(The primary material in this article was taken from my book, Dynamic Leadership, Appendix 7, and later expanded.)
We Live in a Negative World!
The subject of negativity is a broad one, and although we are going to focus on a certain highly dangerous type of negativity, some general observations will prove helpful. In case you haven’t recognized it, we live in a negative world. Bad news sells and good news doesn’t. At least that seems to be the message of our modern media organizations. Further, many of us grew up in negative families. I know I did. My parents would not have been characterized as positive thinkers and talkers by any stretch of the imagination.
Then, besides the effects the environment has on our perspectives and subsequent conversation directions, we have our own inner struggles with which to deal. We all develop some forms of insecurities as we grow up, and a common way to compensate for our bruised egos and warped self-images is to tear others down in an attempt to feel less inadequate about ourselves. This brand of negative speaking about others is far more common than the so-called “common cold” (and it makes us a lot sicker!). Those who are consistently critical of others are first of all critical of themselves. They may act otherwise, but rest assured that it is only an “act.”
When I was in high school eons ago, we spoke of certain classmates having a “superiority complex.” There is no such thing. That prideful and smug presentation of oneself was a charade, a cloak used to cover what we called an “inferiority complex.” That last term is relatively accurate, although outmoded in this era. Now we just say that a person who feels badly about themselves is insecure or has a poor self-image. If we are familiar with Schema Therapy, we would perhaps say that they have a defective schema. In other words, they feel defective as persons.
Get Your “Buts” in the Right Place!
Anyone not really comfortable in their own skin has the problem thus described, and one dead giveaway is that they are defensive and handle almost any form of correction (however well-intentioned and well presented) poorly. They already feel badly about themselves, and don’t seem to realize that input from others can help them change – which would result in them feeling better about themselves. Another evidence of this malady is seen in how they view and talk about others. They do tear others down in order to feel better about themselves, but it never works. Sin cannot make you feel better inside your heart of hearts.
Those in the church who have not yet conquered this problem have certain patterns to their negative speech. One pattern is just to talk negatively about others behind their backs, thus committing what the Bible defines as gossip and slander. Another pattern is saying both good and bad things about others, but doing it in a certain order, thus creating a certain emphasis. Compare these two sentences in how they affect your feelings about someone we will call “Betty” for purposes of illustration:
“Betty is a great wife and mother, but she doesn’t seem to get very involved in serving others.”
“I don’t always know what Betty may be doing to serve people generally, but I do know that she is absolutely a great wife and mother.”
The point of the illustration is to show that whatever is said after the little conjunction “but” is what we go away with – it is what we tend to remember. In the first example, we are left with the thought that Betty doesn’t serve those who aren’t in her family very well and in the second example we are left with the warm feeling that this woman really loves her husband and children, and shows it by her actions. Note a couple of things in the first example. The speaker is making an assumption (shown by the word seems) and leaves us with what appears to be a conclusion. If you want to have troubled relationships on all levels, assume what you don’t really know to be factual and state it as a conclusion!
Don’t Be Fooled by One of Satan’s Favorite Tools!
Both of these speech patterns described are negative and hurtful to relationships, but they are not nearly as dangerous as the one about which this article is mainly addressing—objective negativity. The most dangerous form I have ever found of unhealthy talk is also understandably the most subtle. This form is one of Satan’s favorite tools for destroying relationships on both an individual and group basis. I have seen several of his human agents use this tool in an almost unbelievably effective way (in being destructive). But rather than simply describing how they used it, we have the perfect biblical example in the child of a king (and a very good king at that). Turn to 2 Samuel 15:1-6 as we read about Absalom.
“In the course of time, Absalom provided himself with a chariot and horses and with fifty men to run ahead of him. He would get up early and stand by the side of the road leading to the city gate. Whenever anyone came with a complaint to be placed before the king for a decision, Absalom would call out to him, ‘What town are you from?” He would answer, “Your servant is from one of the tribes of Israel.’ Then Absalom would say to him, ‘Look, your claims are valid and proper, but there is no representative of the king to hear you.’ And Absalom would add, ‘If only I were appointed judge in the land! Then everyone who has a complaint or case could come to me and I would see that he gets justice.’
Also, whenever anyone approached him to bow down before him, Absalom would reach out his hand, take hold of him and kiss him. Absalom behaved in this way toward all the Israelites who came to the king asking for justice, and so he stole the hearts of the men of Israel.”
Absalom’s work described here very nearly led to the killing of his father and to his usurping of David’s throne. He stole the hearts of the men of Israel, Scripture says. He didn’t merely win their hearts by serving them; he stole their hearts by tainting their thinking toward the king whom they had loved and followed for years. How sad! How powerful is Satan’s tool of objective negativity! Negativity we understand to some degree, but how does the term objective fit in to its use? Now that is a hugely important question, make no mistake about it.
We have all come away from certain conversations saying something to this effect: “Wow, that guy is really something; he’s about the most negative person I have ever heard in my life!” Someone skilled in the use of objective negativity never evokes that reaction, but what they do to a person’s heart is something akin to what a hidden cancer does to a person’s body. It is an undetected destroyer, doing its deadly work mostly in secret until drastic results emerge. The presentation of such soul-damaging information is cloaked by the sense of objectivity created, and the more spiritual it sounds, the better the cloak. With that in mind, we shouldn’t be surprised that those looked upon as spiritually mature, or better yet, as spiritual leaders, are the most effective in using this approach.
In actuality, those skilled in this deceptive work are basically “seed planters.” They plant tiny seeds that grow quietly inside hearts until a plant or a tree is produced. Isn’t that exactly what Absalom did? He kept planting seeds as he validated the concerns of people and showed them affection, and those seeds were aimed at undermining trust in his father and building trust in himself. He was one sharp dude, one smart cookie. He knew exactly what he was doing for the four years he did it. Gossips tend to be impatient and have to say it now; the Absaloms of the world are patient and content just to plant and water, waiting for the tree of doubt, discontent and rebellion to grow.
Absalom Types Are Usually Leaders (Often Former Leaders) Themselves
My intent is not to make anyone mistrust spiritually mature people or spiritual leaders—far from it. I think most would say that I would fall into both of those categories. But like Paul, I want to help you not fall prey to those whose skills are found in this form of negativity that we are discussing. In 2 Corinthians 2:11, Paul said that he didn’t want his readers to be unaware of Satan’s schemes. Thus, his teaching was aimed at exposing Satan’s schemes (and he has many). Paul could not have described a person skilled in the deadly scheme of objective negativity any better than in this passage from the same book. “For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve (2 Corinthians 11:13-15).”
The claim that most Absalom types are leaders is demonstrated in the earliest stages of the Old Testament. Numbers 16 contains one of the most chilling accounts in the history of Israel, an event that dates back near the origin of the Israelite nation. We are generally familiar with the names of Korah, Dathan and Abiram because God opened the earth to swallow them and their families for their rebellion against Moses and Aaron (verses 25-33). However, this chapter in Numbers opened with the account of these men inciting the rebellion of 250 other well-known leaders within Israel (verses 1-3). They were not content with being counted among the leaders; they wanted to be among the very top leaders, which led to instigating a rebellion against them. God dealt suddenly and decisively with them, just as he had with those who sowed the seeds of their rebellion. Verse 35 says that “Fire came out from the Lord and consumed the 250 men.” Sadly, Absalomic undermining of top leaders by influential people trickles down to infiltrate the average person, sometimes almost imperceptivity. In this case, the whole Israelite community challenged the leadership of Moses and Aaron, resulting in a God-given plague that killed 14,700 of them (verses 41-49). What a sobering and terrifying account of what the work of a few leaders controlled by an Absalomic spirit can cause.
Perhaps you are thinking that all of these examples, including Absalom, come from the Old Testament period. What about the New Testament? Do we find the same phenomenon there? The logical answer is that wherever you find humans, you are going to find this insidious practice. However, as has been noted repeatedly, it is a subtle sin which is not noticed quickly or easily. Read on for the biblical answer to the question.
A Classic “Absalom” in the New Testament
What person in the NT do you think was the classic Absalom type? Pause a minute and think about who you believe it could be (waiting, waiting, waiting…). If you guessed Judas, you made the same choice I did. What do we know for sure about him? One, he was obviously a person of high talent or he wouldn’t have been chosen by Jesus to be an apostle. Two, he was an incredible expert at hiding his true nature from others, for even just prior to his betrayal of Jesus, the other apostles could not guess which of them was going to be the betrayer. Three, and this is the point that directly connects with the concept being developed in this article, he influenced the other apostles in negative directions.
This ability to subtlety lead others into bad paths is perhaps best shown in comparing three Gospel accounts of one event near the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry. It took place at a dinner being held at the home of a man named Simon. Notice the progression and what it reveals about this aspect of Judas’ nature. Let’s begin with the more general account in Mark 14:3-6 (NASB):
While He was in Bethany at the home of Simon the leper, and reclining at the table, there came a woman with an alabaster vial of very costly perfume of pure nard; and she broke the vial and poured it over His head. 4 But some were indignantly remarking to one another, “Why has this perfume been wasted? 5 “For this perfume might have been sold for over three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” And they were scolding her. 6 But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you bother her? She has done a good deed to Me.
From this account, you wouldn’t know who was objecting to the woman’s use of her costly perfume. You just know that a group was discussing it among themselves. Matthew’s account gives us more details about the identity of the group:
Now when Jesus was in Bethany, at the home of Simon the leper, 7 a woman came to Him with an alabaster vial of very costly perfume, and she poured it on His head as He reclined at the table. 8 But the disciples were indignant when they saw this, and said, “Why this waste? 9 “For this perfume might have been sold for a high price and the money given to the poor.” 10 But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you bother the woman? For she has done a good deed to Me. (Matthew 26:6-10)
Now we know that it was the apostles discussing the issue, and it seems that they are becoming more outspoken as the discussion continued. John’s account in John 12:1-8 fills in some striking details:
Jesus, therefore, six days before the Passover, came to Bethany where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 So they made Him a supper there, and Martha was serving; but Lazarus was one of those reclining at the table with Him. 3 Mary then took a pound of very costly perfume of pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped His feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of His disciples, who was intending to betray Him, *said, 5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and given to poor people?” 6 Now he said this, not because he was concerned about the poor, but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box, he used to pilfer what was put into it. 7 Therefore Jesus said, “Let her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of My burial. 8 “For you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have Me.”
What are the additional details John provides us in his account? One, Simon must have had a reasonably close relationship with Lazarus, Mary and Martha, since they were present at the dinner and Martha doing her usual thing of serving. Two, the woman with the perfume was none other than Mary, one of the three siblings. Three, it was Judas who almost certainly initiated the complaint that then spread to the other apostles. That is the point most relevant to our discussion. Closely associated to it is the fact that Judas was a frequent thief and the other apostles never suspected anything. His true nature was not perceived by his closest associates. His complaints about the “waste” of expensive perfume sounded quite objective and reasonable to them – even spiritual (helping the poor).
Hence, they joined into the discussion, prodded into it by his initial comments – which most likely were shared rather privately with them in the earliest stages. Good-hearted people like Peter blurted out what they really thought, not fearing either the vulnerability or the correction that often followed their comments. Individuals like Judas were very careful about what they said and to whom they said it. Knowing human nature makes the assumption likely that this discussion began with Judas planting the negative seeds, which the others picked up on and expressed more openly. Like Absalom in the OT, Judas gives us a perfect example of someone skilled in the use of objective negativity.
What about Judas’ motives? Did he always have evil intent of which he was quite aware? In this case, the answer would be yes, based on the wording of the text. In the case of his betrayal of Jesus, some believe that his intent was to force Jesus to become the kind of Messiah that most Jews were looking for by having to use his power to save his own life. If a true hypothesis, it could explain why he committed suicide rather quickly after that plan didn’t bring the desired result. If this were a reasonably accurate assumption, it would mean that Judas wasn’t always aware of his inmost motivations or of the true impact of what he was doing. It was to him second nature, having become so ingrained in his sinful nature through a long series of deceitful choices.
I am not sure if those most effective in the use of objective negativity are always aware of what they are doing. They certainly know how to cloak their true nature from others, and it may be that they are fooling themselves as well. In my own experience, those who resort to spreading negativity in this manner are perhaps self-deceived as they deceive others, because helping them see themselves and the effects they are having has usually been a fruitless endeavor. I’ve seen temporary change that appeared to reflect repentance, but the fact that it has nearly always been temporary perhaps indicates that they are self-deceived. As with all other sins, the long-range changes are the ones that indicate true repentance. I add this thought to help us not be naïve and overly optimistic when dealing with those who commit such damaging sins. I’m not suggesting that we be cynical or faithless, but I am strongly suggesting that this sin indicates some deeply imbedded heart issues that we must be very careful in dealing with. May God grant us wisdom and discernment as we are trying to protect the flock as a whole while also trying to help those individuals who may be hurting it, intentionally or unintentionally.
What is the Solution – the Antidote?
The solution begins with recognition of the types of speech patterns underlying the Absalomic approach. Well, what do such people sound like in everyday life? Here are some samples from a very long list of possibilities:
“I really love our elders, but some people have shared a few things with me that sometimes make me wonder…” But you do have to appreciate their sacrifice of time and energy.
“I think we have a great staff, but I did hear one or two things in confidence that have made me a little nervous. I guess we will just have to trust the Lord that he will work out whatever needs to be worked out.”
“I appreciate the fact that our leaders are following a carefully planned process of looking for additional staff members, but I really hope that they will keep ____________ in mind and not just make decisions out of personal preferences. I am glad, though, that they seem to be focused on finding someone soon.”
“I am certain that our small group leader has a real heart to serve, but I do wonder if he has the time to be serving in that role right now with all that he has on his plate. But don’t you just love their two little girls—they are the cutest things!”
“The couple we have leading our small group really loves people, and that is such a valuable and appreciated quality. I have heard some disciples question whether they had the gift set to be able to do it. But getting people to lead is no easy matter, so I suppose that we should just appreciate their willingness to serve in this way.”
“Betty is one of my best friends and I feel like I can tell her anything, but I am praying that she can keep a confidence. We all need a safe place to share our struggles.”
“I really love this church, and have a lot invested in it for these nine years that I have been a member. I hope our direction for the future is clearer to others than it is to me. I guess I just need to pray more.”
My examples of actual conversations mention leaders quite a bit, as I’m sure you would expect by the time you have read this far. Satan knows that he can destroy churches if he can erode trust in leaders. But let me make one thing perfectly clear: I’m not defending bad leaders in any way. Wyndham Shaw and I wrote a little book a decade ago entitled Golden Rule Leadership should demonstrate that point clearly. Although what we wrote is now “old hat” and generally accepted in our movement today, it was strongly resisted by a number of leaders in high places when it was first published. My most recent book on leadership, Dynamic Leadership, deals much more directly and strongly with ineffective, unbiblical and sinful leadership. Having said that, Satan has always, and will always, do his best to destroy trust in all leadership—not simply that which you and I might agree is poor leadership. Destroy the mom or dad in any family, and you’ll see the family severely damaged.
Maybe you are thinking that those who practice the fine art of objective negativity sound almost the same as those who have their “buts” in the wrong place. Well, they are similar in some ways, but different in key areas. Both use the word “but” as a key part of their processes. However, the Absalomic approach sounds much more spiritual. It not only begins with positive statements; it also ends with them. The effect is much more subtle. When you hear a person like this, especially if you trust them and or look up to them, you leave the conversation feeling mostly good. You can recount the positive, spiritually sounding things they said. On the other hand, the more spiritually in tune you are, the more you leave feeling unsettled, perhaps ever so slightly. Seeds have been carefully planted, and if you do not come to realize that something is amiss, those seeds may well grow. I have seen people thus influenced who eventually left the church that I never imagined would possibly leave.
The further solution to dealing with this malady is to pay attention to your own heart. If something seems slightly out of kilter after a conversation, tending to pull you in a negative direction, go back to the person with whom you talked and start asking questions.
“When you said that some have questioned the leadership gift of __________, who are those some?”
“You expressed some doubt about your good friend Betty being able to keep a confidence. Have you told her that?”
“That statement you made about the direction of the church—what exactly are you questioning here? I think you and I need to go talk to some of the leaders of the church together, because I want to make sure that your doubts are dealt with and not spread to others—including me.”
Bottom line, we need to be very careful about what we listen to that has a negative bent to it about anyone or any group that is not present for the discussion. The Lord knows that we must learn to talk to others about sensitive issues and concerns—but we need to do it with them, face-to-face and not behind their backs. People sometimes ask me if I am feeling something toward them that isn’t positive, and the answer is pretty simple. “If I am, you will be among the first to know it, because we will be talking in an up-close and personal way.” If someone seems to perhaps have funny feelings toward me, I ask them about it. If they do, I want them to encourage them to come to me, but I am quite willing to go to them as well. Matthew 5 and Matthew 18 say that we should meet each other going and coming if relationships are not in a good place.
Disciples are learners. That’s a basic meaning of the term itself. Let’s learn to recognize sinful speech, whether it is coming out of our own mouth or the mouth of another. And by all means, let’s learn to get beyond our conflict avoidance tendencies and resolve relationships that are strained or we think may be unsettled in some way. If we have good marriages, we have done it hundreds of times because we don’t want to be under the same roof with another person with whom we are not at peace. For the Lord’s sake, let’s refuse to live under his same big sky with our brothers and sisters without cultivating and maintaining that same peace. It is the will of our Father, who loves us all as his dear children. Amen and Amen!