Abilene Christian University.
A Freshman English class on a random weekday morning.
Just as our professor was making a point about whatever we were reading, an unmistakable noise broke the quiet and competed for everyone's attention. It was the noise of a gas-powered leaf blower being operated down on the sidewalk outside. A work crew was hard at it that morning, oblivious to the advanced scholarship they were interrupting.
Our professor paused, looked out the window, and sighed in exasperation. "That is the most pointless machine ever invented..." she muttered, before gathering her thoughts again and getting our lecture back on track.
The comment about the leaf blower obviously made a much more lasting impression on me than the lecture did, but it also said something about the professor herself, and something about me.
What my professor didn't know that morning was that, by the time I sat in her class at the age of 18, I had personally logged many hours doing the very same kind of work those men on the walkway were doing that morning.
This experience gave me an altogether different attitude about the sound of a leaf blower. Sure, it's noisy, but if your only other option is to take a broom and manually sweep a sidewalk or curb, with several other lawns still to do before dark, then a leaf blower is an absolute godsend, not "the most pointless machine ever invented".
To her, it was just noise. To me, it was an important tool, worth the noise.
Granted, the noise of a leaf blower outside the window of a class full of freshmen is probably not the best situation. And, my professor's frustration at her lecture being interrupted was understandable to a point. But, her comment went beyond expressing her point of view, (i.e. "I wish they could blow off the sidewalk some other time") and ventured out into total disregard for someone else's point of view ("...the most pointless machine ever invented").
No, I didn't say anything to her. It wasn't a big deal, and I wasn't hurt by it.
But, how often are people hurt this way?
How often do we say things that may contain some element of truth, at least the way we see it, but don't take into account where someone else might be?
"People just waste public support." (To the single mom who used public support to make ends meet the first few years after her husband left.)
"Anyone who wouldn't help a homeless person is heartless." (To my grandfather, who numerous times offered jobs at his business to homeless people, who rarely ever took him up on it.)
"Spare the rod and spoil the child." (To the couple whose teenager is living in defiance of their every value, in spite of their diligent efforts to raise him/her in the Lord.)
"Can't let worries over money get you down." (To someone who can barely pay his bills, from someone living on two pensions and a part-time job, in a paid-off house.)
"Anyone who would look at pornography is a sick pervert." (To the wounded Christian fighting a losing, secret battle with this very evil.) -- see The God of the Towel, by Jim McGuiggan, page 225.
Have these examples brought to mind other things folks have said in your hearing, that were offensive, insensitive, or at the very least, ignorant of your point of view?
Have you thought, perhaps, of some things you've said to others, that you now wish you hadn't said?
In James chapter 3, we read of the dangers inherent in the gift of speech: "...no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison..." (3:8)
Typically, when we read this passage, the dangers that come to mind are of a deliberate nature, such as gossip, profanity, and outbursts of anger. And, rightly so, as these dangers deserve our careful attention.
But again, how often are people hurt, not by a deliberate attack, but by a careless remark, an insensitive observation, a needless expression of one's personal opinion, without regard for the possibility that someone within earshot could be in a totally different place, and vulnerable to the remark?
Combine this insensitivity with most Christians' refusal to follow Jesus' command from Matthew 18 about going to a person who has caused offense, and the result is a body of believers fractured and divided, with souls and groups of souls walled off from one another, not in the unity Jesus prayed for in John 17.
So, what is the answer? If this is the case, what can anyone say? Couldn't almost anything we say be potentially misconstrued and taken as offensive by someone? And, in fact, isn't the Gospel itself offensive to many? (I Cor. 1)
Yes, but we're not talking about the Gospel, or anything even close to its importance.
And, we're not talking about that person we all know who seems to find a way to read something offensive into even the most harmless incidents and remarks.
We're talking about those times when we should have known there was potential for offense in what we said or did. Those times when the offense was reasonably predictable, and the matter at hand not nearly important enough to be worth offending anyone over.
Those times when needless offense creates a barrier to either the Gospel itself or to Christian fellowship.
That's what we're talking about, and it's far more common than we might like to think.
So, the answer lies in James 3, and in the mirror.