if you—were marked by “incessant pleasantness” instead of backbiting and infighting?

Standing Out in a World Gone Mad

In a world gone mad, Christians have an opportunity to stand out in a good way. Instead of adding fuel to the dumpster fires around us, we can douse the flames with the grace of Christ.

There will never be a shortage of calamities and mismanaged situations. But if we stop heaping trash on dumpster fires, start being slow to anger, and learn to give a soft answer, we can put the grace of Jesus on display and show the world that there’s a better way to have a conversation—one that doesn’t involve shouting louder and louder.