Reputations Under Construction

by Alison Dellenbaugh on

Articles 7 min read
Exodus 20:16 Proverbs 22:1

A couple of years ago, I facilitated a class that was studying the ninth of the Ten Commandments, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16), or in some translations, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” We discussed this commandment in terms of legal situations, as well as in terms of daily life, also considering Exodus 23:1-9, which lists many other ways we should avoid acts of injustice.

Spreading falsehoods about someone is clearly wrong. However, it occurred to me that bearing false witness is not the only way to damage someone’s reputation. And our reputations are important.  

Proverbs 22:1 says, A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.Proverbs 3:4 speaks to the benefit of winning “favor and a good namein the sight of God and man.” And in 1 Timothy 3:7,a good reputation with outsiders” is even listed as a qualification for elders. 

It is not always enough to avoid speaking falsely of someone. Sometimes silence harms. Kindness requires proactively speaking up for people. Certainly, when we hear others making fun of someone or saying derogatory things, we should not pile on. But to be truly kind, we must sometimes go over and above, making efforts to offset someone’s iffy reputation and speak well of them. 

In fact, sometimes we can harm people’s reputations even by giving generally true testimony about them, agreeing with or “bearing witness to” things that are not necessarily false about them. When we point out or exaggerate someone’s traits that might be considered negative, share unflattering stories about them, or join in agreement with others who do, even if only with silence or laughter, we may be causing or perpetuating damage to their reputations.

Perhaps you have a colleague or classmate who has a reputation as an airhead—or a hothead. Or a downer. Or clumsy. When people laugh about it… even if the person is there and laughing along… you can be kinder by trying to nip it in the bud (even a pointed, “Hey, now,” can draw attention to what’s going on), or ideally by changing the narrative. No one really likes to be treated like a joke or a problem, even if they go along with it on the surfarce. While there is a kind of good-natured teasing that doesn’t malign or try to define a person, be especially careful not to disparage or make fun of something that can’t be changed, or that affects someone’s identity or who they are as a person. These reputations can literally affect their careers or their ability to make friends. 

When someone uses another person’s name as a joke (e.g., “that’s classic Sam behavior!”) or makes a comment about them being the person who always shows up late, or asks irrelevant questions, or gets defensive too easily, we have a choice. We don’t have to go along with the joke or nod our heads… even if the statement rings true.  

Point out examples of times these people broke the mold, or something different about them that is very positive. We can bring up great aspects of the person or even of the reputation: “Well, Sam is the person I want with me if I ever get lost in the woods,” or “Sam is so good at finding solutions for a problem,” or “But did you see the way Sam defused a conflict with an angry customer the other day?!”  

The comments we make about people prime other people to see that in them. Don’t prime people to look for negative examples. Prime them to see the good in others. And while we should strive to lift up people who are being deflated in front of us, we can also lift up people who may not even know we are doing it. Is there much better than finding out people were saying good things about you—or even praising you to your boss or coach or teacher—when you were not around?!  

A message I recently saw on the Internet proclaimed, “Surround yourself with people who fight for you in rooms you aren’t in.” We can be the people who defend and advocate for others, whether or not they are present.  

Recently I heard someone say that we are quick to be sarcastic or judge, but not to uplift and bless—and that sometimes we withhold blessing in the apparent interest of keeping people humble. These choices, however, can hurt people both in the moment and going forward. In Proverbs 3:27 we are instructed, “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to act.” In many cases you can turn things around. 

Being quicker to champion other people than to criticize them, laugh at them, or perhaps worst, roll our eyes at the mention of them, can help set a better tone in our areas of influence, demonstrate the love and compassion of Christ, and build a culture that honors God and people. This type of kindness is what God calls us to. As He instructed through the Apostle Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:11, "So continue encouraging each other and building each other up, just like you are doing already.” And in Galatians 6:10,Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” 

When Paul chose Timothy as a partner in ministry, it was partly because he already had a good reputation: “The believers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him” (Acts 16:2). Reputations matter. In fact, they matter so much that Satan, the accuser (Zechariah 3:1; Revelation 12:10), sets out to destroy them and to discourage people through his accusations. Christ, however, is our advocate (Job 16:19; 1 John 2:1). Let’s aim to imitate Christ. Let’s look for opportunities to speak well of others, in truthful ways, instead of tearing them down. Let’s build up those around us, not only by refusing to bear false witness against our neighbors, friends, family members, or colleagues, but by bearing positive true witness on their behalf.  

About the Author

Alison Dellenbaugh (M.A. in Christian Leadership, Dallas Theological Seminary) is the Spiritual Formation Resource Manager at Central Bible Church and editor of the Next Step Disciple website.