by Becky De Oliveira—
Isaiah 59:12-15 in The Message translation points the finger directly at each of us. It uses the word “our” repeatedly, as in, “Our wrongdoings pile up before you, God, our sins stand up and accuse us” (Verses 12-15). And just so we can’t argue that we really aren’t all that bad because we haven’t robbed any banks, killed anyone, slept with anyone else’s husband or wife, worshipped any golden images, or told any whopping lies, the prophet itemizes what he means by “wrongdoings” or “sins.” These are as follows: 1) Mocking and denying God, 2) Not following God, 3) Spreading false rumors, 4) Inciting sedition, and 5) Muttering malice. These are not as shocking as murder or theft or—gasp—adultery. They sound somewhat tame, at least when I imagine myself doing any of them. Other people? That’s another story entirely.
I recently took a lengthy health survey at my university, and one of its more interesting techniques was first to ask the respondent about, say, his or her drinking behavior and then ask what the respondent thinks other people would report about themselves. “How often do you pass out when you’ve been drinking?” it asks. Then “How often do you think the average student at your university passes out when they’vebeen drinking?” It feels a little tricky, like a kind of Rorschach test. “I have thisfriendwho passes out a lot when he drinks . . . Not me, just a friend.” Uh, yeah, OK. Maybe one could look at these five sins in the same way. Think about whether you do them—then think about other people. Then go back to yourself.
Let’s take a look at two of the sins that are easy to see other people doing: spreading false rumors and muttering malice. My first reaction is to think that I do neither of these; I am careful with what I say about others publicly and I’m always upbeat and positive. Other people? When we moved out here to Colorado, an organization published books containing false statements about the One project (co-founded by my husband and his friends) and sent them to all the elders in our church, along with just about everyone else in the state. This was not helpful. “These people,” I have been known to fume, “have ruined my life and nothing and no one has stopped them.” Of course they think they were telling the truth, bravely and boldly. So there’s that. Everyone has a point of view. Perhaps I could be called to account for the fact that I am making this accusation here in writing. I think I am defending my family but maybe I’m spreading false rumors too. My understanding is at no point complete; I don’t even know these people.
Then there’s muttering malice, which certainly seems connected to spreading false rumors, and which I interpret as meaning complaining about everything and everyone all the time. In a church setting, everyone has this problem. But there is no one worse than me. You can see evidence in the preceding paragraph which is a sanitized summary of one of my big, bad grievances of the past five years. There are more. I complain far too much. For Lent one year, in order to address this character deficiency, I decided to give up complaining. For seven whole weeks. What that meant was that I really couldn’t talk at all. It was a useful exercise though, because it helped me understand how much of what I say and think is 1) negative or 2) pointless. I need to work on cultivating more gratitude and positivity. For example: Not everyone in Colorado has conspired to ruin my life. In fact, I’ve made lots of friends here whom I will love for as long as I live. And I am eternally grateful for them. But it’s somehow easier to focus on the bad things that have happened, especially when I’m feeling sorry for myself generally.
It may not seem like a big deal, but negativity spills over into everything and changes the way we approach life. It does not please God; it is a sin.
Becky De Oliveira is a writer, editor, teacher, and qualitative researcher working on special projects for the Pacific Union Conference from her home in Colorado. This blog is adapted from a reflection for the Daily Walk, an online Bible study produced by Boulder Adventist Church.