The name of a prominent person in our area came up, a person widely--and I think, fairly--regarded as being so self-centered that other people are seen as speed bumps on the way to personal aggrandizement. In this person's universe, others are either good friends or enemies, being so defined by whether the others stand in this person's way or not. My friend and I discussed this person's latest elbow to the chops of "an enemy."
That was fine, I think. But then I crossed the line, sharing an unkind quip made by another acquaintance about this person. My friend smiled, but said, "That's evil."
"What?" I asked in mock offense. "I'm only repeating what I heard."
My friend's good natured response was that just because I heard a thing didn't mean I needed to repeat it.
While my friend didn't mean for her comment to pack a wallop and in fact, was later surprised that I'd thought any more about it, it did. As far as I'm concerned, it was a message from God.
One of the commandments given by God to the human race through Moses on Mount Sinai says, "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor." We Lutherans reckon this as the Eighth Commandment and in his masterful little document, The Small Catechism, Martin Luther writes:
We are to fear and love God so that we do not betray, slander, or lie about our neighbor, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain his actions in the kindest way.Luther shows us that there is more than a "thou shalt not" in this command, there is also a "thou shalt." Thou shalt either try to see the positive attributes in the person with enemy's lists and who sees others either as impediments or supporting actors in the pursuit of their ambitions or keep thy trap shut.
Does God therefore want us to be pollyannas who never say a mumbling word of complaint or opposition when we encounter behaviors or opinions we find objectionable? Hardly!
But he does call us to the following:
(1) When we've got a complaint against someone, we're to talk it over with God and then talk it over with the person with whom we've got the beef. You talk it over with God because after you've prayed for someone, it's hard to maintain irrational rage. God also has a way of helping us to actually love the people for whom we pray. We talk to the person with whom we're aggrieved because they're the only ones who can change the behaviors that have offended us, not some third party. (Matthew 18:15-20)
(2) When you do confront someone for an offense, do so with an attitude of love. (Ephesians 4:15)
(3) When in doubt about whether to speak about someone behind their backs, don't. Remember the destructive power of words. (James 3)
(4) Of course, only followers of Jesus Christ have a handy, compelling answer to the question, "Why bother with doing points 1, 2, and 3 above?" Through their faith in Christ, they're the beneficiaries of fantastic gifts from God. They're freed from the power of sin and death over their lives because their sins are forgiven. So, forgiven themselves, they have the freedom from bitterness that results. They have the power to resist grudge-holding, can forgive as they've been forgiven, and move on productively with their lives. We also know that witholding our forgiveness from others blocks God's forgiveness for us. (Matthew 6:14-15)
When we consider how much God forgives us--every sinful thought or action we've undertaken is worthy of a death sentence, our gratitude will lead us to want to forgive others and not rail against them.
The day after I chatted with my friend, I dashed off an email to her. I said, "You know, you were right. I was out of line in what I said and I hope that you won't extend the life of my sin by passing on any of my foolish words. Thanks for calling me to the carpet for it."
Confession is a good thing. It lets God's forgiveness flood into our lives and that clears the chaff from our lives, allowing God's love and power for living to have fuller sway in our lives.