Love Carved in Stone: A Fresh Look at the Ten Commandments
Lesson 5: “Words of Love: Don’t Kill Each Other”
Exodus 20:13 and Matthew 5:21-26
Just when we think that we have come to a commandment that we have not broken, in comes the centuries of interpretation of the sixth commandment: “You shall not murder.” Rabbis and Reformers alike have equated hateful speech to murder — and malicious speech is common.
We are trigger-happy when it comes to disparaging others. Gossip and condemnation are part of our everyday conversations. Plus, our culture is full of trash talk. Television programs disguise insults as humor. Latino immigrants are labeled “criminals.” The poor are denigrated as “lazy.” The other political party is reviled as immoral and ignorant.
Words wound us. The psalmist in Psalm 69:20 laments:
“Insults have broken my heart,
so that I am in despair.
I looked for pity, but there was none;
and for comforters, but I found none.”
Speech can damage. In college, I was confronted by friends about my “unacceptable behavior,” which they did not specifically name. I did not have a clue what they were talking about. It was a degrading experience that continued to eat away at my self-confidence. Years later I learned the content of their complaint, which was based on false assumptions. It would have been much better if someone had asked me if the rumors were true, instead of condemning me. Yet, I too am prone to judge negatively, using what I think I know to be true, without asking others for their side of the story.
It is difficult to turn away from unconstructive conversations. Some years ago, I made a promise to myself and to God that I would not participate in gossip. Gossip made me edgy with its constant negativity, so I avoided people prone to gossip. At times, it has been quite hard to keep that promise. It left me out of many “juicy” conversations. So often our camaraderie is based on being with those who dislike what we dislike.
Scripture has a host of texts forbidding dissensions and spreading tales, and commending uplifting conversation. For example, in Romans 1:28-29, some of the characteristics of a debased mind are slander, gossip and malice. Among a list of behaviors contrary to following Christ in Galatians 5:19 are strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels and factions. In Titus 3: 1-2, we are reminded to “be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle and to show every courtesy to everyone.” These and other Scriptures leave us no wiggle room to excuse our own destructive speech. Think about your recent conversations and current attitudes. Write down how you blame or condemn family members and other people or groups. Write down how you speak well of family and others.
Jesus forbids abusive speech in Matthew 5:22. He says that if we are angry with a brother or sister, we will be liable to judgment; and if we insult a brother or sister, we will be liable to public disapproval; and if we say, ‘You fool,’ we will be liable to the fires of hell or, in the Hebrew, the fires of gehenna. As Eugenia Gamble explains, Gehenna was the garbage dump outside of Jerusalem that burned constantly. Gamble postulates that Jesus “is saying that when we speak words that shatter a life and leave a person shamed and damaged, we ourselves become useless and fit only for the garbage dump” (“Love Carved in Stone,” page 63).
Is there no hope for us? Of course, there is. With God’s grace working in us, we change the ways we speak to and about other people. It takes discipline, self-reflection and practice. Try some of the following:
- Practice being thankful. List God’s gifts, which can relax your heart and mind and lessen your grip on judgmentalism.
- Make a list of the good qualities of a family member with whom you are irritated. List the positive characteristics of people or groups you dislike.
- Realize that anger is addictive. Give your complaints to God in prayer and let God be the judge.
- Seek mutual understanding. Record how you have contributed to tensions or arguments. Listen without judgment to the other person’s point of view.
- Forgive — that is, let go of “getting even.” Remember that you are a sinner in need of God’s forgiveness.
- Seek reconciliation. Initiate the repairing of a relationship (Matthew 5:23-24).
- Be with people who fill you with laughter and appreciation.
- Rejoice in God.
Some of these Christian practices are easier said than done! However, over time, practices like these can raise us out of destructive patterns and make us more Christ-like, making our efforts very worthwhile.
Rosalind Banbury lives in Richmond, Virginia, and is a pastor in the Presbytery of the James.
You can purchase the PW/Horizons Bible study book through the PC(USA) Church Store.