Words That Break Our Hearts

This article is taken from a sermon I preached at City Hope Fellowship in Muncie, IN. You can find that audio for that sermon here or on your favorite podcast app.

A couple of years ago, I was asked to write an article defending the work of a former pastor in our denomination who had written a book about his same-sex attraction and what it looked like for him to live an obedient life with Jesus. Sadly, his faithful obedience made him the target of many leaders in my denomination who saw his example as something to be feared rather than commended. In defending his book, I knew I would likely attract similar attacks against what I was prepared to write. I was confident, however, that defending his book was the right thing to do.

Yet I still found myself surprised by the form in which those attacks came. I did not receive a single email or phone call from an individual who had concerns about what I had written. I did not receive any requests for a conversation to be better understood.

Instead, my character, intelligence, and reputation were maligned by pastors and elders behind the closed doors of a private Facebook group of which I was not a member. Screenshots were provided to me of how these men, who had all taken vows to uphold the peace and purity of the church, stalked me and posted information about me for all to see. These men called me childish; they said I was soft, poorly trained for ministry, and that I was not a serious thinker. My reputation was dragged through the mud, and I wasn’t there to defend it.

I had a sense at the time that I had been wounded and sinned against, but I lacked the precise language to express the ways I had been violated. I believed that these sins against me were connected to the Ninth Commandment, but I had never truly given myself to its study. I knew my own Reformed tradition likely had something to say, and so turning both to my tradition and the Scriptures, I sought out answers to how, specifically, I had been hurt.

Now, two years later, I can honestly say that nothing has been more transformative to me in my walk with Jesus than the earnest study of this commandment. I have been validated in being given language that expresses the specifics of how I have been sinned against; more than that, I learned that God actually cares about the specifics of how I have been hurt. At the same time, I have also been deeply convicted of how I have broken this commandment myself, especially when I have been hurt by others.

Isn’t it the case that when someone else wounds us, we often want to take justice into our own hands? And what is the easiest way for us to do that? By using our words to cause wounds in return. We go behind their back, we get others to turn against those who’ve hurt us, we exaggerate their flaws to try and justify how we feel, anything that might somehow make us feel better about the pain that we feel.

But this is no way to heal. Returning insults in kind is not only a violation of what Jesus wants from us (Luke 6:27-29; 1 Peter 3:9), it is also the surest way to corrupt our own selves into becoming those who wound others. In the end, giving into our pain in retaliation simply multiples the pain in the world.

The Ninth Commandment shows us a better way. Let me share some of the things I’ve learned on my journey with you.

The Requirements of This Commandment

“I am the Lord your God…” (Exodus 20:1). These familiar words begin the Ten Commandments, and they serve to remind us that at the center of these commands are God himself. Each of these commands tell us something about who God is and what he therefore requires of us. In the Ninth Commandment we remember that God does not and cannot lie, for he is the embodiment of truth (Numbers 23:19; Titus 1:2; Hebrews 6:18). We cannot be those who claim God’s name while concealing or distorting the truth.

Furthermore, the Ninth Commandment does not end with the words, “You shall not bear false testimony,” but the full thought is completed with “against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16). It is for our neighbor’s sake – even the ones we don’t like – that we are to tell the truth. Our neighbors have inherent rights to the truth being spoken about them. They have a right against us to our telling the truth about them, and we have an obligation to bear the truth for our neighbor to the best of our ability.

The Westminster Larger Catechism, a historic document for instruction from within the Reformed Christian tradition, expresses the full breadth of what God requires from us in the Ninth Commandment. In Question 144 we learn that we are required to stand for a total preserving of truth in all things, including judicial matters. We are to defend the reputation of others and rejoice in their good name. We must defend the innocence of others and correct slander whenever we might hear it.

All of this means we are summoned to the active defense of our neighbors; passivity will not do. We are required to rejoice in the good name of others (even those we don’t like!) rather than relishing in their mistakes. In short, whatever possible means are available to us to preserve the truth for others is what is required of us by God.

The Sins of This Commandment

At no point does Jesus ever let us off the hook in keeping the Ninth Commandment. Jesus never tells us that if we were wounded first, a little bit of slander or magnifying of faults is acceptable. We are never given the impression that unjust speech is permissible while striving for just ends. We are always responsible for telling the truth, preserving the truth, and defending our neighbors to the best of our ability.

As I said above, I think we are most tempted to violate the Ninth Commandment when we have been sinned against. Lying about someone, slandering them, spreading reports about them; these things are the easiest way for us to get our revenge and defend ourselves when we have been wronged. Through it all, we can deceive ourselves into thinking our actions are justified since we were harmed first.

Yet the Lord still considers these things evil (1 Peter 3:9). Question 145 of the Catechism breaks down the full breadth of how we can violate this commandment. We find at least three themes in the Catechism’s instruction which reveal how we are prone to violate it when we are first wounded ourselves.

First, even thinking about someone improperly, rather than according to the truth, is a violation of the Ninth Commandment. Entertaining someone else’s faults, nursing them in our hearts, rejoicing in the downfall of others; each of these internal patterns makes us more willing to believe the worst in someone rather than hoping for the best.

Second, when we use our words to speak about someone untruthfully. If we are magnifying their faults while ignoring the full picture about them, if we seek out their faults to tell everyone else about them, anything we might do that negatively impacts the truth about our neighbors is a sin against them.

Here is where meditation on this commandment has been most instructive for me. The temptation ever before me when I am wounded by others is to use my words to retaliate in kind. I can convince myself that I will validate my pain by hurting others, and that somehow this behavior would be the path to healing for me. But you know what? The only thing this has ever done for me is make me more bitter and more upset.

James told us that our tongue is like a fire that can set our whole lives ablaze (James 3:6). Whenever we resort to using our pain, our anger, or our bitterness to find healing, we end up just like those who have wounded us.

Third, we learn that in the pursuit of justice we are never allowed to pursue justice with unjust means. We can hurt the cause of the truth both in the content of our speech as well as the way we speak. If we ever allow our hearts to be corrupted, such that we use lies, slander, or backbiting to try and achieve what we consider to be just ends, we simply multiply the pain and injustice that exists in the world. How we pursue justice matters as much as that we pursue justice.

The Courage to Keep This Commandment

Keeping the Ninth Commandment is hard; sometimes it feels like the most painful and difficult call of the Christian life. It requires strength and a resolute character. It takes courage. Where will that come from?

Psalm 69 is such a great prayer to pray when we’ve been hurt by someone’s words. The Psalmist names concrete ways they had been sinned against. They endured scorn, mockery, and the loneliness of having no one who will come to their defense. They even experienced the pain of having their heart broken on account of someone else’s words (Psalm 69:20).

In the Ninth Commandment, God gives us words to express all the specific ways we can be hurt by someone else’s words. If we are going to heal from the ways that others wound us, we first need specific language that can name how we have been hurt. Just as we cannot heal from immense physical pain or disease with a vague diagnosis, neither can we heal from deep heart wounds without specific language that names how we feel.

This is what God gives us in the Ninth Commandment. He gives us validation for our pain, he tells us we don’t need to keep our wounds in the dark, he shows us that he cares about the specifics.

Things get interesting if you keep reading Psalm 69. “They gave me vinegar for my thirst” (Psalm 69:21). Who does that sound like?

Jesus is the real author of Psalm 69. More than anyone else, he knows what it is like to be scorned, mocked, abandoned, to receive all the violations of the Ninth Commandment in abundance.

And why did he endure what he did? How could he trust himself to God rather than retaliate in kind? He did it for our sake. He did it so that by his wounds – and not our own retaliation – we might be healed (1 Peter 2:21-25).

If you want true healing from the wounds of others, that will never be found in breaking others down but in trusting the one who was broken for you. If you want the courage to keep this Commandment rather than becoming someone who wounds others, that inner courage only comes from knowing that in Christ, you are safe and secure.

You can trust your reputation to the Lord rather than responding in kind. His validation heals our wounds and our desire for revenge; by his strength we become those who can heal the hearts of others rather than cause them deeper wounds.

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