Spiritual trash talk

Basketball fans expect trash talk between the players. It’s routine. But one particularly memorable line is remembered for its cleverness and effect. The year was 1997. Karl Malone of the Utah Jazz had been voted MVP, narrowly edging out Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls. As fate would have it, the two teams met in the Finals and both had something to prove.

Game 1 was played on a Sunday. With time expiring, the score was tied. Malone, nicknamed “The Mailman” for his ability to deliver, was fouled and sent to the free throw line with just over 9 seconds left in the game. Bulls forward Scottie Pippen then sidled up to Malone and whispered the now legendary line: “The Mailman don’t deliver on Sunday.” These were the biggest free throws of Malone’s career — but he bricked them both.

Seconds later, Jordan hit a buzzer-beater to take the game 84-82, and Chicago would go on to win the series.

Pippen and Malone were actually friends. Did that classic bit of trash talk get under Malone’s skin? Who knows. Malone himself made no excuses for the failure, and the idea that Utah might otherwise have won their first championship is pure speculation. But Pippen’s deadly remark is a memorable example of how words can be weaponized in a competitive environment.

. . .

Christians aren’t immune to competing with one another, on or off the basketball court. We can fall into the same kind of one-upsmanship that can be found anywhere, wherein one person makes a comment or tells a story, and we feel compelled to top it somehow: Oh, that’s nothing — listen to what happened to me!

It gets particularly dicey, however, when we cloak the competitiveness with an air of spirituality. Someone tells a story of struggle; we respond with a story of how we overcame a similar difficulty. On the one hand, we mean the story to be encouraging: You can beat this too! But on the other hand, if the truth be told, an element of pride lurks in the background: See how spiritual I am? And if that pride unknowingly comes across to the other person, our story may do more harm than good.

Even pastors can play a variation on this game. There’s a widespread assumption that a “successful” ministry is one that’s growing in terms of what I’d call the 3 B’s: budget, building, and butts. At ministerial conferences, you can overhear pastors comparing numbers. The conversations are friendly, and the language pious. But pride, jealousy, and competition sneak in: “Your congregation has grown by 10% in the last two years? Praise God! We’ve been blessed, too. In fact, we’re up 20%, and have just completed our biggest pledge drive ever. We’re hoping to break ground on a new sanctuary next year. Isn’t God good?”

The unstated subtext: Top that. And though everyone keeps smiling, someone may walk away from that conversation feeling just a little less blessed.

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Spiritual trash talk uses pious language for impious purposes. Nobody would fault us for wanting to give glory to God, at least on the surface. But only God may know that beneath the surface, we’re wanting glory for ourselves. We don’t necessarily intend to “trash” someone else, but when we elevate ourselves through boastful words, others feel pushed down; when we make ourselves more, others feel less.

Thus, when we tell other people our plans for the future, it may be more than mere reportage. We’re not just giving an itinerary, we’re trying to impress. This isn’t neutral in its effects. Tell someone the vacation you’ve planned, or the parties you’re going to, or post a bunch of wonderful, happy pictures on Facebook and Instagram — and others are left feeling their lives are dull. Talk about your successes, and others will dwell on their failures. Boast thoughtlessly about what you have, and others will feel even more keenly the pinch of what they don’t have.

But I didn’t mean to hurt anybody! Granted. And again, to the extent that we’ve internalized the values of a competitive, status-seeking culture, we’ve all done it. It’s normal, even within the church.

As we’ll see, however, James would like it to stop.