Pettiness: One of Sin's Most Invasive Species
Last summer I spent much of my time trying to thwart an invasion of poison ivy and sumac. From one little shoot hidden behind a shed, a sumac tree grew. Under the shade of that tree, a network of poison ivy grew that eventually sprouted along the entire perimeter of the property. It wove its way through boards in the fence and up lattice, warping the woodwork. It laced itself between bushes. It sprouted up in some of the most unexpected spots in the yard. And just when I thought I had it all cleared, I’d find another shoot. It took months of spraying, sawing, and digging to finally get it under control. Those “respectable sins” we’ve been talking about over the last several weeks operate in much the same way.
If you recall, author Jerry Bridges defined “respectable sins” as sins we tend to justify and tolerate. In doing so, we allow them to grow into much bigger sin issues that overtake the life God desires us to enjoy. Today we’ll be focusing on one of the most insidious of these respectable sins: pettiness.
1) Without calling anyone out, when you think of pettiness, what kinds of things come to mind?
The dictionary definition of pettiness is “undue concern with trivial matters, especially of a small-minded or spiteful nature.”
2) How could being concerned with trivial matters be sin? (Having priorities out of alignment with God’s, investing time and effort in things that aren’t of eternal significance instead of investing in Kingdom-honoring efforts – the James 4 concept of failing to do the good we know we ought to do being sin, rubbing people the wrong way to the point of undermining Christ-like witness by blowing minor things out of proportion, etc.)
3) How does pettiness take root? (Pettiness is a mindset that fixates on trivialities because it lacks larger perspective. When we lose focus on the big picture of God’s Kingdom, we become over-interested in small, worldly concerns. Those worldly concerns then become points of personal pride. It’s one of the most common strategies Satan uses to distract us from Kingdom-work.)
Paul addresses an example of this in the early church. Take a look at Titus 3:9:
“But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless.”
The book of Titus is full of advice about guarding against things like false teaching and attitudes that can divide the church and damage its witness. In this verse Paul is warning about the dangers of getting caught up in matters that are tangential to what is most important: a lifestyle of worship.
4) What kind of controversies and arguments, etc. is Paul warning people to avoid? (Foolish, unprofitable, and useless ones.)
It is important to point out that we can still have healthy, respectful disagreements and debates. The danger is losing sight of our common goals and losing focus on the bigger picture.
5) How can we discern between worthwhile and petty matters? (Is it about something that will ultimately honor God? Is it about something that will advance the Kingdom?)
It’s helpful to ask ourselves if the matter at hand will be profitable and useful to bring up, and if so, for whom? For us and our need to feel right or validated, or to bring honor and glory to God? It comes back to the idea of being me-focused vs Christ-focused.
Paul offers another example in 2 Timothy 2:14:
“Keep reminding God’s people of these things. Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen.”
6) What danger does this warning highlight? (Petty quarrels ruin those who listen.)
7) What does “ruins those who listen” mean? (Petty quarrels can divide those on either side of the conflict, but also alienate, repulse, and misinform those who hear it.)
Obviously how we conduct ourselves in the thick of conflict bears witness. But we can fool ourselves into thinking petty things said in private conversations stay contained; we have no control over our words once they’re uttered. Pettiness is often linked with gossip. And even if a petty statement isn’t repeated, it can still spread like wildfire through wordless attitudes.
8) Why should we care about that? (Again, our priority should be the glorification of God and service to his people. Any threat to that should disturb us.)
Even if our pride hinders our feeling troubled by the threat pettiness poses against the body of Christ, we can at least recognize the threat it poses to us personally. Proverbs 11:12 touches on this:
“Whoever derides their neighbor has no sense, but the one who has understanding holds their tongue.”
When a petty squabble comes up, finger-pointing usually follows. Passive-aggressive remarks and the like are said about the other person. But our speaking out of a petty spirit – a spirit lacking in sense and God-centered understanding – doesn’t justify us; it reveals us to be fools. The more we try to justify our pettiness, the more foolish we become.
What does this mean on a community-level? We’re all human, and thus we are all flawed. None of us live in perfect alignment with God’s standard. None of us see as he sees or have the sum of his divine wisdom. Because of this, we are bound to have disagreements. And yet, we’re challenged throughout scripture to be “of one accord,” “unified,” etc. Take, for instance, 1 Corinthians 1:10:
“I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.”
9) What do you make of Paul’s appeal? Do you think it’s reasonable or possible?
Paul exhorts them to have no divisions. He doesn’t exhort them to have no disagreements. That in mind . . .
10) What do you think he means by being “perfectly united in mind and thought”? (What is the thing that unites believers from different backgrounds, ideologies, cultures, and traditions? Christ. There is beautiful diversity in Christ, but if we all make him our focus, we become a united body. If we are each pursuing a life that emulates Jesus, then we’re pursuing oneness in mind and thought.)
We can still be unified in the bigger picture and have common goals, but respectfully disagree on how to go about reaching them. Sometimes agreeing means agreeing to disagree, then putting those differences aside for the greater good. Paul puts this into clearer focus in Philippians 1:27:
“Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel”
11) Let’s break this down starting with that first sentence: “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” What does that mean?
12) What is Paul getting at when he says, “Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence”? (Our reputations – good or bad – precede us. Our actions and words travel. If we’re petty, that will travel too, and affect our witness.)
His last statement is, “I will know that you stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel.” The word “striving” sticks out to me reading that. There’s a tension in that word. It communicates strain and effort, but it’s not a striving against others in order to further one’s own agenda. It’s a striving together to further the gospel. In order to move in unity, we often have to strive against our own petty tendencies.
So how do we keep pettiness from taking root in our hearts and communities?
Proverbs 10:19: “Sin is not ended by multiplying words, but the prudent hold their tongues.”
13) What can this verse teach us about rooting out pettiness? (Sometimes the less said the better, and saying nothing can be best. If you can’t trust yourself to not say something petty, then don’t say anything at all. This also opens us up to listening. By listening, we more quickly identify those common goals and establish unity.)
James 1:19 echoes this proverb, but adds to it: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry,”
14) Again, listening has a big part to play, but what else should we be vigilant about according to this verse? (Anger. Speaking hastily.)
Slowness indicates thoughtful and careful contemplation – processing through hasty or rash emotions, particularly anger, to get to the heart of matters; time to sort through the petty, the meaningless, the trivial, the useless and divisive things, and focusing on what’s important to God.
Some things are worth debating (which is different than arguing/fighting/squabbling). Pettiness is connected to the spirit in which we debate. Are we working to come to some sort of mutual agreement peaceably, or right-fighting?
Proverbs 17:27 highlights another indicator of pettiness: “The one who has knowledge uses words with restraint, and whoever has understanding is even-tempered.”
Here we see repetition of that idea of restraint with words. It also addresses temperament. Earlier, we touched on pettiness being a sort of narrow-mindedness, a lack of Kingdom-focus. There’s a fundamental peace that characterizes people who prioritize seeking knowledge and understanding of God’s will. If we lack knowledge and understanding of God’s will because we spend our time and energy on own concerns, then it follows that our temperaments will be less than peaceable. Our emotions will fall to the mercy of trivialities. We’ll be more easily upset by minor things. Our temperament may be a helpful diagnostic tool for spiritual health.
So, these three verses considered, if we find ourselves talking more than listening, becoming quick to anger or overly emotional, we may have a seriously divisive and dangerous sin issue invading our hearts and infecting our communities.
The greatest danger of pettiness is division. Division from both God and others. It may take some soul-searching to recognize the common goals we share with those we have conflicts with, but it’s obvious we have a common enemy who is constantly working to pull us away from our calling to build God’s Kingdom.
This week consider:
Are the things that upset me of eternal consequence?
If I have a petty complaint against someone, how do I need to repent and resolve it?
What are the common goals I share with those I tend to conflict with?