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On Talking about Others
Last weekend my local association of churches hosted our first ever Go Global event. Five of International Missions’ best folks came and spent some wonderful time with us. Praise God!
What Happened to So-and-So?
How many awkward conversations have you been a part of lately?
Sometimes we find ourselves in a conversation about someone we know, perhaps barely know. Their name comes up. Suddenly we and the person with whom we’re speaking are transported into a long story about something unsavory that person did or said. Perhaps they didn’t do it or say it, but the story concerns something that happened to them.
Think of all the sensitive subjects that may surface:
-Someone’s spouse committed adultery.
-Someone’s adult child lost their job.
-Someone’s neighbor was arrested.
-Someone’s cousin was in an automobile accident they caused.
It’s not difficult to summon to mind a conversation involving such a scenario. These and similar occurrences are too common for comfort.
The frequency of these conversations owes to a few factors. First, our world is filled with brokenness. People sin, and people are sinned against. Even when a sin has a mundane quality to it—maybe a speeding ticket—we all still place it in the “negative column” of life.
A second reason why these conversations arise is because we are prone to gossip. Scripture wouldn’t warn against gossip—and its more pernicious cousin slander—were it not a temptation. The more we’re aware of the more fodder we have to feed these sins.
A final, more innocent reason why we’re often having such conversations is because we're people who inhabit an ecosystem of relationships. We rub shoulders with others all the time. We accumulate a mental rolodex. (Remember those?) We grow a mental inventory of ongoing situations, including people’s choices and experiences. Those choices and experiences end up comprising some of our daily conversations.
Was That Wrong?
Referring to a troubling incident or choice inevitably comes up in the course of interpersonal communication. It’s part of the fabric of social life. It’s inconceivable that we could move through an entire day or week without making reference to something negative involving someone else.
Why is it that we can’t seem to help ourselves from talking about others? I have no doubt that some of it is rooted in a lack of compassion and humility. These two virtues seem to contribute the most toward avoiding gossip and uncharitable speech. When we lack compassion, we’re much more willing to speak of other people’s lives in ways that lack understanding and sensitivity. We lack the perspective which says, “I would never want someone else to speak about me in this way, even if I didn’t necessarily do anything wrong.” Compassion helps us imagine the way others may feel.
Relatedly, humility says that we’re neither better nor worse than anyone else. Our cares and concerns—including the desire for a juicy conversation—aren’t so noble as to warrant using their life as raw material. Properly humbling ourselves causes us to be slow to speak.
Yet I must say that I think that gossip and a lack of virtue aren’t the only dynamics at work in our conversations.
We want to understand people. So, we ask questions. When we’re surprised a bit we say, “Oh really? You’re kidding?” And I have no doubt that we actually mean that. We’re genuinely surprised and/or moved by what we’re learning. We may just have our hearts broken for the problems of others, even if they’re largely or entirely self-inflicted.
Frankly, it’s awkward when someone’s voice trails off in a conversation after beginning to share what sounds like something serious. We expect them to deliver the goods once they begin talking. If they stop, we feel disappointed, left out in the cold. Don’t they think they can trust me with this? I wonder what really happened. I wonder what’s actually going on.
I find myself in these types of conversations often. Pastors are constantly interacting with people. If you work outside your church (as I occasionally do), that adds to the picture. If you’re generally involved in your community as I am, you feel like you’re always talking to or listening to someone—and they have things to share.
On the other hand, I am not on social media. Therefore, people feel they must let me know what they heard or saw online. Some of this annoys me, but when it concerns people I know—especially friends, relatives, or old college classmates—I find myself leaning in a bit. I want to know what happened.
In summary, I don’t think our desire to know or even willingness to engage in conversations about other people’s lives are inherently a form of gossip. They can easily become that. But I want to carve out some space for those conversations because they do involve a subject we ought to be vested in: people.
People do things. People have things happen to them. Thus, we end up hearing much about others, and sometimes, saying much about them. And we listen.
My intent isn’t to provide cover for those especially prone to gossip. Too often people of faith are the worst in terms of easy rationalizations for their sin. We think, “How could I ever pray for them properly if I don’t know the full story?” Of course, under that standard everyone would have to tell everyone, everything, all the time. It’s completely unrealistic, and probably dangerous, too.
My intent, however, is to offer some possible questions that will safeguard our conversations.
First, what’s our motivation? This turns out to be much harder than it even sounds. We may have a stated motivation, but when we go deeper we find the story is quite a bit different. Do I really want to know this so I can pray better for them? Fine. If we all checked back on your praying a week from now, would we be able to see that you really fasted and prayed regularly and earnestly over every aspect of this person’s situation? Likely not. We need to start with and be honest with our “why.”
Second, who’s present? Sometimes it’s completely sensible for two people to discuss a mutual friend’s woes. Some type of friendly intervention may be warranted. Awareness and reflection by good friends could engender that intervention. However, if interlopers are within earshot, would it not be best to keep the conversation more discreet, or even wait until they are absent?
Third, what’s the level of public awareness of the situation? Has the individual in question posted about it on social media, in the form of an announcement of sorts? Have they spoken openly in a public context about it? Maybe they've even written a blog post or article about some of what they’ve experienced. I think most Christians—ethicists or not—would conclude that the circumstance is now fair game for discussion and debate (in line with Scriptural principles of course). The individual has effectively induced others to form a judgment—though not to be judgmental—about the issue at hand.
Fourth, what’s the proper response you should render in light of how you’re situated to the person? If you learn that a neighbor down the street had a home fire, I dare say most Christians would sense an obligation to act compassionately in response. The information, provided in a timely way, leads me unavoidably to that conclusion.
Hearing about a church member’s cousin’s brother-in-law may lead me to pray, though I will likely feel less of an obligation to hunt down a person removed that many degrees from me. Although, I certainly won’t assume that it was carelessness that led to the fire.
Cumulatively, what I am advocating for is two-fold: (1) a presumptive generosity toward others in difficult situations; and (2) something I’m calling “charitable and responsible generalities.” I know, I know. The latter doesn’t exactly roll of the tongue. But I see these two as having interlocking purposes. Let me briefly explain both.
Presumptive generosity means, very simply, that I will resist the urge to jump to the most negative conclusion or assessment of another person’s troubles. If I hear the guy down the street lost his job, I won’t immediately assume he was a bad employee. He may have been. Statistically, it may even be likely that he was. Yet I simply don’t know the entire story. Without more context, background, and concrete facts, I will presume the best.
This seems idealistic. Perhaps naïve. However, this seems to be the clearest application of the Golden Rule, that we might do unto others as we would have them do unto us (Lk. 6:31).
I don’t think this means we have to overlook warning signs when something is amiss with people’s character. I very much think that “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” can be applied judiciously by committed Christians. (Although, it must be said, it’s much more of an art than a science.) I’m not advocating that we put our heads in the sand. But presumptive generosity seems an appropriate initial, instinctual reaction when hearing of other people’s problems.
This is where “charitable and responsible generalities” come into play. Soon enough we’ll be in a situation where we will be asked about someone else’s “situation.” We will likely know more than the person asking the question. Most times, we will not have been explicitly asked to maintain confidentiality about a matter. How will we steward what we know about other people?
In applying the Golden Rule, we are showing restraint and discretion, charity and responsibility. I don’t think it’s necessary for us to shut down conversations immediately, though perhaps we may have to occasionally. I don’t that it’s necessary for us to say, “No comment.” I do think we ought to master the art of finding more general expressions that convey, “Something isn’t right. There have been some concerns. It’s a challenging situation.” Is that not sufficient to communicate that someone has erred, or someone is struggling, or something has happened to them? Is this not a way to be responsible with other people’s reputations?
In turn, the charitable and responsible person finds a way to be content himself with this information. They reason, “Sounds like I should pray about that. I should exercise some sensitivity when speaking to or about them. Maybe I shouldn’t say too much more until I know more, if ever I do learn more.”
This approach to interpersonal communications is far less satisfying than the current model where we toss around information casually about other people’s lives. But then again, how “satisfied” are we—or should we be—by making other people’s situations the focal point of our social experiments?
If we reorient our thought and talk in this area, I think we’ll find that the people and projects God wants His people to invest in most will come into fuller view. We’ll have too much to do for those closest to us that we’ll have little time to speculate about those farther off. And when we do hear of them or speak of them, we will be careful, measured, charitable, and responsible.
In my last newsletter I wrote about some valuable lessons I had learned about preaching over the last twenty years. I have recently enjoyed reading Phillip Jensen’s tips for young preachers. Jensen is conservative Australian Anglican who has been a wonderful example of faithful exposition. This advice is derived from The Archer and the Arrow, though the list was originally published in The Briefing in 2001. Check out his book for his helpful, contextual comments about each of these tips or points.
1-When you preach, be as good as you can.
2-Fledging preachers tend to be boring.
3-Work out how long you can preach for and still be interesting.
4-Know how to use commentaries.
5-Find the logic units of the book; don’t just preach on chapters or paragraphs.
6-Young preachers should start with bigger sections.
7-Expository preaching is worth fighting for (but a lot of other things are not).
What I’m Reading (or Rereading):
McKay Coppins, Romney: A Reckoning.
Miriam Grossman, Lost in Trans Nation: A Child Psychiatrist’s Guide Out of Madness.
Quote of the Week:
Faithfulness to the very words of God requires the humility to trust that what God says in his Scripture is more important for your congregation to hear than what they think they need to hear, and what you think they need to hear. It requires the humility to trust that explaining and expounding the Scriptures, the Scripture’s way, will be more valuable in changing lives from worse to better than to answer the questions that are on everybody’s lips.
Phillip Jensen, The Archer and the Arrow.
Common Grace Wisdom: On the Mental Health Crisis in Adolescents
Jonathan Haidt, Greg Lukianoff, Jean Twenge, and others in their orbit have been at the forefront of identifying, analyzing, and responding to some of the troubling trends with American youth and American education. Haidt and Lukianoff’s 2019 work is still essential reading, along with Twenge’s 2018 work. More recently, Twenge has published Generations. Haidt’s forthcoming title, Anxious Generation, promises to be a doozy.
In a recent article, Twenge responds to criticism of the hypothesis that the advent of the smartphone—loaded up with social media—is the principal culprit behind the rapid decline of mental health among adolescents. Here’s an excerpt from her recent, robust article:
Adolescents are in the midst of a mental health crisis. Teen depression doubled between 2011 and 2021, and 1 out of 3 teen girls in the U.S. has seriously considered suicide. U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has described adolescent mental health as “the crisis of our time.”
As a researcher focusing on large surveys, I first started to see these trends around 2012 or 2013 – more teens said they were lonely, didn’t enjoy life, and felt they couldn’t do anything right (see Figure 6.34 in Generations). When the increases kept going, I naturally wondered what might be causing them. At the time, these surveys were also showing large shifts in how teens spent their time outside of school: Teens were spending much more time online, much less time with friends in person, and less time sleeping. That’s not a good formula for mental health, so it seemed logical these changes might be related to the increase in depression.
Read further in this important post, “Here Are 13 Other Explanations for the Adolescent Mental Health Crisis. None of Them Work.”
On My Mind: The Chereaus
Our church hosted Jonathan Chereau this past weekend. He and his family are lovely young people who have been serving God in France. More recently, they’ve been continuing their education at Randall University in Moore, Oklahoma. They are worthy of your prayer and support!