We finished our discussion about The Art of Neighboring at Men to Men last Monday and the ladies will finish at their next meeting. The elders recently finished another book, If You Bite & Devour One Another, and the Life to Life leaders and wives are working through it together, too. Being a good neighbor and not biting people is like driving a car and not running over pedestrians; that’s how it should be. Paul connected both behaviors with love in his letter to the Galatians.
For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another. (Galatians 5:14–15)
Neighbor identifies any one who is next to you, someone on your street and, as was the case in the Galatian church, someone next to your seat. The whole point of the Old Testament can be tweeted with characters to spare and without losing any punch. It’s originally found in Leviticus 19:18 and Jesus called it great (Mark 12;31). Come to think of it, we might prefer the 613 laws in aggregate over this spear tip, then at least we’d have some cover.
In the flesh we do not want to love and build up, we want to criticize and tear down. We prefer sledgehammers over finishing hammers. Solomon said that he who belittles his neighbor lacks sense (Proverbs 11:12), and how much more he who attacks another part of his own body. A part that hits other parts should not be surprised when it becomes the head of the nail. Watch out.
And repent. Other people are not your primary problem. The flesh is your primary problem. A neighbor might sin against you. He probably will. What will you do? If you’re walking by the Spirit, then love will serve him, joy will draw him close, peace and patience will bear with him in kindness and more. It is not freedom to say whatever you want. It is freedom to love your neighbor.
Avoiding drama doesn’t mean we never say tough things, it means we don’t add theatrics. It also means that we say tough things to the person, not about the person. Being kind to someone’s face doesn’t always equal love, and saying difficult things to someone’s face doesn’t always equal not love.
On the other hand, whisperers are invariably haters. They talk a love game in certain settings but, as Proverbs 26:23-28 describes, they are hiding an evil heart and harboring deceit. It is never loving or kind to whisper; it is dishonest, insincere, two-faced talk. Whisperers, quarrelers, deceivers, and haters are destroyers.
The whisperers in Proverbs 26:20-22 are fools. Of course, the entire book of Proverbs identifies the contrast between wisdom and foolishness, and a man’s speech tells on him. Wise men quiet contention; fools start fires. Fools whisper and start fights. Fools take a bad situation and stir it up. Other fools listen to and eat up drama.
While these related proverbs comment on the effect or results of drama, the apostle Paul reveals the cause of drama. Whispering and fighting are works of the flesh.
Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. (Galatians 5:19-20)
Some of these sins fly under the banner of drama. The point is, drama–especially drama in whispers–starts in the heart. These sins are also a sign of God’s abandoning men to their unrighteousness.
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. (Romans 1:28-31)
It’s no wonder tongues cause such turmoil since “the tongue stains the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell” (James 3:6). We inflame and sustain fire with our mouths, because our tongues are hellish. It may not be a surprise, but it is no less wrong.
Spirit-filled Christians should not whisper or quarrel. Drama is fleshly. Galatians 5 says that if we walk in the Spirit, we will not gratify the desires of the flesh. We will stop the drama. Those who increase drama, therefore, are those not walking in the Spirit.
This has application for everyone, but young ladies appear especially susceptible to being busybodies, buttinskies, and backbiters.
But refuse to enroll younger widows, for when their passions draw them away from Christ, they desire to marry and so incur condemnation for having abandoned their former faith. Besides that, they learn to be idlers, going about from house to house, and not only idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not. So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, manage their households, and give the adversary no occasion for slander. For some have already strayed after Satan. (1 Timothy 5:11-15)
Apparently because they don’t have enough to do and aren’t looking for responsibility, they go about writing on other’s Facebook walls, text messaging, and getting each other in corners to talk about what Miss So-and-so did. But the devil watches young women. He takes their drama and uses it to slander Christ. Ladies must keep their tongues from wagging after Satan.
With every response we show what is important, either drama, or the Lord. We’ve got to guard our hearts, guard our lips, and guard our ears. Especially for leaders, those who typically know more information about others, and those on whom more eyes and ears concentrate, drama must not be entertained or tolerated in our reactions. We need to make disciples, not drama.
There’s a reason we don’t put out fires: we love the action.
The words of a whisperer are like delicious morsels;
they go down into the inner parts of the body.
We don’t extinguish drama because we enjoy it. We’re not built to let fires die out. We are fire eaters, not fire fighters. Though that may sound silly, it correlates the image of fire in verses 20 and 21 with the picture of eating in verse 22.
Proverbs 26:22 is verbatim with Proverbs 18:8. When a proverb is repeated like this, it contains a key nugget of wisdom. This is a sad, but commonly true description of human character: The words of a whisperer are like delicious morsels. Delicious morsels are a noun form of a verb that means to swallow greedily. That these delicious morsels go down into the inner parts of the body means we scarf them down.
We love to listen to drama. We delight in bits and pieces of juicy gossip. They are delicious, lip-smacking, finger-licking, and good to the last drop.
It’s why reality television (and soap operas before them) fascinate our culture. It’s why producers of reality TV always allot time for soliloquy in every show, separating a character in a soundproof room so we can hear her slander and rip the housemates. And we eat it up. We get a little and we want more. We’re entertained by relational conflict, deception, bad-mouthing and revenge. It entertains us.
We love us some dirt. Whether by instant messages, text messages, Facebook walls, notes in class, room corner conversations, or late night phone chats, we eat it up, then vomit it back to others. Most of us–that is, those of us in the church–act like our motives are pure and justify our participation in the drama because we care. But under the smokescreen of sympathy we eat and inflame the fire.
Though whispers are delicious morsels to us, they are bitter and foul to God’s palate. Whispering drama destroys like poison. As it seeps it ruins the reputations of others. It kills our credibility. It undermines unity. It wrecks relationships and friendships. It hurts.
The first two proverbs in this unit deal with our talking; this third one addresses our listening. We are not only what we say, we are what we listen to. Whispering is wrong and so is paying attention to whispers. Our ears play a big part in drama too.
As charcoal to hot embers and wood to fire,
so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife.
The first half of the proverb in verse 21 provides the comparison, As charcoal to hot embers and wood to fire. The fire was already started and now fuel is added. Charcoal refers to black coal while hot embers are glowing, burning coal. We still use a charcoal grill at our house for summer barbecuing so this picture is fresh in my mind. It doesn’t take long before an added cold, black briquet is engulfed by already lit, hot, white coals. The more charcoal added, the bigger and the hotter the fire. In like manner, the quarrelsome man increases and intensifies the drama.
The main character in verse 21 is the quarrelsome man. He is a man of madon, of strife, of contention. The quarrelsome man doesn’t necessarily start fights, but he jumps on top of the pile. He fans the flames. His attitude is combustible; he’s easily excited and ready to burn. It only takes a spark to get his fire going.
Charcoal, wood, and the quarrelsome man are fuel to the fire. He aggravates the problem and escalates the situation through the roof. Though verse 21 doesn’t tell us specifically how a quarrelsome person provokes the fire, it does state the fact that he’s flammable.
The whisperer and the quarrelsome man are connected1. The whisperer is like wood, the quarrelsome man like charcoal and wood. Both add fuel to fire or make the fire bigger, and without them the drama dies. Verse 20 says without a whisperer the fire goes out and quarreling ceases. Verse 21 explains that the quarrelsome man kindles strife, which means sparks won’t fly without a quarreler.
And notice that both the whisperer and the quarrelsome man are responding. At least as far as verses 20 and 21 are concerned, these characters are responding to the fire by keeping it going or by making it bigger. The whisperer keeps it going, the quarrelsome man makes it bigger. They aren’t starting the fire, they’re sustaining it or stirring it up. One burns slowly, one explodes, both keep the fire going. One is subtle, one is obvious, both are wrong. One might seem sympathetic, one appears bold, both are foolish.
The implication is that the wise person douses drama. They smother and snuff out the fire. Without fuel, gossip and fights and strife dwindle and die. Extinguishing drama is the work of the wise.
The book of Proverbs provides at least two instructions for how to respond to drama:
We don’t need to tell everyone everything we know, and we certainly shouldn’t tell anyone things we’re only guessing about. When it comes to drama, keeping our mouths closed is wise.
Whoever goes about slandering reveals secrets,
but he who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a thing covered.
Whoever covers an offense seeks love,
but he who repeats a matter separates close friends.
Whoever goes about slandering reveals secrets;
therefore do not associate with a simple babbler.
We fan the fire by adding our two cents. If we’re not careful, even our sympathy can unintentionally increase the drama rather than putting it out. Most of the time we need to be quiet.
In other words, we must keep control of our emotions.
A soft answer turns away wrath,
but a harsh word stirs up anger.
A hot-tempered man stirs up strife,
but he who is slow to anger quiets contention.
Whoever restrains his words has knowledge,
and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.
Though we can’t always control what other people say, we can control how we respond. For example, a match won’t light by striking it on any surface. So we can be like a smooth surface or like the side of the match box, staving off or inflaming fire.
We’re often in situations with flammable friends or classmates or co-workers. How we respond makes the difference between feeding the fire and increasing the drama or pulling the curtain on the drama and putting out the fire.
I think the connection is contextual. Obviously verse 21 immediately follows verse 20, but more than that, both verse 20 and 21 use the image of fire. Additionally, the quarreler is inserted between two verses about the whisperer (verse 20 and 22), suggesting these three verses are a unit. ↩
Starting a fire requires fuel and something to ignite the fuel.1 In particular, fires need heat, fuel and oxygen. Remove any of those three ingredients and no fire will burn. When it comes to the fire of drama, whisperers are the fuel.
For lack of wood the fire goes out,
and where there is no whisperer, quarreling ceases.
The word whisperer in Proverbs 26:20 is the Hebrew word nirgan, referring to a person who speaks softly and typically maliciously. We would call this person a backbiter, a slanderer, or a gossip. Whisperers communicate in a low voice for the sake of privacy, but there is nothing discreet about the consequences of their whispers. Whispers burn like logs on a fire and keep conflict going. That’s the point of the proverb: For lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, quarreling ceases. Where no one is off in the corner sharing the new juicy detail they heard, the fire of drama dies out. Secret, personal, quiet whispers are the fuel of fights.
So who are whisperers and how can we identify them?
It’s easy to envision downright mean and snotty teenage girls whispering crassly about a classmate, caricatured in sitcoms and movies like Mean Girls. It’s also easy to visualize those girls all grown up, now with more money, wearing fancier clothes and better makeup, badmouthing and backbiting their neighbors over tea and finger sandwiches.
But not all whisperers wear their ill-intent so grossly. Some whisperers are more subtle, stoking the fire with sympathy and solace. We can identify these whisperers as those who:
see drama unfolding and jump in to offer their support. They ask for specific details in order to commiserate (or so they can better pray for the situation), confirming the victim and condemning the wrongdoer, all with the pretense of great care.
think they are helping by passing on information. They want others to be prepared and not caught off-guard by finding out at an inopportune time or from an unreliable source.
claim they are being kind by not talking to the person directly. They believe it would be mean to tell it to the person’s face, after all, they wouldn’t want to embarrass someone or hurt another’s feelings.
present themselves like the only ones who understand.
leave other things undone or who aren’t responsible for much in the first place (cf. 1 Timothy 5:11-15). Free time enables fixers, with nothing better to do than than collect, coordinate and disperse bits of idle data.
seek out weak and gullible targets. They hide from the strong and avoid sharing with those who they suspect would stop them. They don’t seek out wise counselors because wise counsel isn’t what they’re after. This, of course, is part of the reason they whisper, so the strong won’t overhear and shut them down.
No matter what posture a person takes, flashing lights and loud alarms should go off in our heads if someone begins talking to us with phrases like, “You wouldn’t believe…” or “Did you hear about…?” or “I don’t know if this is true or not, but….”
Whisperers feed the fire. Yet without sticks, there’s nothing to burn and the fire goes out. So if the whisperer shuts his mouth, the drama dies out and the fire is extinguished.
On a practical note, we can’t forget that someone who is willing to whisper to us is probably willing to whisper about us. If they share someone else’s secrets they will eventually do the same with ours. They may not do it in the same hour, but if that’s their character, what makes us think our friendship is different, especially if and when that friendship ends?
You can’t actually start a fire by rubbing your hands together in the rain (like I suggested in my previous post), even if you’re Chuck Norris. ↩
Fire scares me; it has for as long as I can remember. For most of my life I refused to light a match unless it was one of those 10″ fireplace matches. Only during the last five years or so have I learned how to strike a match from a matchbook by folding over the cover for protection between my fingers and the flame.1 I hate lighting propane grills because I’m convinced one day a mushroom cloud blast will blow up in my face.
When I was in junior high, my best friend–at the time–pushed me into a fairly large fire pit. I was standing with my back to the fire and he thought it would be fun to see my reaction. Though I hopped out quickly–unharmed–I was hopping mad.
Yet in spite of a few bad experiences and for whatever inbred fear I have toward fire, fire still fascinates me. I am a man, after all, and men and fire are meant for each other. We’re supposed to know how to build a fire, even starting a fire by rubbing our bare hands together in the pouring rain if we need to. And the biggest reason we need fire is so that we can cook our red meat over that fire.
Some Christians are very comfortable around fire, and I’m not thinking of the pyromamiancs among us. I’m thinking about those who are comfortable, not with actual, physical fire, but with the fire of of gossip, slander, and drama. Fire is a terrific image of fighting and bickering and rumors and squabbles and scandals. Fire is an especially apropos illustration of drama.
A recent, growing and glowing2, trend of drama disturbs me. Though it always crouches at the door ready to rule us (think Genesis 4:7), I have witnessed drama eating up more hearts and more talk and more time the last couple months than is right (or necessary) for Spirit-filled Christians, or at least those who make that claim.
What I mean by drama is acting and performing or speaking in a way to get a reaction, to make a scene, to get a rise out of someone by exaggerating the situation. Drama often takes place openly and publicly, but the primary stage for the drama I’m considering is found in private conversations and secluded lunch tables and instant messages and Facebook walls. Drama takes something true and exaggerates for effect, or perhaps takes something presumed true or even untrue and gives it a life of it’s own. Whether a main character, a supporting actor, or a stagehand, participation in this kind of drama fans the fire.
Most of the drama I watch is petty, with conversations and chitchat and reactions characterized by excessive attention on trivial matters, especially with small-minded or spiteful attitudes. Pettiness is the art of living small, taking the unimportant and peripheral and blowing it out of proportion. Much of the petty drama is plain old gossip, casual conversation about other people with little constraint, typically involving details that are not confirmed as being true.
This trend burdens and bothers me so much that I decided to preach on “Whispers and Flames” from Proverbs 26:20-22. Over the next few days I want to blog through these verses in order to expose the dangers of whispering, to encourage control of our tongues in public and private, and to remind us all to stop the drama and extinguish the fire.
I’m sorry for the size my carbon footprint must be after dropping as many matches as I have for fear they would burn me. Okay, I’m not that sorry. ↩
By glowing I mean burning and radiating, not gleaming and happy. ↩