When we look for the reason for our failures, we seldom come across terrible sins or enormous faults. Instead we find sins that we often neglect to confess and ask for forgiveness.
In my work for the Lord I have related with many people. And every once in a while I have met a couple whose marriage has been destroyed by an atrocious infidelity or some serious misconduct. But this has happened very seldomly. What I have normally found are hundreds of ruined marriages, divorced couples, that have been destroyed by what I call “termite sins.”
I call them that way because they are so small that you can hardly detect them. When termites infect a house, their presence and destructive work can go undetected for a very long time – often until it is too late and the whole house is on the verge of collapse.
Termite sins in marriage
Termite sins in marriage are things like jealousy, indifference, sarcasm, discourtesy, personal untidiness, biting mockery… These are things that, like a shaving blade, will not kill, but make a wound, and little by little they infect our relationships until one day the whole marriage breaks down.
The same happens in our personal relationships as Christians, especially when we are involved in a movement, prayer group, or community. Christian groups often enter into a crisis because of some termite sin on the part of their leaders. Someone has a “vedette complex,” and if there is a funeral he would like to be the deceased. Someone else becomes resentful because he has attended training sessions for three years, but has never been appointed to a leadership position. Someone else in the group behaves like a dictator in a banana republic. He thinks his word is the law, and whoever does not think just like him or her should be expelled from the group or movement. To make things worse, once such an individual has been appointed to a leadership position, nobody can remove the person from that position except through a bloody revolution.
People usually fail through pride, childishness, cowardice, shyness, or foul play. Let me offer you a mirror for each one of us to see his or her own image (not your neighbor’s image) and discover if there are things in you that need to change. And, since I know that the things that often destroy our relations are not usually the enormous sins, what we are going to look at in the mirror are our “termite sins.”
Termite sins of speech
I would like to begin with termite sins that have to do with speech. Much of the damage that is done in the world, certainly the most frequent and often the most harmful damage, is done with the tongue. The tongue is the cheapest lethal weapon known to man. And anyone can afford it. The poorest man can use it. And the richest and most powerful ones fear it. It is very difficult to protect yourself from a sharp tongue. Its wounds can last for a lifetime, and can even be carried from one generation to the next. Its damage is one of the hardest to repair.
But perhaps its most terrible feature is the easiness with which this weapon is triggered, and goes off, almost inadvertently. One second, one moment of carelessness… and the damage is done. Like poisoned darts, the wound it causes is almost invisible on the surface, but the inner damage is ravaging. That is why we are seldom aware of the damage caused, and do nothing to repair it immediately.
As I said before, we are not going to deal with the big sins here, and therefore we are not going to deal with the big sins of the tongue, such as slander, defamation, false witness, insult, blunt vulgarity, and the like. I would like to think that they do not even occur among Christian leaders and mature brothers and sisters in Christ. So we are going to focus here on poisoned darts.
Sins of the tongue could be classified into three groups:
- Sins against the truth,
- Sins against Christian love, and
- Sins against freedom to coerce others.
Sins of speech that harm the truth
Examples of sins that harm the truth are exaggeration, sensationalism, generalization, and half-truths. We can understand these better with a couple of examples.
Suppose the husband comes home hungry, opens the refrigerator and says, “I never find anything to eat in this house!” Or says, “The only thing we eat in this house is soup, and I’m already tired of it!”
His wife then replies, “You never come on time for dinner! What do you think this is, a hotel?” The conversation becomes increasingly bitter, and a little later the husband remarks: “Whenever I want to have sex, you have a headache!” Finally, even the kids get into the fray and complain, “You never let me use the car! I can never go anywhere!”
All of this is exaggeration, generalization, sensationalism or mere half-truths. This marriage is about to be devoured by the termites.
Let’s now move to the leaders’ team meeting of a Christian group, where a plan is under study for improving things. One member says, “The truth is the whole plan is ridiculous! It’s never going to work!” We all know this is not true. The plan has some holes in it, but basically it is a good plan. But now the meeting has become bitter, and anything can happen.
Another example: someone says, “The last leaders’ training course was a complete disaster!” And the truth is that only one of the speakers did a poor job in presenting one of his talks for lack of proper preparation.
When sensationalism, exaggeration, generalization and half-truths become a habit in our way of speaking, we begin to destroy a lot of things. In every Christian leaders’ team, and almost at every meeting, there is often a guy like that (See, I am already exaggerating!). If the guy also happens to have a spirit of contradicting everybody, he gradually undermines all the good things that are proposed, and erodes people’s desire to continue working.
Termite sins against Christian love
Let us now move on to some of the termite sins against Christian love, which most often are also sins against the truth.
Let’s begin with “speaking against others.” Slander is one thing, saying or repeating something that is false and that damages someone’s reputation. Speaking against others occurs when you say or repeat something that, even if it is true, damages someone’s reputation.
Harming the reputation of others: So, speaking against others simply means harming the reputation of others. It does not matter whether what you are saying is true or false. Speaking against another person causing a damage to that person’s reputation I have no right to cause. It does not even need to be anything serious. “So-and-so… she is really lazy.” “Ann does not take good care of her children.” “Mark never lasts more than six months in a job.” Or, “The truth is that Jack is quite stupid.”
There are some leaders who return home from a retreat or conference and then takes delight in telling everybody the small failures of the other team members during the retreat. Well, that’s speaking against others, the very habit of speaking wrongly about others, because there are appropriate ways to express those concerns privately. Circulating that kind of critical speech does not help to solve faults or failures – it creates a climate of gossip in the people of God. This leads us to the next sin, which is precisely the sin of gossip.
Gossip always involves talking about people in a manner that is in some way harmful. Gossip can be direct. For example, someone might say to you, “Did you hear? Andrew is having marriage problems.” And you respond: “Really? Tell me…”
But gossip among Christians can also be indirect and subtle. Someone in your small group meeting might lead out a prayer of intercession, which goes something like this: “Brothers, let us pray for Andrew and Lucy, because they are having very serious problems at home. Lord, we intercede for Lucy, because her left eye is still black after her husband hit her the other day. And we ask you to give him more patience, with this kind of wife he has. Amen.”
Damage caused by gossip: Gossip undermines trust and soils a reputation. It spins a web of innuendo and information that can subject a person’s name to criticism and dishonor. We gossip whenever we talk about people in a manner that will diminish our hearers’ trust and esteem for them, and whenever we reveal another’s personal thoughts and affairs without their permission. When you spread personal and private information you prove yourself untrustworthy and disloyal. This is particularly true if you possess information because a friend confided in you.
Confidentiality is harmed when you repeat something that was not intended for everbody’s ears. Gossip violates friendship by broadcasting openly what was confided in a few trusted ears.
If for some reason righteousness demands that we reveal something that was confided to us, then we must follower the higher law. If we are privy to a murder plot, we are not obligated to keep it secret in loyalty to our friends.
We should not ask others to promise us to keep something we have told them confidential (secret). If we do not trust them to use some information wisely, we should not tell it to them. We should not promise anyone to keep something secret before they tell us what it is. We may have a moral or legal responsibility to reveal it once we know it. Nor should we promise afterwards unless the conditions of the promise are clearly acceptable.
One of the worst types of gossip is the busybody. Being a busybody is meddling in something that is none of your business. In the Gospel of John we see an example when Jesus had to correct Peter for prying into the affairs of the other apostle whom Jesus loved:
Peter looked back, and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved, the same one who at the supper had reclined next to Jesus, was following them. When Peter saw him, he said, “Lord, what is to be of this one?” Jesus replied, “If I want him to stay until I come back, what is that to you? Follow me.” And thus the saying was passed on among the brethren, that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die, but rather, “If I want him to stay until I come back, what is that to you?” (John 21:20-23)
Perhaps it would be good if this saying would be passed on among our brothers and sisters in Christ, so that when someone asks what he has no reason to know, we can answer like Jesus, “What is that to you?”, which actually means, “This is none of your business. Don’t be a busybody!”
Our contemporary society has the false idea that everybody is entitled to know everything. This is what the owners of the media proclaim, and especially the reporters or interviewers of newspapers and TV shows that specialize in meddling in other people’s lives. Christ tells us there are things that are none of our personal business, even if we hold the highest office in government or church. We must differentiate between what is public and what is private, what is merely confidential and what is secret. Busybodies do a lot of harm in Christian groups.
Let’s now examine another area of speech, namely criticism. Constructive criticism is what people do with the intention to improve something. However, to distinguish it from destructive criticism, constructive criticism must be delivered in the right place and at the right time, and to those who can do something about it.
Constructive criticism, in order to be constructive, should have the following elements:
1) We must say exactly what it is that we are criticizing. If you say, “Tom did not understand the purpose of section two in the talk we had assigned him, so we should help him next time,” that is constructive. Even Tom will appreciate your evaluation of his talk. But if you simply say, “Tom’s talk was a disaster,” that is clearly destructive criticism and Tom will probably hate your guts and prematurely give up his teaching career.
2) The second element of constructive criticism is stating why something was wrong or bad. In the preceding case, we noted how Tom did not accomplish the objective of section two of the talk because he missed the point.
Jesus corrected his apostles on many times but he always explained why. (Do not run for the first seats at table because the master may move you to the back.) When we do not explain why something is being criticized, we leave people guessing and they will likely repeat the mistake again.
3) For criticism to be constructive, it should always contribute something towards a solution. And if we don’t have a solution, we should say, “I don’t know what to do in this case, but I think we all should try to find a way to solve it.”
Unqualified criticism is what you do with the sole intentionof noting a failure, not trying to correct it, and it is almost always done in the presence of people who have nothing to do with a possible solution.
Criticizing in the proper way is necessary. Otherwise, a Christian group will gradually evolve towards three different kinds of groupings – those who do nothing but criticize and become the judges of everybody else, a few holy people who keep trying to please the critics, and those who simply give up.
Mockery and sarcasm
Let’s now examine the termite sin of mockery. Mockery is very harmful, and it is made worse by the fact that it can also be very funny, which makes it easy for you to become popular through it. (Oh! How witty of you…)
A sophisticated form of mockery is sarcasm. I know at least two marriages that were destroyed by the habit of sarcasm that developed between husband and wife. “Oh, so you’re back from the beauty parlor? I never would have guessed! Next time do the wrinkles too.” Or at the movies, the husband remarks, “Well, that’s a real woman, not what I have at home…” This is terrible, and unfortunately it takes place in many Christian environments, and at a very high level. The same can be said about the use of negative humor. “Boy, you don’t sound like a donkey because you are so stupid you forgot how!”
Nicknames can be very offensive too. Calling someone “Clove,” just because he is short, skinny, black and has a big head is uncharitable. We should only use nicknames if the people concerned are not offended. The key to know this is easy – if we can call a person directly by his nickname and he responds to it without offense, there is no problem. We find many nicknames in Scripture: Peter (Simon), The Sons of Thunder (James and John), The Twin (Thomas), etc. But if we have to use a nickname behind a person’s back, then we are in trouble.
Jokes should not offend others: We should also consider the use we make of jokes and practical jokes addressed at specific people. It is true that jokes help to build a climate of fellowship and joy. We don’t want to become too serious, but we should not talk about love while showing lack of charity. I am not going to say what we can do or cannot do in the area of jokes, but I can give a criterion – if the other person feels offended, this means the joke was wrong and we should apologize immediately. What we think about it makes no difference. It’s not a matter of saying, “You’re too easily offended.” No one should be offended. Jokes are for all of us to laugh and enjoy, including the person concerned. There is no need to victimize anyone. There should be no victims.
Vulgarity needs no comment. It must be totally eradicated among Christians. The same must be said about swearing and cursing.
Manipulation, intrigue, and emotional blackmail
So, let us now move to the last category of termite sins of the tongue, which is the category of sins against freedom. Sins that harm freedom are, for instance, manipulation, intrigue, and emotional blackmail. What these have in common is that they intend to have the other person do my will.
There are many forms of verbal manipulation. A very popular one is saying something to X for Y to understand it. The husband is praying aloud, and he says, “Lord, I ask you that my wife would forgive me for the things I said yesterday.” The right thing would be for him to turn around and address his wife instead of God and say, “Honey, I said such and such yesterday. That was very wrong. It will not happen again. Please forgive me.” Let’s not ask the Lord to accomplish through miracles what we are supposed to accomplish through humility.
A very destructive one is accusation in the form of a question. A wife says, “Why don’t you take me to the movies?” If she were to say, “Darling, take me to the movies,” I would take her gladly even if I had seen the movie a hundred times. But “why don’t you take me” is a question that has no answer, because the only real answer would be, “Well, because you have never asked me to take you, and you are once again expecting me to read your mind.” And by then I am already furious, and if I answer I might raise my voice and yell, because what I perceived was not a question but an accusation. So I answer, ‘You never take me anywhere’ is an exaggeration, and your exaggerations are the kinds of things that make me angry. And it is also unfair, because I often take you everywhere, and if you don’t go it’s because she doesn’t feel like it, and I can’t stand all this nagging anymore. As if I had nothing to do! I come home tired from my work, and I haven’t closed the door behind me when…” And by now all hell has broken loose.
Or the husband comes home and his wife says sweetly, “Where were you?” That will make him lose his temper: That did it! He explodes, “That’s not a question but an accusation! ‘Where were you and where did you expect me to come from, except the place I always usually come from every ay? Do you think I go to many different places? All I do is go from my home to the office and from the office to my home, and I can’t be a minute late because you might start interrogating me.” That home can now be declared a disaster area.
Accusations in the form of a question can cause anger much more than a direct accusation, because they are trying to cover mistrust. I concede that in many cases they are just an inherited habit that must, nevertheless, be corrected.
Emotional blackmailing is similar. The wife wants her husband to buy something for her. He says he can’t, and then she starts weeping, her voice falters, and she says: “You don’t love me anymore! When we were dating you used to give me everything.”
Another example: the husband is peacefully reading the newspaper, because the wife in turn had been watching the soap opera that has just ended. So she sits next to him and says, “We never talk!” The husband asks for just one second to finish reading the paragraph he had begun, but then she replies, “Sure! Your newspaper comes first, and I’m second!”
Indifference and lack of expressions of love
Leaving the sins of the tongue behind, let’s consider other termite sins. The most appropriate at this time is indifference or lack of expressions of love.
Even though we have laughed at certain situations where there was actual emotional blackmailing, it is equally true that there are also situations where the expressions of affection, courtesy, and various signs of attention we used to have before marriage have now disappeared from many homes. This builds an unbearable trap, because man and woman are able to endure many tortures and sorrows, but they are not able to endure the absence of affection – long periods of indifference, isolation and the loneliness of two people who live in the same house and pretend to love each other but do not know how to show it. That’s why “verbal affection” and other expressions of love are so important – a compliment, a good-morning kiss, an anniversary gift, a weekly night devoted exclusively for the couple to be together, no matter how busy your schedule.
Visual affection is also important, especially for a man. A wife whose face is white with cream and whose hair is full of rolls that make her look like a Martian is silently telling her husband, ‘I care very little whether I am attractive to you or not.’ The same goes for a man who goes to bed smelling like Limburger Cheese.
And of course, physical expressions of affection are also very important, but I’m not going to dwell on them here because you are familiar with them.
Disorderly desire for admiration and recognition
Every human being has a natural desire or need for admiration and recognition. However, the next termite sin has to do with a disorderly desire for admiration and recognition.
I’m referring to a person who will not do any Christian service if the reward does not include an applause or a medal. Some Christians are very willing to serve as leaders in a conference or retreat, because that is very visible and will make them popular and admired; but they may not be as willing to do the easier service of participating in an intercession team for the same event, because that is silent and no one will ever know about it. I remember someone who never served again in a retreat, because no one told him at the evaluation meeting how tremendous his talk had been. I can also remember someone who was so easily offended that he left because leader so-and-so did not greet him at a meeting by mere neglect. I’m also referring to those who follow every funny idea or trend because of a concern for belonging and a need for being accepted. The idea might have been against his principles, but avoiding rejection was more important.
Normally these people are also deeply concerned for not hurting other people’s feelings. This is the father who allows his daughter to go around half naked, even if he disagrees, because she could feel bad or leave the home if he says something. Or he does not want to hurt the feelings of his son who is asking him to buy a new car for him, even though he does not need it and his father does not have enough money, and a car will only be an encouragement for laziness or vice. But the father will not say no, because this could build a distance between him and his son. He would rather be loved than be respected. And he ends up being manipulated.
Another serious termite sin is irresponsibility. Such is the case of a Christian leader who has to give a talk at a retreat, and just two minutes before he discovers he had left the outlines at home. Or a team member who calls the retreat leader just the day before the retreat, saying he will not be able to attend because it is his sister’s birthday.
A Christian leader has to be someone you can trust, somebody you can count with. He must be someone who knows how to say no, but when he says yes we know he will do what he promised.
One form and cause of irresponsibility is disorder. This person has no order in his priorities, or in his money, or in his commitments, or in his schedule. He says yes to everything, and his heart is so big that he would like to do everything and be everywhere. But that’s impossible. This type of leader can be divided in two categories: 1) Those who die of a heart attack, and 2) Those who are so irresponsible that they give others a heart attack.
I hope my mirror has helped you detect some termite sins, and others as well that I haven’t mentioned.
We as Christians know that the door to the transformation of the world is the integral, progressive conversion of each one of us to full maturity in Christ. We will not transform the world unless men and women are transformed in Christ, and that means we ourselves have to first change before we can help others change as well. And we have begun to see that the areas we need to change in are not those terrible things we one day left at the feet of Christ, but a large number of small things, of termite sins that are so small that we wouldn’t even be able to see them without someone else showing them to us, but which are actually destroying us.
If we were able to leave behind those difficult things, would it be so difficult now to leave behind something small, out of love for the Lord and for his people? To eradicate termites from our house, it was first necessary to see them and to admit that they were there. In order to be consistent, that’s exactly what we need first of all – to see them, to see ourselves and to accept, honestly and humbly, whatever we discover inside.
I have not intended to offend anyone. If this helps, I am the first one to confess that if I know so much about termite sins it is because the vast majority of them I found inside myself.
If there is someone who throughout this talk has only rejoiced in the faults of others, and said, “This is X. That’s Y. That’s the perfect portrait of Z,” then with all respect I will have to remind him of the words of the Lord: Brother, or sister, why do you look at the speck in your neighbor’s eye and do not see the log in yours? First take out the log in your eyes, and then you will see better the speck in the other person’s eyes.
Let’s take out the log in our own eyes. After we do so, our eyes will be clean enough for us to take a positive look at our own Christian group or community.
This article is adapted from the book, From Egghead to Birdhood (hatch or rot as a Christian), (c) copyright 2001 Carlos Mantica. Used with permission.
Top image of an abandoned sagging house, from Bigstock.com, © by rusty426, stock photo ID: 164151767.
This article is adapted from the book, From Egghead to Birdhood (hatch or rot as a Christian), (c) copyright 2001 by Carlos Mantica.
Carlos Mantica was a founder of The City of God community (La Cuidad de Dios) in Managua, Nicaragua, and a founding leader of the Sword of the Spirit. He served as president of the Sword of the Spirit between 1991 and 1995.
- See Tribute to Chale Mantica by Jean Barbara, President of the Sword of the Spirit