If the communion of disciples, instructed by the Gospels and invigorated by the presence of the Risen Christ, is the seedbed of faith and sanctity, how we live together matters greatly. Every day by our words and actions we encourage others toward Christ (and grow ourselves in closeness), or we set up roadblocks to others and do damage to ourselves and to the holiness of the church. And what is the primary corrosive of life together in the church communion? Gossip. So, some rules for speaking constructively (and avoiding sin).
First, we owe it to one another to put the best construction on others’ speech and actions. Presume good will and virtue unless the contrary is proven.
Second, when correction seems necessary, ask a series of questions:
- Am I convinced what I am about to challenge or criticize is in fact what is going on?
- Have I given every possible latitude to the other person, presuming good will?
- Do I have the courage to speak directly to the person one-on-one? (Cases of potential violence are exceptions to this, as are situations where others are clearly in immediate danger.)
- Is what I am about to say meant for the growth toward holiness of the other person, rather than any satisfaction I might feel?
- Am I reasonably sure that no one else has brought this to the offender’s attention?
If the answer to any of these questions is “no” or “I don’t know,” it’s probably better to stay silent.
There’s a story from the tradition of the “Desert Fathers” (monks who lived in the wilderness in loose circles of a master with disciples) that applies here.
Once the monks became concerned about a brother who was inappropriately involved with one of the women of the nearby town. They went to the abbot, asking him to offer a word of correction to the offender. He replied, “I will not. For the same God who said, ‘Do not fornicate’ also said, ‘Do not judge.'”
A harder question is, What to do when someone attempts to share some juicy gossip with me? Again, as series of questions — this time to be asked directly to the speaker:
- “Have you told (the person about whom the gossip is being spread) about your concern?”
- (If yes): “Then there is no need to tell it to me as well.”
- (If no): “Would you like me to go with you so that you can tell (the person) about your concern?
- (If yes, go with the speaker to address the person, keeping in mind the above questions about whether this is legitimate.)
- (If no) “Will you give me permission to tell (the person) about your concern, using your name?”
Third: relationships, families, communities, and neighborhoods are built up by affirming what is good in people’s actions, rather than by criticism. Make it a habit to speak well of others, and to compliment them regularly to themselves and to praise them to others.
Some early commentary on the Gospels claimed that the mysterious “sin against the Holy Spirit” that cannot be forgiven is nothing other than — gossip. That’s no doubt an exaggeration, but in over forty years of ministry I can’t think of anything shy of the transfers of sexually-abusing priests that has done more damage to Christ’s church than the ill-chosen words and judgments in the everyday speech of too many churchgoers. How about a Lenten resolution to change that? Until next week, peace.