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A Slave Driver Called Pettiness

Toilet Paper Wars

“Nothing is as hard to suppress as the will to be a slave to one’s own pettiness.”

Abraham Joshua Heschel

Ah, yes.

Yes, and ouch.

I wake daily to a battle: the fight to silence my inner voice of pettiness. Left to myself, I boast, I whine, I complain, I scorn, I judge. Most of it is in my head. Some of it spills my lips. I resolve to be better, but can lapse into small-mindedness with hardly a demur. I mask it with coy phrases: “I know I’m not perfect, but….” The “but” constitutes an account of someone else’s imperfections, glaring and outlandish (the way I tell it), against which my flaws seem almost like virtues (the way I tell it).

Here’s another symptom of my pettiness: my heart’s captivity to trifles. I can fret over the smallest things – a chip in the windshield, a delay in my plane schedule, a mistake in my food order – and be oblivious to things that actually matter – the horrors suffered by Christians at the hands of ISIS, the plight of many First Nations people, the struggle of the homeless.

I commit many crimes of apathy.

Sometimes my wife, who’s the least petty person I know, looks askance at all this. “Honey…,” she says.

“Well,” I say, “if this is all you have to complain about me, you’re lucky.”

Then that look of infinite pity: “Honey, if that was all I had to complain about you, I would be lucky.”

Yes, and ouch.

I don’t know what the Apostle Paul’s thorn in his side was. But I know one of mine: the will to be a slave to my own pettiness.

Sometimes entire churches fall prey to this temptation. Pettiness becomes their governing principle. Their ethos. The results aren’t so much disastrous as ridiculous: the church start making decisions and embracing practices that are blatantly self-serving, and they stop being the fragrance and presence of Christ. Which, actually, is a disaster.

A pastor friend of mind told me about an argument that erupted in his church. The issue? The “right” way to load toilet paper on a dispenser – over, or under? It was dividing the church. The board resolved the issue by installing two roles in each stall, one for each preference.


This is not a joke. It may be a caricature, but it’s not a joke: a church actually did this.

Most churches don’t descend quite to this level of silliness. Actually, often it’s worse: their pettiness is, not silly, but vicious. But all of us know of churches deeply damaged, and sometimes split, over squabbles about things that should never have even risen to the level of discussion. Someone should have had the wit and wisdom to dismiss the issue before it ever saw light of day. Simply, those of us called to be ambassadors of reconciliation should not squander a single breath on debating trivialities. We have better work to do.

I think the Apostle Paul may have been dealing with this issue in his letter to the Philippians – not toilet paper, but pettiness. Near the end of that letter, he addresses two women, Euodia and Synthyche, whose friendship had turned bitter. He pleads with them to resolve it, and for others in the church to help (Philippians 4:2-3).

That actual incident adds poignancy to what Paul says earlier in the letter:

Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life. And then I will be able to boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor in vain (Philippians 2:14-16).

So much depends on our not being slaves to our own pettiness. Heschel may be right, that nothing is as hard to suppress as this.

But for the sake of the gospel, nothing is as urgent.

We have better work to do.

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