“I can’t tell her about my trouble. Even if I begged her not to tell, I know she would tell everyone she talked to. And the story she told would be an awful distortion.” A saintly friend spoke of a family member she had learned not to trust. “I wish I could trust her. Should I confront her about her gossiping?”
That is the beauty of family life. We are regularly pressed against people whose faults we have come to know only too well. We try to be patient but only so many assaults against fundamental values can be tolerated. We chafe.
Generally there is at least one family member who is matchlessly irritating to us. That person efficiently does just the things that hurt, offend, and annoy us.
It would seem that we have just two options: We can allow ourselves to be misused or we can confront the offender. The first option does not help the offender and leaves us injured and resentful. It just doesn’t seem right.
The second option has historically been very popular. In this option we study the offender’s offenses and weave them into a pattern. Almost immediately the character implications become clear. We put a label on the diagnosis. We prepare our speech. We lie in wait. At the next provocation, our considered analysis gushes out. Of course it is all done with the intent of helping our loved one grow.
But there is a problem in this popular approach: “Honest criticism is hard to take, particularly from a relative, a friend, an acquaintance, or a stranger” (Franklin P. Jones). Humans are pained and dispirited by criticism. It commonly makes people feel hurt, lonely, confused, and hopeless. And it does not help them grow.
Returning to the woman who has learned to mistrust the family member, she could lovingly confront the gossipy relative hoping for a ready reformation. Yet I am confident that the offender would be deeply hurt and numbingly confused. I think she would respond: “I thought we were friends. I have always loved you and wanted to help you. You are one of my favorite people. Why are you so angry with me?” No amount of fair and reasonable dialogue could clarify the corrective message. It would simply feel like an attack, a counter-betrayal.
For every offense and every offender there is a sterile, brittle interpretation and there is a sympathetic interpretation. The woman who has a problem with telling stories can be seen as a gossip who barters secrets for attention. She can also be seen as a person who has been bashful from childhood and never had anyone in her life who helped her understand others and who talks about bad situations as part of her effort to understand them.
Of course, there is probably some truth to both versions. Thus we get to choose. We can choose to dwell on the light or the dark. We can choose to focus on the annoyance or to focus on good intentions. Whatever we choose to focus on grows. Thereby we increase the light or increase the darkness.
When we study people’s offenses with even a glimmer of compassion, we make a startling discovery: the root of the offender’s behavior is humanness. We all offend and we all do it because we are human. We all grieve heaven with our narrowness, meanness, and lack of wisdom. We all have sinned and come short of the glory of God (Romans 3:7). My mortal, human imperfection is something I share with all fellow offenders. In the poetic expression of Edward Sill (1906), “These clumsy feet, still in the mire, / Go crushing blossoms without end.” I can enlarge the world’s supply of pain by responding to humanness with my own provincial humanness. Or I can move us toward the divine by responding with the divine. I can respond with charity.
Charity is a choice—a choice with eternal consequences. “If you don’t like someone, the way he holds his spoon will make you furious; if you do like him, he can turn his plate over into your lap and you won’t mind” (Becker, year). We are commanded to pray with all the energy of heart for the blessed gift of charity (Moroni 7:47–48) so that we can swallow offenses without getting indigestion.
The bitter irony in correction is that most attempts at correction make troublesome problems worse. They add fuel to the angry fires. The woman confronted with her “gossiping” will go running to find someone to help her make sense of the painful attack. In the effort to overcome her gossiping, she will extend it. That is why Paul warns of one of the chief dangers of being human: “O man, whosoever thou art that judgest: for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things” (Romans 2:1). When we judge, we become worthy of condemnation. When we fail to forgive offenses, small or large, we are guilty of a greater sin (D&C 64:8–11).
Judgment is such a delicate matter that it is to be handled only by those who know everything and love perfectly. That disqualifies most of us. “Behold what the scripture says—man shall not smite, neither shall he judge; for judgment is mine, saith the Lord, and vengeance is mine also, and I will repay” (Mormon 8:20). “Ye ought to say in your hearts—let God judge between me and thee” (D&C 64:11).
Jesus has begged us to stay out of the judging business since we are so poorly suited for it. His metaphor of motes and beams provides physical hyperbole but spiritual understatement: Humans can never see each other clearly. Nowhere do we see through glass more darkly than in our assessment of those who have annoyed us for years. We do not see that even annoying family members come “trailing clouds of glory, from God, who is our home.”
So Jesus directs us away from judging and toward charity, toward seeing as He sees. Wedged between His washing of the disciples’ feet and His giving His life for them, Jesus delivers the breathtaking new commandment: We are to love as He loves. He does not command us to repent one another or to fix one another. He commands us to love just exactly the way He loves: with perfect redemption. Such a commandment stretches us beyond human capacity. We simply cannot love as we should love unless we are filled with Jesus. Under His influence, we can view each other with compassion. We can make the good parts of our relationships more central, memorable, and common. We can carefully guide each other around our weaknesses. We can pray for each other. But we can only do it when we are filled with Him.
There is no simple answer about how much the woman should tell her talkative relative. That is the province of wisdom. She might provide a simple story of events. Or she may choose to avoid sensitive subjects with her gossipy relative. Irrespective of what she chooses to disclose, it is clear that she should strive to love and support her relative. Since that “offending” person has a knack for organizing, she can invite her to help organize her family history. She can make appointments for fun time together. She can cherish positive memories. God knows that love liberates goodness. If we all loved each other, the paradisiacal state would flood in on us.
Years ago it became clear to me that I do not have the right to correct anyone I do not love. There have been times when I have looked with compassion on a brother or sister and Father has entrusted me with a message for that person. Of course, at such times my “correction” felt more like celebration and encouragement than judgment, reproof, or scolding.
Researcher and therapist John Gottman (1999) reminds us that we cannot change people until we love them as they are. Of course once we love them as they are, the compulsion to correct is replaced with the desire to bless. “The nearer we get to our heavenly Father, the more we are disposed to look with compassion on perishing souls; we feel that we want to take them upon our shoulders, and cast their sins behind our backs. . . . if you would have God have mercy on you, have mercy on one another” (Smith, 1938, p. 241)
So how should we react when we are pained by the thoughtless and selfish acts of another? We should pray that God will heal our wounds and then fill us with Him so that we can “love [our] enemies, bless them that curse [us], do good to them that hate [us], and pray for them which despitefully use [us], and persecute [us]” (Matthew 5:44).
His message is love.
Becker, I. in Reader’s Digest (1975). Pocket treasury of great quotations. Pleasantville, N.Y.: Reader’s Digest.
Gottman, J. (1999). The seven principles for making marriage work. New York: Crown.
Sill, E. R. (1906). Fool’s prayer. Poetical works of Edward Rowland Sill. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Smith, J. F. (Compiler). (1938). Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book.