Recently I’ve had the privilege of counseling someone whose unique gifts and personality present unique relational challenges. The first time I talked with him I got lost in the details. There were so many of them and they came so fast and were really fine-grained. Then unexpectedly, he’d switch subjects as one element of his story reminded him of something else that he wanted to talk about. It was not a logical, linear conversation and we ended up miles from where we started. He later told me that people haven’t always liked talking with him and have made that clear to him.
And yet, I do like him. The longer I spend with him and get to know him, the more I see of the image of God in him that is expressed through his energetic, artistic personality. But I also see how other people could struggle and feel overwhelmed. The challenge then for him—and really, for all of us—is how do we build relationships with people who are at least as unique as we are, without frustrating them and without losing our own individuality?
One important way is by paying attention to the reasons behind why we say the things that we do. That’s what the apostle Paul counseled the Ephesians when he told them, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” (Eph. 4:29). Did you hear how much he packed into that one sentence? He starts by recognizing that Christians can say unwholesome things and that they need to work intentionally to guard against that possibility. Be careful though how you hear him, or you’ll define ‘unwholesome’ too narrowly and you’ll think he means, “Don’t swear or tell off-color jokes.”
Paul has something much bigger in mind. He thinks everything that comes out of your mouth needs to be geared toward helping build someone up, meet their need or benefit them. Anything else is unwholesome. That means if you want to build godly relationships with other people, then before you say anything, you need to ask yourself three questions.
1. Is what I’m about to say likely to build up this other person?
Conversations are opportunities. They can be enjoyable, but because we live in a broken, fallen world, they also have to be missional. People get beat up by the world every day and enter conversations feeling the bruises. By God’s design part of the way we deal with life’s hurts and difficulties is through what you and I say to each other. There needs to be something in me then that’s looking to say something, to impart something, so that when the other person walks away they’ll be stronger, healthier, more informed, calmer, braver, more optimistic, less weighed down and more prepared to tackle what’s in front of them.
2. Is what I’m about to say going to meet this person’s need?
If I’m going to be used by the Lord to strengthen someone else, I need to be aware of what they’re dealing with in life. I need to shift from only talking about what I find interesting to considering what they’re facing, what’s scaring them, what obligations they have, where they feel inadequate, where they’re not seeing the world clearly, what’s tempting them or what they find challenging. There’s no way that my words can speak to their need unless I first have a sense of what it is.
3. Is what I’m about to say going to benefit this other person?
Life is hard. We all know that. Conversations with God’s people should make life more bearable by helping them see what resources he offers them. Other Bible versions (i.e. NASB, ESV) highlight the spiritual character of our speech when they translate the last phrase in Ephesians 4:29 as “give grace to those who hear.” What are grace-giving words? They’re the ones that point someone to the God of all grace (1 Peter 5:10). They’re words that show God’s child his smile, his presence, his willingness to forgive, his relentless pursuit, his commitment to their good, his refusal to give up on them. To give grace to someone, my words can’t only be focused on that person, but have to connect their life with the God who gives them that life.
Now, when I stand back from these three questions, I’m overwhelmed. I think, “Whoa, that’s way beyond me. Who can possibly be that intentional, that focused? It’d take twice as long to say anything if I were to think it through that much. Why would I even want to try?” Can you relate? If so, think first of how God talks to you. Read through the scripture and you’ll see that God speaks for those same three reasons—to build you up, meet your need and benefit you. Now think about how God’s intentionality affects you. Aren’t you much happier that he’s careful in what he says to you than if he didn’t take you into consideration?
In other words, you already know that it’s worthwhile to ask those three questions because you know what it feels like personally to be on the receiving end of this kind of communication. It’s your present experience. But even more, it’s also shaping your own communication. As Jesus talks to you, you learn to speak like he does. That shift takes place slowly over a long period of time, but it is undeniable and guaranteed. Think far off into the future and let yourself realize that one day you will only sound like this God who speaks to you now. That future day comes nearer, one conversation at a time.
Secondly, think about the impact your words will have on your human relationships as you become more intentional about what you’re saying. Sure, your conversations will probably take longer as you pause to consider carefully what to say. From that perspective, you will have to push against the spirit of the age that idolizes quick, snappy repartee. But doing so is worth the effort. The point of that kind of communication is to highlight our own wittiness instead of to value someone else and so a steady diet of it won’t build solid, quality relationships.
Learning a different form will likely not increase your social media footprint, but stop and think: which form is more likely to endear you to your friends, children, spouse and co-workers? Which will be more reflective of how Christ speaks to you? As you listen more to Christ speaking to you, you’ll find yourself sounding more like him. You’ll shed that verbal self-focus that undermines your conversations by turning people off and shutting them down. The people who are closest to you will notice the difference and want to talk more and longer with you.
William P. Smith (PhD, Rutgers University; MDiv, Westminster Theological Seminary) is a pastor, author, and retreat speaker who has served several churches, been a faculty member of the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation, and taught practical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. He is the author of Parenting with Words of Grace, Loving Well (Even If You Haven't Been), and numerous other books and booklets.
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