June 2019

June 2019

Basic Christianity:

Speak Well of Your Neighbor

“If you can’t say somethin’ nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.” I’ll always remember the rabbit Thumper saying those words in the movie Bambi. They were taught to him by his father and enforced by his mother. In the movie, the words applied to the greens that Thumper didn’t want to eat, but they apply even better to our relationships with other people. If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.

How often do we put that into practice? I had a miserable time throughout grade school because we children were so mean to each other. It almost seemed if we only said something when we had not nice things to say. My classmates constantly made fun of me, and when someone even more awkward and out of place than I entered our class, I joined in making fun of him (God forgive me). The only way we knew how to build ourselves up in our little community was by tearing each other down in the presence of others. It got somewhat better in high school, but something more insidious became part of the picture: instead of making fun of each other directly, we would do it behind others’ backs.

And that’s how it’s been in every community I’ve ever been a part of since. Whether college, seminary, workplaces, or any of the churches with which I’ve been connected, any time you gather a group of people together, there is no lack of speaking ill of others behind their backs. I’ve done it too, to my shame.

Brethren, these things ought not to be so. We ought to speak well of one another whenever we have opportunity, and avoid speaking ill of others whenever possible. That’s part of basic Christianity.

Remember what we say about this in the Catechism? “We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, nor defame our neighbor, but defend him, speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.” That’s Luther’s explanation of the Eighth Commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” I consider these some of the loveliest words in the Catechism. Far from stirring up others’ sentiments against our neighbor, we should defend him and speak well of him!

This is a thoroughly biblical principle. St. Paul often encourages us to build one another up with our speech, particularly in Ephesians: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you have been sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice” (Ephesians 4:29–31). And St. James warns strongly and extensively against the misuse of the tongue to harm the neighbor: “The tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness…. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so” (James 3:6, 9–10). James says further, “Do not speak evil against one another, brethren” (James 4:11).

This is much easier said than done. It’s easy to dismiss harmful speech against my neighbor as just “venting,” as “getting it off my chest.” True, there are sometimes legitimate reasons for speaking honestly about another person’s failings. Maybe that person has caused you extreme stress and you really do need to commiserate with others in private. Maybe you need to warn others against someone else’s sinful behavior. Maybe you need to seek the counsel of wiser brethren in dealing with a problematic individual. But if that becomes necessary, it should be done prayerfully, with a good conscience, and in a spirit of charity and genuine helpfulness toward the person of whom we’re speaking. Taking pleasure in speaking ill of another person just to tear him down in the sight of others is far, far from the Spirit of Christ.

I honestly believe this is the hardest of the commandments to keep, harder even than the Sixth. And someone who struggles with issues of chastity under the Sixth Commandment seems to me less far from the Kingdom of Heaven than someone who claims to love Jesus but constantly delights in tearing down his neighbor. “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Or even better, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).

Speak well of your neighbor. That’s basic Christianity.

God's Blessings,

Pastor Neuendorf