These are notes from the talk I gave last night at CRF, the campus ministry of Christ Church and Trinity Reformed Church:
Pettiness is a sin that begins and flourishes in the first instance in the heart. It emerges into the daylight as snide comments, a critical spirit, condescending looks, self-righteous pity parties, and occasionally full-blown angry outbursts. Pettiness covers itself in a faux piety of justice, but it is actually seething hatred, a critical spirit, nothing short of satanic accusation.
Definitions from Miriam Webster:
1. having secondary rank or importance : minor, subordinate
2: having little or no importance or significance
3: marked by or reflective of narrow interests and sympathies
Synonymns: illiberal, insular, Lilliputian, little, narrow-minded, parochial, narrow, picayune, provincial, sectarian, small, small-minded
Related words: inflexible, ironbound, obdurate, obstinate, rigid, set, stubborn, unyielding, wrongheaded; bigoted, intolerant; biased, discriminating, discriminatory, jaundiced, one-sided, partial, partisan, prejudiced; brass bound, hidebound, old-fashioned, reactionary, stodgy, straitlaced (or straightlaced), stuffy; dogmatic (also dogmatical), opinionated, opinionative; limited; hick, unsophisticated
What we’re talking about is the sin of making mountains out of mole hills, being ungracious, picky, exacting, tyrannical with our neighbors.
What is Not Petty
It is not petty to talk to your roommates about house rules or make arrangements for how bills will be paid, who will do the dishes, when meals will be shared, and who cleans the bathroom. It’s not petty to think ahead, make plans, or even ask for clarifications if you can’t remember or something comes up that hasn’t been addressed before. It’s not petty so long as your heart isn’t already a raging forest fire. Could the look on your face scare a small child? If it’s just honest questions, then it’s just love. Manners are just love in the details. And sometimes we have to make arrangements and plan.
Nor is it petty necessarily to bring up actual sin. If you catch your roommate looking at porn, you’re not being narrow minded to ask to talk about. If your roommate is skyping with some creep she met on craigslist, you are not being intolerant to call her on it. Again: provided that your heart is not a raging wood chipper looking for another branch to devour. Your roommate may need confrontation, but you may not be the one to do it (Gal. 6:1). But – and this is important – you must be careful to define sin by the Word of God. It is not a sin to leave socks on the floor or dishes in the sink or to take a 15 minute shower, necessarily.
How Do You Know If You’re Being Petty?
- You’re Self-Righteous. When’s the last time you confessed sin to your friend or roommate? Are you more concerned for your reputation or the reputation of your friend? Are you more concerned about what other people might think about you or your house or about the actual spiritual state of your home and your friends?
- There’s a log in your eye. Maybe the log is the same sin or foible you’re upset about. Do you do the very same thing you’re all worked up about? Maybe the log is in another area but the same principle is at work. Does your roommate leave clothes in the dryer all the time? Maybe you’d never dream of that. But do you leave coffee cups strewn around the living room?
- You’re insecure. Do you feel threatened by your roommate/friend? Do think they’re always trying to one-up you? When they talk about their family, their grades, their friends, their accomplishments, their stories, do you think they’re competing with you? Are you envious of their knowledge, abilities, background, good looks? If there’s a hint of insecurity, then addressing problems or irritations or sin is going to come off as power grabbing. Are you trying to get the upper hand?
- You’re guilty. How’s your conscience before the Lord? Can you pray like David: Search me O God and know my heart: try me and know my thoughts; and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting (Ps. 139). This is like the log but maybe it’s nothing directly related. Maybe the soap scum on the bathtub really drives you crazy and you leave angry messages for your roommates on the mirror (revealed only after a steamy bath or shower). But do you have a porn problem? Have you lied to one of your professors or cheated on a test? A guilty conscience is a fertile bed for pettiness because you spend your days justifying your sin with meticulous calculations, turning you into a detail freak, a sin nerd. But in it’s worst forms, it turns you into an accuser, a satan. You feel accused because you are guilty, and one of the most common covers is to turn the gun on somebody else.
- You don’t understand grace. What is God like? Is He in heaven like Yosemite Sam shooting the windows out of the New Jerusalem, flaming mad every time we forget to flush? Is He like a condescending Santa Claus, writing down every deed, whether naughty or nice? Jesus says that God is like the father of the prodigal son. When the son finally came to his senses and came home, how did the father meet him? Did he lecture him? Did he catalogue the offenses? No, the father was looking down the road for him, and when he saw him, he ran to him, threw his arms around him and kissed him, and then threw a party for him. Some of you are prodigal sons, but there’s another son in the story, the older brother, and some of you are snotty older brothers and sisters, harping and complaining about the messes of your brothers and sisters and you resent how gracious your Father is.
- You don’t read the story. Let’s say your roommate had a bunch of friends over and you were trying to study for a test the next day. They were loud, and they stayed up late, maybe even an hour past the agreed upon time for guests to leave. There you are breathing murderous thoughts in your bed, imagining yourself like Jesus, getting ready to burst into the room turning over the tables of the moneychangers, crying out, “Is not my house to be a house of SLEEP?!” Now the point isn’t that there’s nothing to talk about with your roommates. And it may be entirely appropriate to pop over to her room and politely ask for the volume to be turned down. But part of loving your neighbor means reading the story. What’s the context? Was it a stupid college party with Christians trying their hardest to be worldly without actually getting caught red handed doing anything prohibited in the 10 Commandments? Was there anything good going on? Who is your roommate? What’s the background? Does he come from a straight-laced Christian family and now he’s smoking cigarettes and talking like a frat boy? Or has he had a few rough years but he’s here because he’s honestly trying to walk with the Lord now?
How to Overcome Pettiness
- Confess your self-righteousness as sin. You have nothing that was not a gift.
- Remove the log from your own eye first. Have you contributed any sin? Ask your friends/roommates for honest appraisal. How are you doing? Is there anything you do that bothers them?
- Confess your insecurity as unbelief. If you have met Jesus then your sins are forgiven and nothing can ultimately put you to shame. You are best friends with the man who endured the greatest shame and has now been vindicated as a down payment for you.
- Confess all of your sins. Resolve to have a completely clean conscience. Ask God to search your heart. Be forgiven. Be cleansed.
- Meditate on the grace of God. Be amazed by grace. Remember moments of God’s mercy in your life. When you love mercy, you love to show mercy.
- Read the story. Read the story of God’s grace in your life, and then learn to read the story in others. Don’t be the thorn in your brother’s side. Be the encourager. Be a faithful friend. Be the forgiver. Be the grace.
- Love covers a multitude of sins. Let love cover it. But don’t say you’re going to let love cover it and then marinate in it.
- Confront sin with love for your brother. Go to your brother and explain the offense honestly and straightforwardly. Follow Mt. 18.
- Lighten up. You are not the Holy Spirit. You are not God. You are not responsible for the universe. That means you are free to just be a person. Smile. Laugh. Take a nap.