Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Thoughts on Proverbs

We humans, as a rule, enjoy seeing others look bad. Give us a good scandal and even just an embarrassing scenario, and we’re all set. Why else would a race spend so much time and money on the National Enquirer, American Idol, Dr. Phil, Judge Judy, and other venues for public humiliation? Why would fictitious characters, like Hercule Poirot and Perry Mason, be admired for their ability to tease out embarrassing facts about even the most immaterial witnesses? I can’t imagine many things worse than having my love life analyzed by a homicide detective or litigation attorney who’s obviously bored with his job. But one person’s living nightmare is another’s entertainment, and as long as we personally aren’t the target of gossip, we believe everything’s okay.

I wonder if commercialized humiliation desensitizes us to its severity. If we laugh at someone on television, maybe it’s easier to use each other’s deepest, darkest secrets for our own gain. Whether through a well-planned slip of the tongue or well-timed public announcement, knowledge is power, and it can help us boost a case – weak or strong – in our favor. King Solomon warns against doing this. By far, Proverbs is my least favorite book of the Bible, primarily because it’s unclear just how wise sayings are supposed to be interpreted and applied in our lives. (And it’s also partly because early on I realized that I’d be a very “quarrelsome wife”!) But I think that Proverbs 25:7b-10 (ESV) provides a practical lesson:

What your eyes have seen do not hastily bring into court,
for what will you do in the end, when your neighbor puts you to shame?
Argue your case with your neighbor himself, and do not reveal another’s secret,
lest he who hears you bring shame upon you, and your ill repute have no end.

I suppose there are a number of ways to interpret this passage, but I’d like to focus on the third line. The NIV says it even better: “do not betray another’s confidence” (v. 9). That might mean refraining from gossip or settling potentially-embarrassing suits out of court whenever possible. It also would prohibit taking cheap shots at your opponent by revealing information irrelevant to a case brought before the court. There are plenty of opportunities do damage to another’s reputation in divorce cases, paternity suits, and other legal annoyances. However, we shouldn’t take advantage of a single one. In other words, we’re not to mimic the antics found in courtroom dramas. Every precaution should be taken to avoid the needless embarrassment of others.

That’s a whole lot to swallow. To start, maybe we need to ask ourselves why someone’s secret needs to become common knowledge. If we as Christians truly cared about the other person, why expose them? Why intentionally betray their trust? “For their own good” is my paraphrase of a popular answer. The dissenting view begins with a reference to Christ’s conversation with the Samaritan woman (John 4:1-42), arguing that people need to hear the awful truth about themselves. This argument has no foundation. Jesus actually follows Solomon’s instruction by talking to the woman one-on-one about her messed up life. He didn’t wait until the well was crowded with other young women collecting water.

The same applies to the times when a prophet condemns a king in the presence of his friends and advisors, or when the apostle Paul refers to the sinful behavior of particular church members in his letters. Those people were accomplices or parties relevant to the situation. No one was hearing anything about which they didn’t already know. They were directly involved somehow, such as in asking Paul how to deal with a rebellious fellow believer.

I don’t deny that there will be times when private information is accidentally revealed. I also don’t deny that there are times when secrets must be shared in public for a problem to be resolved quickly and completely. However, I’m concerned about our own motives for cutting each other down. When winning at any cost is the goal, we justify a “take no prisoners” approach. But that’s easy. Too easy. Having real compassion, however, is a challenge, one that far too many people prefer to avoid.