“You shall not murder.” (Exodus 20:13)
The tongue can be a burning fire, can’t it? Maybe you have seen hate-filled speech set a relationship or an encounter on fire. The conflict escalates as a malicious tongue rages out of control. It happens in homes, at work, in schools, and in churches. A whole church can become an inferno, set on fire by undisciplined tongues. I’ve rarely seen a church that didn’t have little fires blazing here and there, continuously set or fanned by critical talk. So damaging is the tongue, Jesus warned, that whoever calls someone a fool or a moron “will be subject to hellfire” (Matt. 5:22).
Muriel was teaching school hundreds of miles from the school I was attending, so our courtship was conducted by mail. Enthusiastically I wrote of how we were going to be one in every sense—no secrets, full disclosure. She responded cordially but added a caveat: “But Sweetheart, let’s not make our home a garbage dump. Let’s agree never to say anything bad about anyone.” A high standard! But we committed to it. We didn’t follow through perfectly, but we made it our aim and helped each other hold to our agreement.
You can imagine our distress, then, soon after we arrived on the mission field, to have a longtime friend who preceded us to the field begin filling us in on the faults and foibles of our missionary comrades. I guess he thought this was a crucial element in new-missionary orientation! After Jack and Susan left, I said to Muriel, “What shall we do? They’re coming back next week, and I can’t spend another evening like that. But how can a new missionary rebuke a veteran?”
“Don’t worry,” she responded. “I’ll take care of it.” Muriel, an artist, made a small plaque and hung it in the center of an empty wall.
When our senior missionary friends came the next week, the plaque caught Jack’s attention. He studied it for a moment, then called his wife to help figure it out. Finally, he called me over. “Robertson, what does this mean?” I read aloud, “‘The absent are safe with us.’ That means folks who aren’t here don’t have to worry about what’s said. The idea is that the conversation would go just as if they were present.” “Oh,” said Jack. And we proceeded to spend as boring an evening as I’ve ever known!
So I ask you, “Are the absent safe with you?” Do others have a concern for what you will say about them when they are not there? No sharing of gossip? No repeating rumors? No trash talk, no making others look less so you can look better. What about judging their motives, or angry invectives? Diminishing another? Exodus 20:13, “You shall not murder.”
Money and possessions aren’t the only things that can be stolen. Perhaps the most common theft we practice is reputation theft. Verbal criticism is a form of murder. With critical talk we violate not only the Sixth Commandment but also the Eighth; such talk kills, but it also steals someone’s reputation. The writer of Proverbs warned: “Whoever conceals an offense promotes love, but whoever gossips about it separates friends.” Purpose today to make the absent safe with you.