I recently learned that a supposed friend has spoken belittlingly of me for over two years. It wasn’t too much of a surprise, because in my presence he habitually spoke disparagingly of others, particularly their faith journeys. I chided him when he treated our friends like wayward children, stressing his need to focus on his own walk. Often it engendered anger, though occasionally he gave grudging acquiescence. To discover I was also victim of his back-biting merited only an eyeroll, because I’m confident in who I am and what spiritual gifts I possess.
But I also learned just how broad a swath of damage this charismatic, persuasive speaker has wrought with his selfish words and actions. Tender, gifted people have suffered greatly, losing belief in themselves and in their relationship with the divine. Thankfully, many are now coming to me and/or others for encouraging conversation and Holy Listening, to recenter and heal. Still, I am angry and heartsick at their pain.
In general, I am loathe to use the words ‘sin’ and ‘evil’ in spiritual conversations because they’re loaded weapons many people pop out when they feel uncomfortable with opinions and actions that differ from theirs. I struggle with the concepts of sin and evil. I have no problem accepting good in the world: in celebrating love, courage, and greatness of spirit. I understand error, poor judgment, and bad choices. But deliberate manipulation, words chosen to wound and slander, go beyond the scope of ‘error’, even for me. This false friend’s actions and words are sinful, even evil.
What do we do when someone in our midst hurts others so grievously? What is the appropriate response? We are taught in Christian scripture to confront our offending brother, to offer the chance for reconciliation. We are further challenged to meet with the offender in a group if our first entreaty fails, and offer yet another chance for apology and pardon. But what is our loving course of action when prior attempts to reprove have only resulted in new verbal attack? Are we obligated to this damaging circular pattern, when there is virtually no chance that the offender will repent?
Furthermore, this scenario is black and white, forcing us to choose either unsafe reconciliation or rightous retribution. If they refuse to repent, we can either allow the offender to remain in the fold as though nothing has happened or we can publicly chastise. Both have damaging repercussions. Do we have another option?
I believe that sometimes the best choice is a third choice: walk away. Refusing to engage is not shameful retreat. We do not exhibit love when we tolerate a manipulative person, because our continued friendship gives implied consent to his behavior, which is as damaging to his spirit as it is to those around him. Furthermore, by allowing such people continued admission to our lives, we also give them access to those we love, shelter and protect. Finally, there is nothing noble about holding ourselves in harm’s way; we cannot protect others if we do not protect ourselves.
After prayer and discussion amongst friends, it was concluded that for this person, reconciliation is not currently possible. He is not in a place to hear tough words offered in love, to see the damage he has caused, nor to participate in emotional and spiritual restitution. We cannot force him to face his transgressions. We can only distance ourselves and pray.
A final thought: words have power. Well-wielded, they have GREAT power, for good or for evil. We all need to be careful with our words.
Prayer: Spirit, let my words blossom in other’s hearts as hope, let their fragrance bring healing, not heartache. Let me guard my heart against selfishness, fear, and shame, because the verbal fruits of those spirits are poisonous. Help me to cultivate love, joy and trust, and to overflow with a nourishing spirit. Awen.