Toward the end of C.S. Lewis’ “The Horse and His Boy,” the main character, Shasta, is talking to Aslan, and asks him why he wounded Shasta’s friend Aravis.
“Child,” Aslan says, “I am telling you your story, not hers. I tell no one any story but his own.”
Lewis uses this as a storytelling tool so he can come back to Aravis’ story later, but there is something there that we should take note of, something we think we are entitled to know. We want to know why things happen and what other people are thinking. We want to be able to define other people and reduce them to their job, education level and political position. There is a perceived safety in being able to predict what another person will say, knowing where they stand on every topic and every detail of their lives, all without actually talking to them. The rise of social media in particular has fueled this problem, but it has always existed.
In the past, we called it gossip. Those whispers behind closed doors or, more likely today in texts and Facebook Messenger, can be devastating to even the closest community. I read an article recently titled “Ten Ways to Avoid Cliques in Your Church.” It had several good suggestions but missed the impact that talking about people has on a community. We can so easily build each other up while tearing someone else down, and we feel justified in our actions.
It is scary and hard to talk to someone in person about a problem you have with him or her. It is easier to talk to someone else and allow them to confirm your pain and anger, but this so often poisons our own hearts against each other. The person that hurt us is reduced to that single event, and we say things like “they should know what they did” or “they should apologize first.”
Sometimes we disguise our gossip under the veil of good will and “I’m just trying to help.” We have conversations with each other where we divulge the deepest secrets of others to each other and claim we are trying to figure out the best way to support them, or pray for them. This may be our true intention, but we often don’t take care to honor the person we are trying to help or consider how much they would want us to share.
In his book “Life Together,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer talks about the value of Christian community and in the last section gives examples of ministries we enter in the community of Christ. I was surprised the first time I read it to find that the first thing he talks about is “The Ministry of Holding One’s Tongue.” It had not occurred to me that this was one of the ways we minister to each other, but as ministers of reconciliation, I’ve come to realize that there’s enough to reconcile without the added poisoning of our hearts by gossip.
When we talk about each other, we define who a person is. We put them in a box in our mind and restrict their ability to impact us, serve us, or offer God’s love to us. They become in our minds distortions of who God says they are. We each bear the image of God, and it is God who defines that image, not us. When we cease to talk about each other, something wonderful happens. As Bonhoeffer puts it, “Strong and weak, wise and foolish, gifted or ungifted, pious or impious, the diverse individuals in the community, are no longer incentives for talking and judging and condemning, and thus excuses for self-justification. They are rather cause for rejoicing in one another and serving one another.”
We have to put aside our demand to know everything. We have to stop the conversations about each other and encourage one another to instead be willing to enter into the difficult conversations — the painful, hard conversations that lead to truth and reconciliation. We have to remember that we are made in the image of God and hold to that as the first thing in our minds. We are creatures defined by God’s love for us, and we can show that love and be ministers of reconciliation simply by holding our tongues.
Mark Crawford is the assistant editor of Light + Life. He resides in Tucson, Arizona.