By the time you read this, we will be well into the season of Lent. In this season we are called upon to take up various faith disciplines – “repentance, fasting, prayer, and works of love.” Fasting is usually thought of as “giving up” something for the season – chocolate, beer, meat, wine, etc. I would like to suggest another form of fasting.
The Eighth Commandment tells us that we “are not to bear false witness against [the] neighbor.” In the Small Catechism we hear that this means “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.”
This may be one of the most difficult of the commandments to keep, especially the part about “speaking well” of one another, and “interpret[ing] everything [our neighbors] do in the best possible light.” Truly keeping this commandment throws a wet blanket on much of what passes for conversation; indeed it brings all of our gossiping to a screeching halt.
Instead of giving up chocolate, beer, wine, meat, etc., we might consider fasting from gossip, fasting from passing judgment upon others, fasting from fault-finding.
In the Large Catechism we also hear that even if we know a neighbor is doing something wrong – or leaving something undone – even if we are telling the truth about a neighbor’s shameful behavior, we are still to keep our mouths shut. “[W]e should note,” says the Large Catechism, “that none has the right to judge and reprove a neighbor publicly, even after having seen a sin committed, unless we are authorized to judge and reprove . . . I may certainly see and hear that my neighbor sins, but I have no command to tell others about it. If I were to interfere and pass judgment on [the neighbor], I would fall into a sin greater than that of my neighbor. When you become aware of a sin, however, do nothing but turn your ears into a tomb and bury it until you are appointed a judge and are authorized to administer punishment by virtue of your office.”
Very few of us are appointed as judges or otherwise authorized to pass judgment on one another. On the other hand, we are all authorized “to come to [the neighbors] defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.”
What does all this have to do with Lent and fasting? Instead of giving up chocolate, beer, wine, meat, etc., we might consider fasting from gossip, fasting from passing judgment upon others, fasting from fault-finding. And all the while fasting from judgment, we might consider instead always speaking well of one another – and if we cannot speak well of someone, we instead keep our mouths shut.
Keeping the Eighth Commandment is, as noted above, not easy. We cannot go it alone. God, however, promises to come to our help; all we need do is call upon God to strengthen us through the Word and the Holy Sacraments. We are not left to our own. We are, rather, given a prayer in Psalm 141 of our various traditions, a prayer often sung at Vespers, the Church’s Evening Liturgy: “Set a watch before my mouth, O Lord, and guard the door of my lips. Let not my heart incline to any evil thing; let me not be occupied in wickedness with evil doers.”
Be confident that God promises to answer such a prayer. We will be given strength not only to fast from gossip and fault-finding, but we will also be given strength to speak well of one another – even to pray for one another. I pledge you my prayers in this regard and ask that you pray for me as well, that together we become a people who take up the Lenten discipline of fasting from judgmental speech not only for the season of Lent but throughout all the days of our lives. What a world of difference this discipline would make!