Loving Our Harsh-Tongued Neighbors

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by David Sanford

How can we “avoid the appearance of inciting incidents while subversively piquing the interest and curiosity of our neighbors”? We can do so when it comes to how they talk to us and in front of us to others.

I remember when one of my older kids reached age eighteen, graduated from high school, and went off to university. Their vocabulary stretched by a word or two. I winced, but I didn’t offer a rebuke. Instead, I cheated—and prayed. The Holy Spirit convicted them, and a while later during a visit they told me about it. My decision not to say such words had become their own personal conviction—literally without me having to say a word.

In essence, they realized they had never once heard Mom or Dad say such words, and they felt convicted by God to not use such words either. Now, clearly, those terms were “off limits” before they were eighteen years old, but even then not because we had such rules in our family.

Instead, we had simply talked with our older children about how to handle it when others use such terms or make harsh remarks. In our family, we explained, we have made the choice not to be offended. Instead, we always want to be gracious.

* * * * *

When I arrived at a hotel in Nashville, “the buckle of the Bible belt,” the manager was training a brand-new employee. The woman in line ahead of me was nearly finished checking in. The new employee was very polite, but made the mistake of saying the woman’s room number out loud, a huge taboo in the hotel industry for security reasons. Immediately, the manager reamed the rookie in no uncertain terms.

The tone in the hotel lobby instantly became extremely tense. I saw my opportunity, stepped up to the front desk, and cracked a joke. Humor is one of the best ways I’ve found to earn the right to befriend others. I followed up with some more joking around, got the rookie and manager laughing, and then threw a hook.

I started telling a story in order to present the basic Gospel message, and then paused. They asked what happened, so I finished the story and started a second one. They asked what happened, so I told the rest of that story. To my surprise, they opened up and both told me they needed God in their lives. So, with their permission, I shared even more about the Good News of Jesus Christ.

We traded contact information, they asked me to send a book that explained the Gospel further, and I walked away thanking God. I thanked God for having a great sense of humor and for giving that gift to humanity. I also thanked Him for creating jokes, storytelling, and other wonderful and fun ways to love our neighbors well.

After all, in their heart, almost every neighbor of ours wants God, even if they have no idea that God is who they’re looking for.

* * * * *

Perhaps there’s no other area in life where it’s harder to love our neighbors well than controlling what comes out of our mouths.

Why? In part, because we’re prone to speak, then think. In part, because what we say so quickly reveals the thoughts and intentions of our hearts. In part, because words can have such devastating, damaging, long-lasting effects on others.

True, some of us talk more than others, but all of us—all of us—say things we shouldn’t.

Interestingly, Scripture isn’t focused on not saying curse words. In high school and college I never got into the habit of swearing. But such words aren’t the only that should make us wince.

In fact, as Jars of Clay reminded us, some so-called profanity actually can become genuine, heartfelt prayers—like the phrase “Oh, my God” in a sudden emergency.

Furthermore, some curse words like “hell” or “damned” can be sober facts we say with tears in our eyes and the love of Jesus Christ in our hearts.

* * * * *

Some swear words are simple facts of life. I was reminded of this while watching a PBS documentary with my younger son. I used it as an opportunity to teach him that one offensive swear word is used by non-Christians when they realize they need God, remember they turned their backs on Him in their youth, and now are facing certain death.

The PBS documentary was a made-for-TV movie called Touching the Void, which tells the true story of Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, two British mountaineers who embarked on a daring and reckless attempt to climb the previously unconquered western face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes mountains. After successfully reaching the 20,800-foot summit, Simpson and Yates felt like they were on top of the world. But shortly after starting their descent, Joe broke his leg. Rescue was absolutely impossible. Despite Simon’s best efforts, risking his own life, Joe falls hundreds of feet to his demise.

Somehow, Joe wakes up inside the belly of a massive glacial crevasse. He’s barely alive, freezing cold, dangling on the edge of another deep crevasse, his leg now severely mangled. He’s without food or water, utterly trapped, looking up 75 feet at the ice roof he broke through during his fall, realizing Simon thinks he’s dead. In other words, in two or three days Joe will be dead. No question.

In that context, Joe yells a particular swear word at the top of his lungs over and over as he beats his hands against the crevasse wall that’s entombed him. Of course, I told my son ahead of time what our family’s standards are about never saying that word. We wince at such language, but I believe God heard Joe admit the bankruptcy of his atheistic worldview. God not only heard it, but miraculously saved him.

Which God did that? The cosmic killjoy God? The always angry God? No. Instead, it was the God who doesn’t want any to perish, but all to come to repentance…no matter how colorful or limited someone’s vocabulary is.


This guest blog post is an excerpt from the new book, Loving Your Neighbor: Surprise! It’s Not What You Think, © 2017 David Sanford and used by permission.