Watch Your Words

No matter how trusted the friend or how loyal the leader, whenever you discuss others, use discretion! Beware of uncomplimentary comments.

Jean Coleman is a pastoral wife from Laurel, Maryland, and the editor of The Pastor's Helpmate, a newsletter for pastoral wives. This article appeared in The Pastor's Helpmate, February 1994. Used with per­mission.

Why have you been telling people that I'm a basket case?" the young woman asked, glar­ing at me with unrestrained an­ger. "I know what you said! Do you really think I'm a basket case?"

Reeling from the unexpected barrage of words, I struggled to keep my composure. What could possibly have happened to cause this usually meek and submissive woman to lash out against me so vehemently?

Sue had called several hours earlier, asking if she could come by and see me. There was a problem, she explained, and it was important that she talk to me about it. I naively assumed she was encountering some dif­ficulty in her marriage, and needed a "mother" to give her some wise counsel. Little did I suspect that her problem was with me!

"Why are you telling people that I'm a basket case?" she de­manded emphatically for the second  time .

A basket case? Had I ever said anything like that about her? Sue was definitely an emotionally disturbed young woman who was constantly plagued by fear and rej ection, but I certainly didn't go around dis­cussing her problems with oth­ers. I sought to remember any indiscreet slip of the tongue that I might have made to someone that could have twisted into la­beling Sue as a basket case.

"Who told you I said that?" I asked her point-blank, not really expecting an answer to my ques­tion.

She paused forjust a moment, and then replied, "It was Mary Bailey. I met her yesterday at the mall, and she shared some of the things you told her about me! I certainly don't appreciate being called a basket case!"

Suddenly there was an in­stant replay in my rliind. I remem­bered all too clearly! I had said those exact words to Mary Bailey concerning Sue. It was a direct quote that I couldn't deny. I had no defense.

Mary Bailey—my spiritual daughter, my friend, my confi­dant, a mother in Israel, a trusted eider's wife. And now, Mary Bailey—my betrayer. She and her husband had left our church the preceding year for greener pas­tures, and although I knew she was filled with bitterness and re­sentment at the time of her departure, I never thought that she would let it spill over onto an in­nocent like Sue. I couldn't believe that Mary had revealed things to Sue that had been spoken in con­fidence. But obviously she had.

Mary had been a natural to minister to the young women of our church. She had a motherly way about her and the heart of a counselor. She had met the Lord at our church and grown to spiri­tual maturity under our care. We were of one heart and one mind. When the time came to select someone to lead a weekly meet­ing of our young mothers, Mary met every criterion. The young women loved her, and she loved them, clucking over her little brood like a mother hen. I rejoiced to see her move into leadership, and the fruit of her ministry was very good.

I didn't just turn her loose but worked closely with her. As the months passed, the young women began to look to her more and more for counsel, and everything went very well. She was faithful to keep me informed and up to date on those to whom she was giving counsel. It was a wonder­ful arrangement and I rejoiced in spirit.

When Sue showed up on the scene with all her many fears and insecurities, Mary was uncertain as to how best to minister to her deep spiritual needs. One after­noon she came to me expressing her concern over Sue's emotional state, and we talked together at length about Sue's many and var­ied problems—problems which were even hindering her ability to function as a wife and mother.

That was the setting when the casual remark was made to Mary, "Sue's a real basket case." I then added the words: "I don't have the vaguest idea what the answer is, but God does. He promises to give us wisdom and knowledge, and we really need His guidance right now." Then Mary and I joined hands and prayed to­gether. I remembered the conver­sation all too well.

During the summer months, a slow erosion took place in my relationship with Mary. She seemed to draw away, not only from me, but also from the church. There was really nothing that I could put my finger on, but she seemed to be avoiding me. Finally she called to inform me that she had taken a job as a receptionist, and would no longer be able to work with the young women.

It was the beginning of the end. She dropped out of every­thing. I could sense that she har­bored resentment against me, but I had no idea why. Her husband faithfully continued to attend the elders' meetings, but he, too, was sullen and withdrawn. When confronted, he insisted that ev­erything was fine. We knew it was just a matter of time. His letter of resignation arrived on Christmas Eve. No reason for their depar­ture was given.

And now Mary was going about relating things that had been shared in confidence. If you can't trust an elder's wife, who can you trust? If you can't share on an intimate basis with a proven church leader, in whom can you confide?

How easy to blame Mary for betraying a confidence and talk­ing out of turn. And how conven­ient to condemn her for per­mitting bitterness and resent­ment to take precedence over dis­cretion. How spiteful it was of Mary to sow seeds of discord upon Sue. Everyone knows that's an abomination to God. Obvi­ously, the solution is to declare Mary guilty, and myself com­pletely innocent of any wrong­doing.

But when I referred to one of our precious sheep as a basket case, how much discretion did I use? Whether I was talking to an elder's wife, my husband, or someone else, I am guilty of poor judgment in my choice of terms. I forgot to ask myself the all im­portant question: Would Jesus say what I am about to say?

Certainly there are times when it becomes absolutely es­sential to discuss some very per­sonal matters concerning others with your church leaders. Sue had major problems, and Mary and I needed to talk them over as we sought a solution. But with­out extreme caution, these times of discussion can turn into gos­sip sessions where our own opin­ions are freely tossed into the ring without "judging righteous judg­ment." And then, by our own words, we are condemned (Matt. 12:37).

No matter how trusted the friend or how loyal the leader, whenever you discuss others, use discretion! Don't say anything that could possibly be used against you. Avoid slang expressions. Shun put-downs and belit­tling remarks. Beware of uncom­plimentary comments. Assume that anything you say is going to be repeated.

It's one thing to state that someone has an emotional problem, and quite another to brand her a basket case. Jesus cautions against calling yourbrother a fool (Matt. 5:22). I wonder what He thinks of referring to a sister as a basket case? Remember, words once spoken can never be re­trieved. This is why we must learn to guard the words of our mouth.

What a seemingly unimpor­tant thing—five careless words spoken in haste. Five careless words that wounded a young woman who was already hurting from previous wounds. Five careless words that gave opportunity for "an enemy" to strike out against me. Five careless words that compromised the light of Jesus shining through me. Five careless words that spoke death instead of life. I stand guilty as charged.

But God in His infinite mercy has forgiven me, and so has Sue.

And I have also forgiven Mary for her part in communicating my indiscretion. And this has now become my constant prayer: 

Let the words 

of my mouth, 

and the meditation of my heart, 

be acceptable 

in Thy sight, O Lord!

Jean Coleman is a pastoral wife from Laurel, Maryland, and the editor of The Pastor's Helpmate, a newsletter for pastoral wives. This article appeared in The Pastor's Helpmate, February 1994. Used with per­mission.