A longtime friend called to tell me that his wife had departed for heaven and in the course of our conversation paid her the ultimate compliment: “I never heard her say anything bad about anyone.”
I wasn’t surprised. Cutting down others would have been out of character for this quiet, compassionate woman and the compliment from her grieving husband only verbalized what many had known all along.
A member of a church in our area voiced the ultimate compliment concerning a former pastor who had retired.
“I have known Pastor Jones for 28 years,” he said, “and not once during that time did I hear him say anything bad about anyone.”
I was so impressed by this testimonial to the character of the former pastor that at his funeral I passed along these good words to his wife.
“It’s true,” she replied. “Sometimes our daughters and I tried to trick him into criticizing someone, but we never succeeded.”
As a pastor, I quickly saw the value of remaining silent when someone began to focus on the faults of others. Knowing that even one word of seeming agreement might cause me to be quoted wrongly about the charges being made, I determined in these cases to keep silent or tactfully maneuver the conversation to another subject.
Such tongue control doesn’t come easily, especially if the complaints about the person in question are likely to be true. I found great help to keep silent in the prayer of David for God to place a sentinel at his mouth to guard his lips lest he say things he would later regret: “Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth, to keep the door of my lips.” (Psalm 141:3)
The thought that God could dispatch a guard to keep me from speaking carelessly was just what I needed to remain silent when it would have been easier to express some negative opinion. I am confident these times of silence delivered me from trouble that could have been caused by some criticism I might have made in a moment of weakness or discouragement.
How do we achieve such word control?
What we say is the result of what we think, so I suggest starting every day focusing on things that are true, honest, just, pure, lovely and of good report. (Philippians 4:8) Criticism and fault-finding refuse to grow in this kind of soil.
Words that may cause strife are best left unsaid and have an unholy source. On the other hand, words that bring peace are from the Lord: “But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace.” (James 3: 17-18)
We who are of World War II vintage remember the slogan “Loose lips sink ships.”
There was too much at stake then to risk lives by speaking carelessly. And the same is true today. Careless, critical, cutting words destroy lives, homes and churches so let’s speak responsibly; becoming known for building up ... not tearing down.
Someday we’ll give an account of what we’ve said.
Let’s live expecting to hear “Well done,” the ultimate compliment.
Roger Campbell was an author, a broadcaster and columnist who was a pastor for 22 years. “Everywhere You Go There’s a Zacchaeus Up a Tree,” a book containing over one hundred of his best columns, is now available at your local or online bookseller.