Occasionally I’ve been criticized for being too passive.
This criticism is something of a spiritual win for me — or for the Lord on my behalf, at least.
Let’s say a person in the congregation I lead starts getting out of line, irritating others by assuming he’s more important to the kingdom than he really is, or by neglecting her duties as a deacon or a member of some committee.
And I do nothing. Nothing to fix it, I mean.
Instead, I smile and say, “Well, God love him, we’ll let the Lord work that out.” Or I say, “You know, maybe she’s having issues at home, or maybe her ulcers are flaring up again. I’ll say a prayer for her.”
This can irritate further those already irritated by the minor malefactor. Now they’re torqued up with me as well.
But even given that downside, often I consider this passivity a private triumph.
Because my natural, inborn, default mode is the opposite. My natural mode is to confront anyone and everyone at the least provocation. Errant church members. Surly relatives. Lazy store clerks. Crooked politicians.
You name them, I’ve always been ready to take them on, win or lose.
Or as some girl whose name I’ve long since forgotten said of me in my redneck youth, “Why, that boy would fight a circle saw!”
Let’s be clear. I’m not claiming everyone ought to be passive all the time, no matter the situation. I’m not claiming all misdeeds should be ignored, much less endorsed.
And I have several friends who could stand to be more assertive rather than less.
I’m just not one of those people. I’ve never had a problem asserting myself or, as the case might be, over-asserting myself.
Across the years, however, I’ve learned that sometimes holding your peace is far more difficult, and takes far more faith, than running your mouth.
Recently, while searching for something else, I stumbled across a quote from the late Josemaría Escrivá, who founded the Roman Catholic society Opus Dei.
“Don’t say, ‘This person bothers me,’” he said. “Think, ‘That person sanctifies me.’”
For the record, I’m not endorsing Escrivá or Opus Dei. They’re both controversial, and I’m not well-informed enough about either to hold an intelligent opinion.
I just like that quote.
It matches my own hard experiences. I’ve concluded that God (or, if you prefer, fate or happenstance or overpopulation) places people in our path who rub us the wrong way.
He places too many such folks in our path to suit me. I’ve told my wife I could live a holy life if I didn’t have to deal with other human beings.
That’s the challenge, isn’t it? Trying to act rightly while rubbing elbows with people who seem to be so very wrong? There’s always someone who needs to be set straight. Immediately, if not sooner.
I used to think the Lord put those people around me so I could help him perform his work in them. He meant to correct them, and I surely, yea verily, was his humble instrument for that correction.
What I’ve since learned is that, more often, he has put them in my life to correct me, to make me aware of my egotism, pettiness and judgmentalism.
Time and again, I’ve read such admonitions as this one from St. Paul to the early church at Ephesus:
“Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear. … Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.”
It seems as if whenever I’m primed to give somebody a good stern piece of my mind — not just in church but in the convenience store — a passage such as that pops into my head, unbidden. And unwanted, frankly.
I have to bite my tongue, and smile despite the pain, and tell them, “God bless you.”
Before you write to say there’s such a thing as compassionate correction, and that, besides, we can’t just let reprobates run amok, please allow me to, again, agree. In principle. Yes, some behaviors are so egregious they can’t be ignored.
It’s just that I’ve learned I’m probably not the person to deliver such corrections, because my corrections tend to be borne of wrath and anger and malice and whatnot. Those kinds of corrections don’t build spirits; they break hearts.
Maybe someday I’ll master the secret of compassionate correction.
But heck fire, I’m 40 years into my spiritual journey, and I’m still trying to get the hang of keeping my tone civil and not socking anybody in the jaw.
So, whenever anyone wants to tell me I’m too passive or too forgiving or too soft-hearted, I’ll take that for what it is: A victory.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.