We are all aware of the nature of slander. To slander someone is to speak evil of them behind their backs; it is to criticize them and to malign them to others. For St. John, it is spiritually dangerous for two reasons.
First, it is hypocritical. Very often when we slander others we practice the worst kind of deceit. The person whom we are slandering knows nothing of our dislike or disagreement. We say nothing to them. Yet, when they are not around, we speak of them negatively to others. This is duplicity.
Putting others down can also be a way that we "build" ourselves up. It makes us look good (pious, intelligent, etc.) to be able to point out the bad in someone else. It often puts us into the good graces of others when we join them in their slander. Notice how we use others for our own gain when we act this way. Our concern is not for them (we would speak to them first if it was), nor is our concern for the safety of the ones to whom we speak . . . Our concern is for ourselves. We look good at the expense of someone else. How far have we strayed from the path of divine love and self-sacrifice. The Bible says: "Love covers a multitude of sins." We, with a malicious spirit, often delight in exposing the mistakes and weaknesses of others.
Secondly, St. John condemns slander because of the attitude which lies behind it. Slander is the fruit of a judgmental spirit. The Apostle James identifies the connection: "Do not speak evil of one another, brethren. He who speaks evil of a brother and judges his brother, speaks evil of the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is one Lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy. Who are you to judge another?" (James 1:11). When we judge others we make ourselves equal to God. In so doing, we invite His strict judgment.
To encourage us to refrain from judging others, John points out how very often our judgments our incorrect. Given the finitude of our minds and knowledge, we see all things not as they are in fulfillment but as they are in process. We do not know the end to which a person may come and we certainly cannot read their hearts. In fact, when we judge others, we often condemn those who have already repented and been forgiven by God. We oppose God's mercy with our own justice.
A judgmental spirit also carries with it a spiritual boomerang. "Those who pass speedy and harsh judgment on the sins of their neighbors fall into this passion." There are certain "laws" which govern the spiritual realm even as "natural laws" govern the physical. One of these is that what we judge others for we will soon be guilty of ourselves in some form or another.
To all of us who struggle with this dangerous sin, St. John has direct advice: Remain silent and offer prayers for your brothers and sisters in love.
1-3 Slander defined: Where it comes from and what it leads to in the spiritual life.
Slander is the offspring of hatred, a subtle and yet crass disease, a leech in hiding and escaping notice, wasting and draining away the lifeblood of love. It puts on the appearance of love and is the ambassador of an unholy and unclean heart. And it is the ruin of chastity.
There are girls who flaunt their shamelessness, but there are others who are much worse, for they put on the appearance of great modesty while secretly engaging in abominable behavior. So it is with shameful vices. And indeed there are numerous insincere maidens: hypocrisy, cunning, melancholy, brooding over past injuries, secret contempt for others. They put on a show of doing one thing - and then act otherwise.
4-7 John tells us that we should not let our concern for others be deformed by the use of slanderous words. Rather, our practice should be one of silence. Even if our brother happens to be in great sin, John states, we should remain steadfast in our love for him by offering silent prayers on his behalf. We must recognize that the true source of his sin is the prompting of demons. Moreover, we must actively prevent others from engaging in slander.
I have rebuked people who were engaged in slander, and, in self-defense, these evildoers claimed to be acting out of love and concern for the victim of their slander. My answer to that was to say . . . "If, as you insist, you love that man, then do not be making a mockery of him, but pray for him in secret, for this is the kind of love that is acceptable to the Lord."
If you want to overcome the spirit of slander, blame not the person who falls but the prompting demon. No one wants to sin against God, even though all of us sin without being compelled to it.
Do not allow human respect to get in your way when you hear someone slandering his neighbor. Instead, say this to him: "Brother, stop it! I do worse things every day, so how can I criticize?" You accomplish two things when you say this. You heal yourself and you heal your neighbor with the one bandage.
8-12 John warns that slander and true repentance cannot coexist. Spiritual growth is all but stifled by this vice and those who continually slander others are destined to fall into like passions. Slander reveals that a man has forgotten his past sins. He no longer mourns for his own transgressions and so turns his eye to another. Moreover, slander is often a cloak for an immoral life - a tool used to hide one's own hateful actions.
Do not make judgments, and you will travel no quicker road to the forgiveness of your sins. "Judge not, so that you may not be judged." (Luke 6:37).
Fire and water do no mix, neither can you mix judgement of others with the desire to repent. If a man commits a sin before you at the very moment of his death, pass no judgment, because the judgment of God is hidden from men. It has happened that men have sinned greatly in the open but have done greater good deeds in secret, so that those who disparage them have been fooled, with smoke instead of sunlight in their eyes. So listen to me, all you accountants of other people's faults, listen well; for if, as is certain, it is true that "you shall be judged with the judgement you have used yourselves" (Matt. 7:2), then whatever sin of body or spirit that we ascribe to our neighbor we will surely fall into ourselves.
Those who pass speedy and harsh judgments on the sins of their neighbors fall into this passion because they themselves have so far failed to achieve a complete and unceasing memory of and concern for their own sins. Anyone untrammeled by self-love and able to see his own faults for what they are would worry about no one else in this life. He would feel that his time on earth did not suffice for his own mourning, even if he lived a hundred years, and even if a whole Jordan of tears poured out of his eyes. Mourning of that kind has, as I know, no trace in it of slander or harsh judgment.
You can always recognize people who are malicious and slanderous. They are filled with the spirit of hatred. Gladly and without a qualm they slander the teaching, the doings and the virtues of their neighbor. I have known men who secretly had committed very grave sins and had not been found out, yet cloaked in their supposed goodness they lashed out against people who had done something minor in public.
13-17 Finally, John warns, this sin threatens spiritual ruin. By usurping the prerogative of God in judging our brothers and sisters, we invite our own condemnation. Looking for and judging the weaknesses and faults of others produces only one fruit - spiritual death.
To pass judgment on another is to usurp shameless the prerogative of God, and to condemn is to ruin one's soul.
Self-esteem, even when there are no other attendant vices, can bring a man down. Similarly, if we have got into the habit of passing judgments, we can be destroyed by this alone, for the Pharisee was condemned for this very thing.
A good grape picker chooses to eat ripe grapes and does not pluck what is unripe. A charitable and sensible mind takes careful note of the virtues it observes in another, while the fool goes looking for faults and defects. It is of such a one that is was said, "They have searched out iniquity and died in the search" (Ps. 63:7).
Do not condemn. Not even if your very eyes are seeing something, for they may be deceived.