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The Secret Sin Behind Passive Aggressive Behavior

Passive Aggressive Lies

The sins we speak are always speaking to us. They whisper promises to us, and that’s why we say them. Passive aggressive speech promises to spare us direct conflict and to ensure us safe distance from any personal responsibility. It promises that we can meet our own needs rather than serving others. As a bonus, it also promises us righteousness. We can feel superior, without any cost to ourselves, and get away with it.

But the promises are all lies, because there’s a great cost when we talk to each other this way. Passive aggressive speech—the guerrilla warfare I’m waging—corrodes our marriage by making my wife insecure. She’s never totally sure whether I’m for or against her. Moreover, its self-righteousness is a delusion. I’m avoiding honest conversations with my wife, in which she can rightly challenge me for the wrong ways I’m speaking to her. So I’m never confronted with my own cowardice, laziness and selfishness.

The Honest Truth

The gospel tells me that Jesus can make me truly righteous with a righteousness that is acceptable and enduring in God’s sight, one that will stand up at the final judgment. Jesus alone gives me this firm and authentic gospel hope.

And Jesus also gives me a perfect example of godly speech and humble service. The Gospels record many of Jesus’ conversations, and we see in them what it means to be perfect in speech.

Because he is the truth (John 14:6), Jesus always spoke honestly, never deceiving through passive aggressive speech or other means. Jesus never tried to meet his own needs through his words. Instead, he consistently served others through what he said.

Battle Passive Aggressive Speech

The most effective way to battle passive aggressive speech—and all other sins of speech, and all other sins in general—is to identify the promises they make to us, recognize these false promises as lies and then trust the superior promises of Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

We ought to remind ourselves regularly of how much God delights in seeing truth in our inward being (Psalm 51:6). Our marriage has grown healthier and stronger since I began to aggressively battle my passive aggressive speech. While it remains an area of temptation for me, I’m growing. And Emma helps me. If I disingenuously say, “Did we buy more toilet paper at the store this week?” Emma knows now to say, “No, we did not!”

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Stephen Witmer is the pastor of Pepperell Christian Fellowship in Pepperell, Massachusetts and teaches New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He is the author of Eternity Changes Everything and a 12-week study in Revelation. He and his wife Emma have three young children.