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 (Manna 22: Indifferent Neighbors)
When Words Hurt
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Case 1

Jane was a warm, friendly and sociable youth. She was actively involved in church work, including teaching religious education classes. Very sadly, something unpleasant happened in her private life which involved a few church members as well. Soon after, she began to complain that gossip about her was going around in church. Long after the event had passed, she continued to think others were talking about it. One day, she decided "enough was enough," that any further word would be the final straw. Today, she no longer comes to church.

Case 2

Although Jack and Joe were never the best of friends, they had never had a serious quarrel with each other after all these years together in church. On one occasion, Jack said something, intending it as a joke. Joe, however, did not see it that way, and a great misunderstanding ensued. Later, they talked the matter over and came to a reconciliation, but their relationship was now strained. Both felt they had better talk less to each other for fear of any future misunderstanding.

The Power of the Tongue

The tongue is a small member of the body, yet it boasts great things (Gal 3:5). The cases of Jane, Jack, and Joe are evidence of the deadly power of the tongue. Their experiences are not exclusive; we all have witnessed similar situations, even if were were not personally involved.

The lesson to learn, of course, is we have to bridle our tongues. With our tongues, we can edify and bring comfort and joy. With our tongues, we can also hurt feelings, strain relationships, and cause our brethren to stumble. While we should emphasize learning to tame our tongues, we should not forget the other issue at hand: how we respond to the words of others.

What do we do when we fall victim to gossip, rumors, careless utterances, or unfair remarks? Anger, disappointment, and hurt are understandable initial reactions (Prov 15:4). Before these feelings develop into bitter, disturbing ruminations which then affect our walk with God and our relationship with our brethren, perhaps we can consider the following points.

Learn to Forgive

No one enjoys hearing others speak ill of you. If it comes from church brethren, it is even harder to swallow. To think that such things happen even in the true church! He knows the words of God, yet he gossips! These are common responses. So we are hurt and disappointed. Forgiving is not that easy a task after all.

Solomon thus advises: "Do not take to heart everything people say, lest you hear your servant cursing at you. For many times, also, your own heart has known that even you have cursed others" (Eccl 7:21-22). We may have been a victim of unkind words. But is the other party not also a victim—a victim of spiritual weakness? Have we not also lapsed into similar weakness before, hurting others? Since we ourselves are fallible to such a weakness, we should not hold a grudge against others for it. Peter asked the Lord Jesus how many times one should forgive an offending brother. Jesus replied, "I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven" (Mt 18:21-22). One of the most beautiful Christian virtues is the ability to accommodate others' weaknesses when we are hurt and to forgive the very people who hurt us (Acts 7:57-60; Col 3:13).

Allow for Misunderstandings

The church is a complex organization, composed of members of different age groups, social and educational backgrounds, character types, and experiences. As a result, divided opinions are almost inevitable. As the proverb goes, "All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes" (Prov 16:2); one same incident can mean different things to different individuals. Hence, when others are seemingly "spreading" false information, it could be a case of misunderstanding. It need not be influential rumor mongering or gossiping. Hannah prayed with great earnestness and a contrite spirit for a child. This exemplary act of prayer was misunderstood by the priest, Eli, as drunkenness (1 Sam 1:10-14)!

It is distressing to hear of false tales about ourselves. But if we allow others the benefit of the doubt, we will see that the situation is not as bad as we make it to be. Moreover, what really matters is how God sees us. Others may have misunderstood us, but their views and words will not change the way God looks at us. God sees the heart (1 Sam 16:7). So long as our conscience is clear before Him, we need not be overly disturbed (Acts 24:16). What we can do before the misunderstanding clears is to entrust and wait for the Lord to act (Ps 37:7). God will grant us the peace and serenity much needed at such a time (Phil 4:6-7).

Don't Be Over-sensitive

The Chinese have a saying that the speaker speaks in innocence but the listener puts in his own meaning. It is human nature to be especially sensitive to any utterance that involve our names. Much as we hate to admit it, the fact remains that we often add our own meanings to the speaker's words. More often than not, we are inclined to take comments too personally. When David gained victory over the Philistines after he killed Goliath, the Israelite women rejoiced with singing and dancing, saying, "Saul has slain his thousands and David his ten thousands." This is plainly an innocent remark, but how did Saul react? He was angry and displeased, paranoid that his kingdom was at stake (1 Sam 18:6-9). From then on, Saul began to fall from grace. It was not the words of the women but the way he reacted that contributed to his ultimate decline.

Remember the Love of Christ

On a final note, let us consider what Paul says: "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril or sword? ... I am persuaded that neither death, nor life...nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom 8:35-39). In the course of his walk with God, Paul faced not only physical sufferings for the sake of the gospel, he was also misunderstood by believers and tasted the pain that words can cause (1 Cor 4:3-4; 1 Tim 4:14-16). On no occasion did he ever contemplate leaving God. Neither did he harbor thoughts of bitterness. Instead, he went on to offer us many teachings about love, forgiveness, and church unity.

For our salvation, Jesus gave His life. If we should take our spiritual life so lightly as to allow mere words to jeopardize it, we would have received His grace in vain. May God help us to be constantly conscious of the potential damage our tongue can produce so that we may bridle out tongue, as well as respond rightly to the words we hear.

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Author: Lim Siok Hong