Sometimes, I think that hole in the front of my face is my own worst enemy.
The Book of Proverbs contains repeated warnings about controlling our tongues, watching what we say, and making sure everything that comes out of our mouths is wholesome and edifying.
Our speech doesn't necessarily have to always be pretty, or flowery, or bright, or soothing, does it? But it does need to be truthful, beneficial, and loving. All three, all the time.
Sometimes "truthful" and "loving" cancel each other out, don't they, and we end up not really talking much about a particular subject, even if we think our comments might be beneficial. At least to our audience!
I'm Not Sick! (At least, not physically)
One morning several years ago, during my devotions before going off to work, the Lord struck me with how unloving and careless my talk had been recently in the office. So I decided to try and put into practice the old adage, "if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all." That afternoon, I overheard a couple of my co-workers commiserating about my health, wondering if I was under the weather, since I had said almost nothing that day!
Fact was, every time I'd gone to open my mouth, I'd realized that what I was about to say wasn't nice, so I'd ended up not talking much at all! When I informed my co-workers that physically, I was fine - I was just trying to watch my mouth - we all had a good laugh, realizing how much all of us contribute to the negative vibes at work when we complain more than we encourage as we talk.
But even when I do things like explaining my silence to my co-workers, I risk offending others, because our world - both at work and at church - isn't geared for gentle admonishments about sinful behavior.
Can't Reel it Back In
I was reminded of that unfortunate reality this past Friday evening at a casual dinner party with church friends. As five or six of us were chatting about people in our denomination, I blurted out a blatantly unloving opinion about somebody I hardly know, and was immediately chastised - both by a dinner companion, and my own conscience.
Why had I said that? My opinion lent nothing to the conversation, didn't encourage anybody, and maligned a fellow believer in Christ for no reason whatsoever.
I shut up - painfully aware through both the corrections of my friend and my own conscience - that I was out of line, but my silence was misinterpreted as lack of ammunition to defend my position. Which, granted, I didn't have, either. The conversation wobbled along for a couple more comments until lurching to a stop.
Yet I felt compelled to continue my silence, partly out of sheer embarrassment, but also because for some odd reason, it seemed if I apologized to the group, I would be sounding sanctimonious. Holier-than-thou. And rubbing their own noses in sin. After all, my unholy outburst merely followed a sequence of other gossip-tinged comments from other people, even though theirs were not nearly as uninformed and malicious as mine.
Which begs the question, incidentally: if what you're talking about is chock-full of facts and communicated in an unemotional tone, when does it become gossip?
Awkwardly, the conversation switched to something else entirely, and for all practical purposes, I was off the hook.
But was I? Although I felt as though I should have brought closure to my sin by apologizing for it, doing so seemed as though it would invite more consternation from my friends than genuine forgiveness. Plus, I rationalized, I didn't want to draw any more attention to what I'd said.
After all, none of us is innocent when it comes to talking our way into sin. It's just that some of us commit that sin more frequently and boldly than others, and socially, it's become relatively acceptable.
But my purpose, now as then, is not to confess any sins my friends may have committed, nor rebuke them for not doing that themselves.
Indeed, the very environment which inhibited me - however uncharitably, or conveniently - from blurting out my confession Friday night does, in fact, likely exist at other times when I'm part of the group of people observing somebody else's blatant sin behavior. No doubt there are times when I'm one of the people who inhibits the proper response from somebody who gets convicted of something they've done. Which, yes, I know it's hard for you to believe, but I'm not always a verbally rambunctious, unloving boor in public. Sometimes I'm the observer of bad behavior, not the perpetrator.
Which all combined, makes for that unhealthy social phenomenon I'll call suppression of confession and guilt.
Suppression of Confession
The suppression of confession and guilt has woven itself in the fabric of evangelical community because we often are fully aware of the sins we commit, yet we've heard so much teaching about spiritual modesty that it sounds like heresy when we actually call ourselves out on a particular sin that we ourselves commit. It's somewhere between bad interpretations of boasting in our weaknesses and trying to extract the log in our own eye while, at the same time, hoping other guilty people see the littler logs in their own eyes. And we all end up in some big confession-fest.
Which probably wouldn't be a bad idea, sometimes, particularly in communities of faith that have gotten woefully bogged-down in anti-social behaviors like false modesty, gossip, slander, judgmentalism, and - horrors! - legalism.
And perhaps this phenomenon is more acute here in the south, where social etiquette probably remains more prevalent than in, say, New York City, where people are more blunt and ambivalent towards austere aspects of group protocol.
But my question is this: at what point should we just freeze in our tracks when we realize we've said something sinful, and just let it wither and die on the flagpole of group disdain? If the conversation takes a twist and leaves us behind at the crossroads of our indiscretion, should we voluntarily dredge up the topic again when those who've heard our sin have mentally "forgiven" us already and moved on?
Or am I the only person to whom these things happen? Is it because I stick my foot in my mouth so many times, I've trained myself to try and close the proverbial barn door after the horse has bolted?
Either way, it's not so much my friends' duty to shake a confession out of me at my every verbal sin, as it is perhaps to come up alongside me in private and encourage me to rectify the situation, in whatever appropriate form that might take, based on the circumstance.
That's all well and good for me to expect that from my friends, but how much of that is a big cop-out on my part? And how often do I perform that service to them? When it's their time in the foot-in-mouth barn?
Yeah, well... maybe my lack of integrity in this area comes from my own aversion to practicing what I preach.
Perhaps this is one of those reasons why suppression of confession is so rampant in North American evangelicalism these days. Not an excuse, but a reason.
Those are times when instead of shutting my oral orifice, I should practice using it in a truthful, beneficial, and loving way.
After all, if your language is seasoned rightly, people might actually be glad when you have a big mouth.