Proverbs 26:4-5 "Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit." Christianity rests on communication. God spoke the world into being. God spoke in revelation to man. God expects Christians to communicate well. For us, communication depends upon us, the speaker, not upon the listener.
Regularly topping the charts as the biggest fear people have is the fear of public speaking. Standing in front of a group of people and trying to communicate is a daunting task. As a pastor, it is one that I wrestle with every week.
From infancy, we struggle trying to communicate. We begin by communicating critical wants. The infant cries, communicating that it needs cleaning, feeding, or caring, and it's up to the parent to discover which. The toddler learns to speak and learns which need and which sound to make to the parent to get their needs met. Then parroting begins. Complex emotions are simplified. The toddler learns to describe the feeling toward its parents as "love". Does it understand love? Probably not, but it communicates in this way regardless. Information gathering begins as the child discovers how to navigate the world. We train people in receiving and disseminating information in reading and writing. Eventually, we expect them to effectively communicate, to add to the conversation. Communication is a learned skill.
Communication method differs depending upon the situation. We talk to a crowd of one thousand different than a crowd of fifty, different than a group of ten, different than speaking to one other person. Even in discussions with a single person, our relationship and history with that person governs the method of communication.
In all these encounters, the Bible gives us factors to consider as we govern our communication. It tells us what to communicate and how to communicate. The Bible even gives us a short-hand phrase to express its requirements. Paul writes, "But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ." (Ephesians 4:15) This verse appears in the context of the apostle describing the spiritual gifts that God gives the church in Jesus and the purpose for which those gifts were given. God gives spiritual gifts for the purpose of building up the church, the body of Christ. This strengthens the individuals within the church, the members to engage also in the building of the church. Each member speaks the truth in love for the purpose of building the church, edifying other members of the church.
This verse gives us the what and how of our communication. What are we to speak? We are to speak the truth. How are we to speak? We are to speak in love. Let us look at each in turn.
Speaking the Truth
The importance of truth-telling appears early on in the Bible. Jesus says, "Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it." (John 8:44) Let's leave for later the purpose of Jesus statement and look at the historic comment. Jesus speaks of the devil as a liar from the first. He takes us back to Genesis 3. "And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: for God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil." (Genesis 3:4-5) The devil through the serpent lies. He says something that is not true and sets himself against the truth telling God.
This lie produces conflict and hiding. That conflict erupts into murder as Cain kills Abel and then lies to God about it. "And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?" (Genesis 4:9) Cain, the first seed of the woman, shows himself to be the seed of the serpent, doing serpent things.
We need not elaborate on Abraham's lie to Pharaoh about Sarah (Genesis 12) or Isaac's similar action (Genesis 26). We well remember Jacob's lie about being Esau (Genesis 27) and his sons lying to him about Joseph (Genesis 37) Even God's people have a problem with telling the truth.
This all comes to a head when the Lord appears upon Mt. Sinai and codifies the moral law in the Ten Commandments, the "ten words." "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour." (Exodus 20:16) Although directed at truth in justice, the application of this commandment goes further. In the seven things the Lord hates, truth-telling is mentioned twice. "These six things doth the Lord hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto him: a proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, an heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief, a false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren." (Proverbs 6:16-19) Notice that a lying tongue is separate from a false witness. We also should note the purpose of truth telling as apart from the last sin, the promotion of disunity among those united in Christ. From this, we learn that our speech ought to exclusively communicate truth.
Let us consider some socially acceptable exceptions. The first we call "white lies." This refers to socially acceptable falsehoods we tell not to hurt the feelings of others. While we may find the motive admirable, it cannot overcome the evil of falsehood. Let us not engage in casuistry, where doubt is cast whether people ought reasonably expect the truth in these situations and address the true problem. Our resort to falsehood usually arises from our unwillingness to take the time and effort to express the truth well in a particular situation.
Let us take the oft-used example, "Does this shirt make me look look fat?" To answer in the negative unreservedly is not in accord with the truth. In actuality, the question focuses our attention to the garment and not the individual. The individual ought be affirmed in his acceptance by God and us as they are. The garment may be critiqued for not best expressing the glory of God in the individual.
Another socially acceptable exception is deceptive speech, where we have not spoken falsehood, but we have spoken in a way that encourages people in thinking or believing something that is not true. This rests on the false division between speaking and communicating. Even when we aren't speaking, we are still communicating. By encouraging people to think or believe a lie, we are communicating untruth.
As we consider these issues, we ought to distance ourselves from the puritan rejection of fiction in literature. They saw these stories as violations of the Ninth Commandment since these stories of things than never happened. Nevertheless, we understand that these stories communicate truth through the narrative even if the events of the story never occurred. These stories have truth content from which we can benefit. They follow in the steps of the parables. Few readers of the New Testament consider that all the parables were true stories. They were tales told to make a true point.
We are to speak to truth. We are to speak only the truth. Having committed to this principle firmly, we turn to the manner in which we are to tell the truth.
Speaking in Love
One of the most uncomfortable experiences in seminary occurred in the course "Pastoral Counseling." It was divided between the theological faculty and the counseling faculty. The counseling faculty held to a philosophical commitment that I did not share. Nevertheless, you can learn from people with whom you disagree. In one exercise, they attempted to help us learn to communicate. They had us tell each other a life story and then you had to echo back what you heard. This exercise was aimed at encouraging us to listen and learn how to express what we heard. It was incredibly uncomfortable and didn't really help in skill acquisition.
It did represent a biblical truth. James writes, "Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath: for the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God." (James 1:19-20) James gives the church this direction following his description of the grace of God for us in the gospel of Jesus Christ. In light of what Jesus did for us, we ought to adopt this way of communicating. Because Jesus listens to us, were are to listen to others.
Listening precedes effective communication. Practically, listening should have come first in our examination of communication. It governs how we communicate. You cannot communicate effectively without first listening. You have to understand what makes a person tick, what language they speak. We have a problem in assuming that just because someone speaks English that they use words the same way that we do. We struggle with assuming that others think the same way that we do. People are different. It is our responsibility to understand them. We ought not expect them to understand us.
Listening immediately gives you an opportunity to be heard. I've heard it referred to as relational capital. People understand reciprocity, that if you listen to them, they also ought to listen to you. In addition, this world is filled with speakers and very few listeners. We are so attention starved that a like on our Facebook post, or picture of our lunch makes people feel affirmed. This isn't listening.
People will take a Facebook like as a poor substitute for true listening, but it is listening that they want. They want someone who listens to them, who knows them, who knows the core of who they are, and still accepts and affirms them. Naturally, the one they want is Jesus, and seek poor excuses for Him, but we in imitating Him, ought also to imitate Him in our listening and communicating.
Our goal in listening, then, is to put ourselves in their mind. We need to think their thoughts, to understand their point of view. We need to consider why certain thing are important to them even if they are not important to us. We need to consider how they differ from us. Even when we disagree with their conclusions, we ought to affirm their concern while encouraging them to think differently.
James also reminds us that not every discussion is one in which we ought to be involved. Being slow to speak may mean not speaking at all. Remember Jesus statement to the Jews about their father, the devil. Even as he does this in a dialogue to encourage one group to think biblically, He also suggests that another course might need to occur. "Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you." (Matthew 7:6) This verse appears in the context of correcting another. Jesus warns the people to cast out the beam in your own eye before trying to address the speck in your brother's eye. Then he bring up this swine metaphor. In context, Jesus says that there are some who will not listen even if you have previously cast out your own beam. It then is not wise to try to correct them.
There is a balancing test to answer for this matter. Should I speak? You must balance the importance of the matter with the likelihood of the person listening to you. For instance, often the church in judgment must admonish those who it knows will not listen. Nevertheless, they must speak for the peace, purity, and correction of the church. (I Corinthians 5) A minor matter might find a listening ear and thus warrant discussing. Deciding when to speak requires discernment and wisdom. We ought to ask ourselves, "Should I talk?" and in retrospect, "Should I have talked?"
Having chosen to speak, we must then decide how to speak. Hopefully, our time spent listening will guide us to effective communication. We ought to ask, "How can I express this idea," or, "encourage this way of thinking, in a way that this person will understand?" In retrospect, we ought to ask, "How could I have expressed this better?"
Finally, there is one important thing to remember. Effective communication does not guarantee agreement or change. Your effective communication cannot change a person's heart. It cannot change their minds. The power of the Holy Spirit is needed. We cannot take it personally if someone disagrees with our perspective.
Living Christian in an unchristian world requires us to communicate effectively. We are to speak the truth. We are to be those who reflect the truth God is. We are to speak the truth in love. We are to listen and speak according to what we have heard. This is how we show the world the love of God shown to us in the gospel of Jesus Christ.