"These are the things you are to do: Speak the truth to each other, and render true and sound judgment in your courts" (Zechariah 8:16).
Amy Carmichael, a missionary leader in India, said that her mission--the Dohnavur Fellowship--had a rule for conversation: "The absent one must be safe among us." That was her way of reminding people that to talk about another person in a derogatory or degrading way in their absence when we would never say the same thing in their presence takes unfair advantage of the person. "The absent one must be safe among us..."
Amy Carmichael was not the first to observe such a principle. Some fifteen centuries before, St. Augustine had a motto over his table which read, "He that speaks an idle word against an absent man or woman is not welcome at this table." Augustine had remembered the words of Jesus, who said, "But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken" (Matthew 12:36).
Idle words--a lot of them come carelessly from our lips. According to one statistician, the average person spends 13 years of his life just talking, and, of course, some folks are way above average. In the course of a normal day, the average person speaks 18,000 words--enough to fill a book of 54 pages. In a year, your words put in print would fill 66 books of 300 pages each. A great many of those words concern other people, and often would be better unsaid.
How many times this past week have you heard someone say, "Did you hear about so-and-so?" And you replied, "No, what happened?" And they began to relate something to you that they had heard--you accepted it at face value. But if you said, "How do you know this to be true? Do you know it to be a fact?", the person might have replied something like, "Well, I heard it from ‘so-and-so,’ and, if the truth were known, she heard it from a neighbor who heard it from the ladies down at the market. That choice bit of news may be totally out of context, and may be so distorted as to make the truth appear to be false.
Yesterday I was with two businessmen, and one asked the other, "Where were you this past weekend?" He replied, "Oh, I was up in the mountains with my secretary." Not knowing that his secretary is his wife, I said, "And I hope your wife was along." He smiled as he said, "Oh, I guess you did not know my secretary is my wife." How much damage could have been done with the first half of that conversation?
I am thinking about a colleague who was the pastor of a certain church, and in the course of time one of the men working with him got disgruntled. "I'll fix him," he thought. So, he began to suggest to the elders in the church that because of his close working relationship with the senior minister, he knew that he was morally indiscreet. He really was innocent of the charge which had been whispered out of malice, but rumor is always more palatable than truth, and people believed it. "Always thought he was a bum!" "He is that kind!" "Just goes to show, you can't trust anybody!"
What happened? The senior minister was completely exonerated as the instigator of the story confessed what he had done, and why he did it. But the damage was done and the reputation of an innocent man had been so badly hurt that he had to be transferred to another church in another city.
Should you be tempted to pass on a savory bit of news, remember Amy Carmichael's motto, "The absent one must be safe among us.”
Resource reading: Ephesians 7:17-21