Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all (Romans 12:17-18, NRSV).
I don’t know about you, but I am already tired of the political campaign season and the negative ads, commentary, and unhealthy discourse that come along with it. It really is a shame that election campaigns need to be run in such a negative fashion.
But to be fair, political ad writers aren’t the only ones contributing to the problem of unhealthy speech in our society. A significant part of the problem is the ease and availability of instant communication. Many of us enjoy this technology, having either reconnected with old friends or remaining connected with new ones thanks to text messaging, Facebook, email, and blogs. The difficulty with these forms of communication is that they make it very easy for us to comment without thinking. We can be sorely tempted to make a quick comment before we’ve had time to consider what we’re saying (whether our comments are both true and necessary) or the effect it will have on the other person (how our comments will be received, and if it is our place to say them).
Whether we like it or not, we are all part of the problem. We are frustrated by unhealthy communication, and we sometimes communicate in unhealthy ways.
Please don’t read over this point too quickly on your way to the sports page. It is an important spiritual matter. How is your speech these days? What about the thoughts that you have when someone angers you? When the driver ahead of you doesn’t go when the light turns green, what do you think, say, or gesture? When a coworker sends you an unkind email, how long do you wait before you reply? When a neighbor criticizes your favorite political candidate (or party), how do you respond?
The New Testament gives us a great deal of help in the spiritual formation of our speech. In Matthew 5:21-26, Jesus describes the effect angry words have on our soul. In verse 22, he says that “if you say, ‘You fool,’ [to your brother or sister in anger] you will be liable to the hell of fire.” Now, calling someone a “fool” isn’t the most hurtful thing one of us could say to another. But in Jesus’ day, it was. The Aramaic word (the language Jesus spoke) which is translated “fool” is “raca.” To pronounce “raca” correctly, it almost requires you to gather up phlegm in the back of your throat as if you are going to spit on the person you are insulting. Even in our day, it’s difficult to imagine being more insulting than this. This is such an insult that Jesus says our souls are in peril for the action. Have you ever found yourself at this point in your anger toward another person?
So what is a person to do in light of the culture in which we live, a culture which does not encourage us in our speech patterns? Consider again the verses from Romans 12 at the beginning of the article. An amazing quality of these verses is that they allow us to make a positive contribution of faith to the negative discourse of our society. We need not be victims of someone else’s unkind actions! We do have a faith-filled response.
So, the next time someone really makes you angry consider the following options (and add your own to the list. There are many more that could be added!)
1. If the unkind words come through email, Facebook, or a text message, don’t respond right away. Wait 24 hours if you can. This gives you time to think, and time to pray.
2. Consider the circumstances of the other person. Is the angry response typical of them, or is it somehow out of character? If the angry words are typical, that will suggest one kind of response. But if the anger is out of character, ponder that for a while. What’s going on?
3. If you do need to confront the person for their words, actions, or tone, how will you do so? If you think “getting even” is the best response, remember one thing: perhaps the worst part of getting even is that if you succeed, you will now be on their level. Is that where you want Jesus to find you?
A few weeks ago, I received a rather harsh email. Part of what made the email frustrating was that some of it was based on inaccurate information. Thankfully, I was out of town when I received the email, and not in a position to respond. Before I could respond, however, the person caught their inaccurate information and sent me a letter of apology. Their original concern remained, but it was much easier to respond to the concern after they had apologized for their misinformation. I consider this experience a true blessing from God, and look forward to a better relationship with a brother in Christ. May you find the same blessing in your own life, through the positive contributions of faith you offer to those around you.
Tim Harvey is the senior pastor at Central Church of the Brethren. Visit them on the web at centralbrethren.org