Lent is a time for self-examination and repentance. It is a time during which we look for the ways in which our lives are not pleasing to God. During this season, I’ve found it helpful to review some advice from John Wesley on one of the most common sins we find in the life of the church, the sin of evil-speaking.
In 1760, Wesley wrote a sermon called “The Cure of Evil-speaking.” By “evil-speaking,” he means speaking ill of another person when he or she is not present. He begins by quoting the admonition against slander in Titus 3:2. He notes how common this sin is, and how it is found among all manner of people. Because it is so common, he says, we have lost our sensitivity to it. It indulges our pride and anger. We even fool ourselves into believing that we are justified in calling out the sins of others in their absence, that we may thus speak out of a sense of righteous indignation.
Wesley then points to a passage in the Bible that provides practical advice on this matter: Matthew 18:15: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you.” When you do so, says Wesley, you should not do so pridefully, as if you are better than the other person. You should avoid any hint of hatred or ill will. Rather, your words should be gentle in the hope of winning the other person over. It is possible in certain circumstances to convey your message through another person, if you trust the messenger to keep the matter between the three of you. It is also possible to write to the other person. The preferred way of doing things, though, is to speak with the other person face-to-face.
What if the other person will not listen? Wesley then points us to the next verse in Matthew: “But if they will not listen, take one or two others along” (18:16). These should be people who love both God and neighbor. They should be gentle and patient, and not the kind of people who are quick to retaliate.
Only after the first two steps should we make this matter public to other members of the church. “If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church” (Matthew 18:17). Wesley says that the best way to do this is to consult the elders of the church, and to do it in the presence of the person concerned. Again, this should be done in a spirit of love.
If and only if this third step fails to bring about repentance in the person who has offended, we should then “ treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17). What does this mean? According to Wesley, it means “You are under no obligation to think of him any more–only when you commend him to God in prayer. You need not speak of him any more, but leave him to his own Master.” Nevertheless, our Christian obligations do not end at this point. “Indeed you still owe to him…earnest, tender goodwill. You own him courtesy, as an occasion offers all the offices of humanity. But have no friendship, no familiarity with him” (“The Cure of Evil-Speaking,” in Kenneth J. Collins and Jason E. Vickers, eds., The Sermons of John Wesley: A Collection for the Journey [Nashville: Abingdon, 2013], 3.3). It’s noteworthy that, despite the unresolved offense, Wesley still instructs us to show kindness to the other person and to hold him or her in prayer.
I’m cognizant of my own need to heed Mr. Wesley’s advice. It is certainly true that the practice of evil-speaking is so common that we often don’t even notice it. Tensions at work, political tensions, and conflict in the church can precipitate evil-speaking. In this season of Lent, perhaps God will work repentance in our hearts for this common sin that so damages the body of Christ.