The Eighth Commandment and Passive-Aggressiveness

For the non-Lutheran reader, we Lutherans number the commandments in the same way as Roman Catholics. The commandment against idolatry is subsumed under the commandment against having other gods. The eighth commandment is against false testimony against the neighbor. In our western numbering, the ninth and tenth commandments are against coveting what belongs to the neighbor.

So, then, I am writing about the tie between giving false testimony and passive-aggressive behavior. One of my old mentors, a pastoral counselor, used to say that passive-aggressiveness may be imaged by a large dog that puts his paws on your shoulders and licks your face while he is urinating on your legs. That’s an indelible mental picture if ever there was one.

Most American Lutherans are descended theologically and spiritually from pietists, who talk a lot about Jesus with very feeling language. In extreme cases, Lutheran pietists don’t touch any alcohol other than at communion, don’t play cards or dance, and, generally, talk heart rather than head talk. The emphasis for interpersonal relations is typically about being nice. Therefore, when you feel angry, you don’t admit it. When you are afraid, you don’t admit it. When you are hurt or betrayed, you don’t admit it. Needing to appear to be bestowed heavily with the fruits of the Spirit (see Galatians 5:22), the pietistic Lutheran may tend towards passive-aggressiveness. Don’t say anything bad to someone’s face, but damn the neighbor with faint praise or break his or her favorite item by accident.

St. James warns quite clearly about the dangers of the tongue (James 3:3-6). It was, after all, the griping against God and His servant Moses, that Israel did in the desert, that kept all but two of those born in Egypt from entering into the Promised Land. So often, it is the tongue damning with faint praise, whispering against a person who has angered oneself, and even saying just enough to imply something far worse that is, in fact, not only passive-aggressive. It is outright character assassination of the neighbor and, usually without self-awareness, soul-killing to the one breaking the 8th commandment in this way. To the casual observer, it looks like self-restraint. To God it looks like murder!

An unnamed old friend of mine was sinned against in this way. It happened in another church, but the sin was patently familiar. Like all pastors, he had accumulated detractors. Invariably, something any pastor has said or done offends someone (usually on a weekly or daily basis). In my friend’s case, he had made some enemies who decided to do their best to bring him down. They couldn’t address him directly, because to do so would have opened them up to having to admit the basis for their enmity lay in their own hearts. So, instead, they started a whisper campaign against him. When he finally had something he could address openly, it was clear he had not behaved as accused, and he was cleared. But the damage had been done to his reputation, and the whisper campaign continued as such demonic activity always does. Sin in the human heart and head began with, “Did God really say?”

Who benefits from this campaign? That’s the question I asked of my friend. In time, it became clear to him the ones who pursued this sinful course and the reasons that lay behind it. They, of course, were never sullied by their sin against their neighbor and the passive-aggressive actions that accompanied their sin. But God is never mocked. And sin left unconfessed and sin left unexposed to the Word of God festers and eats like a tumor through the new child of God created in Holy Baptism. Prayer for the offenders takes shape from the lips of the Crucified Jesus: “Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing to themselves.”

In Matthew 18, the Lord Jesus tells us to speak directly to the neighbor, not through pietistic passive-aggressiveness, and not from the ever-weak excuse, “I just can’t talk to him or her.” Which means, I don’t want to open myself to the sin in my own soul and the possibility that I am and can be very wrong.

The truth about us is we all sin and fall short of God’s glory. When we bear false witness, we not only confess it to God. We confess it to those to whom we spoke such poisonous words. And, we confess to the one whom we have sinned against. It is good for the soul to practice saying daily, “I can be wrong.”

All things work for God for those who love God, writes St. Paul in Romans 8. God will yet bring good out of the evil done to my friend. Sadly, it may only be on the last day as each of us gives an account of her or his own life to God, that some of us will finally understand the damage we have done to others through breaking the 8th commandment and through passive-aggressive behavior in Jesus’ name.

If we pastors hurt someone because of fidelity to the Word of God, we are acting as doctors of the soul through whom the Holy Spirit is addressing damnable, soul-killing behavior. The point of such fidelity is to drive sinners to the comfort of the Savior who has died for those sins and the repentance that follows forgiveness. Any pastor who takes delight in speaking hard words hasn’t looked deeply enough into his own soul and admitted that an old Adam lurks there susceptible to the old evil foe’s machinations. Any hearer who loves anything or anyone more than God will always be angered by the Word of God. It’s easier to attack a pastor or a fellow Christian, who speaks God’s Word, than to fall on one’s knees before God saying, “Have mercy on me a sinner.”

My old friend has many gifts, and the Lord God will yet use them widely for the sake of Kingdom. I pray for those who bore false testimony against him and hid it behind Jesus piety. God is not mocked.

St Matthew's Pastor Sam Zumwalt

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The Rev. Dr. Samuel Zumwalt has worked in churches for 43 years and in May 2019 celebrated the 38th anniversary of his ordination to the holy ministry. He is a member of the Society of the Holy Trinity (www.societyholytrinity.org). In 2004, Pr. Zumwalt moved with his family to Wilmington from Texas, where he served for 23 years as pastor of small, midsize, and large congregations.