Nitpicking Minutiae

By Ross Engel

In the darkness of morning, I sat before my keyboard. The harshness of the bright, blank page in front of me made my eyes wince. I took a breath. I uttered a few words of prayer. I began to type. The soft clicking of the keyboard sounded much sharper in the darkness than I expected.

My hands nervously shook over the keyboard. Click. Click. Click. Pause. Read. Read again. Click. Click. Click. Another pause to reread. Click. Click. Finished. I took a deep breath again, scrolled to the top of the page, and began to read. There were a few grammar mistakes to fix. A misspelled word. A sentence fragment. Another. What was I trying to say there? Was I too harsh? Too obscure? I had a few more edits before scrolling to the top to read through my words again.

There was more to fix, but it was getting better. After a few more edits, I called my wife, “Hey love, can you give this a read before I click send. I want to get this right.”

More edits. Soften the tone here. Use the active voice here.

Final edits. One last scroll from top to bottom. Then I had one last read before the critics had their say.


Then came the waiting.

I waited for the inevitable critique that was sure to come. The imminent response. What would it be? Anger? Vitriol? Repentance? A hearty agreement?

Waiting is always the hardest.

The critique is coming. It is inevitable. Will it be public? Will it be private? Will I ever even know? And what will the critic attack? Will it be my word choice? My grammar? My content? My argument? Me?

It’s what we do, isn’t it? We hear or read something and instantly begin to tear apart the words. Once we finish ripping the words apart, we turn our sights to the author: “This guy’s a moron.” “What a heretic!” “Wow, is he a jerk!” “Egotistical schmuck!” “Liar.” “Worthless.”

Nothing is immune to the critic. And we all can be critics.

The political talk radio host that I listen to nitpicks the phrasing of someone who was put on the spot in a “gotcha” style interview. The blog critic sees a title or opening paragraph and determines that the author is a simpleminded fool. The pastor writes a sermon, an email, or answers a question, but it didn’t come out quite right, and suddenly he finds himself standing before an angry mob.

 “We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.”

Put the best construction on your neighbor.

It sounds great, doesn’t it? But wow, it is tough to put into practice. Nothing is immune to humanity’s sinful propensity to put the worst construction possible on their neighbor.

Just think of the various stations of life we hold. There are the duties and vocations we have within the church, the home, and society. Pastor and laity. Husband and wife. Parent and child. Politician and the general public. Those are just a few, but each position has plenty of opportunities to nitpick the tiny details of another’s station and vocation and the discharge of their duties.

Unfortunately, as we put the worst construction on others (or vice versa), we create an environment of fear. Everyone ends up looking over their own shoulder, constantly worrying and waiting for the critic and the attack. It’s hard to trust one’s neighbor (no matter who that neighbor is) when living in the fear that one misspoken word or slip up will begin a bout of legalistic nitpicking. Of course, one is never to be careless with their words. We shouldn’t be haphazardly stringing words together without any thought. But when we live in fear that a word, a misspoken phrase, or a poorly written piece might be used to betray, slander, or speak viciously about ourselves, it is enough to paralyze someone. It immediately puts us on the defensive against other people. Trust is broken.

Love covers a multitude of sin. More and more, I find myself longing for the day when we might better love our neighbors, for whom Christ died to redeem, that we would be willing to put the best construction on them and what they say and do. To not have to listen to a political talk show host pick apart every utterance of their opponents. To not have to read an email or blog or Facebook post a dozen times before clicking send for fear of someone taking something that was said out of context or trying to use my own words against me. To not have to wonder because of my own personal vanity or fear if what I’ve read is directed at me or is instead just a simple observation about life in this world? To have the freedom of not being compelled to look over my shoulder for fear of the nitpicking critic, who may not put the best construction on you or not.

It would be a joyous turn of events for the new norm to be people speaking well of others regularly instead of only occasionally.  It is hard to imagine what it would be like if everyone’s default mode was to be honest, faithful, and trustworthy to each other as all sought to defend one another from those who would seek to destroy their name and reputation.

Perhaps it starts small with ending the nitpicking of minutiae when dealing with others and then taking a moment to consider whether we are loving our neighbor in the way that we are receiving their words or even receiving them. If we’re not putting the best construction on our neighbor, then that moment of consideration allows us to repent, so that we might reengage, loving our neighbor and even forgiving them, as God has forgiven us in Christ.

“So then we pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another.” – Romans 14:19