1 Timothy 1:15-17
I was with several members of my very large family this summer when one person criticized individuals who dress in a certain way. A chorus of groans rose up as one after another proclaimed the indecency or idiocy of "those people". I was tempted to jump right in, knowing the fun of participating and finding myself already entertained as examples flowed (sometimes with a tinge of exaggeration for effect). Besides, I had lively stories of my own to tell. But before I spoke, I sat back and listened. How judgmental we sounded!
Jesus says, "From the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks." Were the things coming out of our mouths reflections of the good stored in our hearts? Were people who dressed in a style we didn’t understand really bad people? Was it right to find entertainment value in denigrating them? I shuddered, took a deep breath, and said something positive about a person I knew who dressed that way. Several people snapped their heads around to look at me, someone made another comment, and then the topic moved on to other things. I don’t know that I changed the minds or attitudes of any of my family members, but at least I stopped the stream of nastiness in its tracks.
Not long afterwards, I read a book whose author suggested a practice of saying things ONLY if they meet three criteria – true, kind, and helpful. At times, of course, a bit of information may be unkind, yet absolutely necessary to convey – for instance to aid the police, report child abuse, correct injustice, etc. But those instances make up an infinitesimal portion of daily conversation. The author’s point is to be mindful of my everyday speech and habit patterns, especially when I am tempted to indulge in conversations that are not quite true, or that are unkind or unhelpful in the present context. With the taste of the family conversation in my mouth and Jesus’ words in my mind, I decided to adopt that practice immediately. I was not prepared for how hard it is!
Some things I want to say cannot be verified as true. If there is any doubt, I try not to say them. Some things are indeed true and I know it, but if they are not kind (or at least neutral), I try not to say them. Still others are true but they are not helpful – saying them would serve no purpose beyond feeding my desire to possess a "juicy" bit of news or to make a point at someone else’s expense – so I try not to say them. This practice is particularly difficult when discussing politics, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, parish leadership, pop music, business colleagues…oh heck…it is particularly difficult in most of the contexts of my life.
Even in my struggle to implement this principle, I’ve noticed the benefit of its reciprocal effect. The more I pause to tap into the goodness of God in my heart before speaking, the more true, kind, and helpful my speech. The more true, kind, and helpful my speech, the more the goodness of God can grow in my heart. And when I stop judging and criticizing people, I am open to the goodness of God reflected in them.
Yet at the same time I relate all too well to St. Paul when he says he is the foremost of sinners and Christ has to practice tremendous mercy with him. And I fit too easily into the parable Jesus tells about the person who hears his words but does not do them. I have been so deeply socialized into un-Christ-like habit patterns of speech.
So relying on divine mercy and forgiveness, I keep trying. I pray I may be a tree that bears good fruit and a disciple whose actions and words shine as examples of God’s goodness.
Amy Florian is a teacher and consultant working in Chicago. For many years she has partnered with the Passionists. Visit Amy’s website: http://www.amyflorian.com/.