The Honest Truth About Passive-Aggressiveness

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Pastor, Pepperell, Massachusetts

An Australian girl told me she was traveling through the American South when she met an elderly gentleman who was fascinated with her accent. After a couple minutes of friendly conversation, he finally said, in a thick southern drawl, “I just love yer accent. Can you hear an accent on me?”

He couldn’t hear himself. And many of us are the same way when it comes to sins of speech. We’ve lost the ability to hear ourselves. Gossip has become so engrained in us that we think we’re merely sharing a prayer request. Complaining feels like just telling the truth. Unwholesome talk sounds humorous, or at least like an appropriate expression of emotion. For years, I was deaf to my own passive-aggressive ways of speaking, and failed to see the dishonesty in it.

Self-Righteous and Afraid

Passive-aggressive speech is all about communicating in a language that preserves plausible deniability. Imagine (hypothetically) we run out of toilet paper in our home. I may notice, and become frustrated with my wife, because the shopping is her responsibility. Having stewed on it for a while, I may then ask her a seemingly innocent question: “Did we buy more toilet paper at the store this week?”

We both know perfectly well that what I’m actually saying is: “You failed at your job.” But I’m not saying it. It’s aggressive because I am accusing her of failure. It’s passive because I’m doing it in an indirect way. It’s dishonest. I’m not saying what I actually mean.

For those of us who enjoy feeling smugly righteous, but avoid conflict at all costs, this way of speaking is quite appealing and natural. It provides an escape hatch from arguments. If Emma calls me out for accusing her of not doing her job, I can simply say: “I was just asking a question. I wasn’t accusing you of anything!” I have plausible deniability. I can launch my critique, then retreat while covering my tracks.

Moreover, by asking the question that way, I can also implicitly point out that Emma is the one who should go and buy more toilet paper. I get to avoid considering whether I should serve my busy wife by running to the store.

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 guerilla 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’s 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!”