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“If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Jesus didn’t heed that advice from Thumper Rabbit’s mother. Apparently neither Mary nor Joseph turned up the oil lamp to read Disney’s version of Bambi to him.

Rather, reading the gospels we often hear Jesus’ strong denunciations of people and practices that perpetuate injustice. Sometimes, Jesus’ words were not “nice.” For example, in Revelation 3 a passionate Christ tells the Laodicean church, “Because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth” Not nice, but needed!

God’s Word is clear: we are to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15). Yet despite Paul’s directive, our speech is often neither loving nor truthful.

How we express our differences is crucial.

Jesus’ brother James didn’t hear Mom Thumper’s admonition, but he does warn us, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (1:19).And James drives that home with a promise:“. . . not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do” (v. 25). He suggests we keep a “tight rein”on our tongues. If we don’t, we deceive ourselves and our religion is worthless (v. 26).

If James were writing today, I imagine he’d also suggest “a tight rein” on emails and YouTube videos that go viral because of our innate desire for the latest exposé. Missionary Grace Tazelaar wrote in a letter to a supporting church 20 years ago, “It is my hope that technology enhances communication and promotes understanding, rather than becoming a barrier to them.” Reading her words, I wonder about recent Internet exchanges, voices drawing grandiose conclusions based on miniscule information.

We also need to heed another of Paul’s commands to the Ephesians: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs”(Eph. 4:29).God’s Word needs application to more than just our mouths.

God didn’t make a mistake when he made us with passionate emotions and feelings. Nor did God make a mistake when he made us capable of sophisticated means of communicating. God wants words to encourage and comfort, as well as to challenge.

Our intent in any communication must be to build up and benefit others, especially members of God’s family. But being family is no excuse for saying whatever we want. Being family means compassionate communication with a genuine Christ-like concern for each other.

So when will I learn to listen before speaking out? What will it take for each of us to do so?

What the Church Can Learn from Marriage

When I meet with couples about to engage in the adventure of marriage, we take one whole hour to reflect on “Fighting Fair to Clear the Air.” We discuss 12 strongly-worded directives that would have Thumper’s huge ears flopping to avoid saying what’s not“nice.”I’ve handed these Guidelines for Successful Marital Disagreements to already-married couples too, and I think several are particularly applicable for disagreement within the family of God called the Christian Reformed Church. We’ve been all-too-ready to jump ship rather than work from a commitment to serve and stay together. Sadly, we’ve seized on divorce and going our separate ways as an option all too often.

Guideline 1 goes like this: Express your opinions, desires, and concerns as calmly and clearly as possible. Be willing to listen actively as well as talk. Share your feelings as well as your thinking.

Obvious? Of course! Easily done? Not quite! When we have a fundamental difference of understanding with someone, it’s tempting to walk away. We stop listening because we think, “I can’t believe you see it that way!” We mix our feelings with our opinions and confuse the two. Passionate tones replace clear enunciation of issues, and we turn away from each other. To avoid that, I’ve advised stressed couples to sit together in a restaurant booth, hold hands across the table to signify their commitment to the relationship, and talk calmly and clearly. In doing so, I remind them to keep in mind guideline 2: Appreciate the other person’s viewpoint, even if it doesn’t make sense to you at the time. Appreciate feelings for what they are, whether or not they seem rational to you.

How many marriages have remained intact or been enhanced as a result, I don’t know. But I do know the advice is applicable to the complex relationships within churches. As a delegate to synod, I’ve listened to speeches and wondered, “How did he ever come to that conclusion? It doesn’t make any sense—none at all.” And what happens? I stop listening, often dismissing the person as well as his or her thinking. In marriages we can’t afford to do that, and we certainly can’t afford to do that within the body of Christ.

Don’t withdraw. Silence ends effective communication. No doghouses, states guideline 7. That means we hold hands and keep talking, maybe relishing the quiet for just a while.

Locally and denominationally, we email, phone, or text, sometimes across continents, but we do not often take the time or effort to talk face to face. Physical walls often result in a barricade of communication. Thinking about these things, I remind myself that God neither texted or emailed his Word. He incarnated it—walking in the garden, anointing prophets, and sending his Son.

We cannot deny the powerful impact of words. Christ’s words from the cross begin with “Father, forgive them” and end with “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” They speak to an enviable relationship of confidence and commitment. Jesus knew his Father would forgive. He knew his Father would receive him. Our words as members of God’s family must reflect a similar confidence and commitment to each other.

The world needs to see our lofty theological concepts expressed in nitty-gritty living, especially when we disagree. Otherwise, as James notes, our religion is worthless. Who we are in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17) must lead to living as children of the light, especially in our communication.

Doctrine must lead to doing. Our core beliefs must mean consistent behavior. We live in relationships as new creatures in Christ. That doesn’t mean we see everything the same way. Good! As Abraham Lincoln wisely said, “If two people agree on everything, only one of them is thinking!”

When a couple suggests their perfect harmony to me, I’m tempted to respond, “If two people always agree, it’s a dull marriage.” Neither is it good to always agree within the church. It’s not healthy for one person to determine what we need to think or believe.

In Acts 15:7 we read, “After much discussion, Peter got up. . . .” Imagine the scene and the strong feelings! What’s covered by the word discussion? I suggest it all wasn’t as calm or as clear as possible.Peter is followed by Barnabas and Paul, who share their experiences of God at work among the Gentiles. And “the whole assembly became silent as they listened”(15:12). Understanding God’s work means listening to hear what God is doing, not what we think God ought to be doing.

How we express our differences is crucial. There’s a world watching, drawing conclusions. Jesus’ high priestly prayer (John 17) demands that we be careful in our disagreeing: our “complete unity” lets the world know that the Father sent the Son and loves “them even as you have loved me” (17:23).

Paul writes, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Eph. 4:32). As members of one body, we cannot write a person off because he doesn’t seem important or she thinks differently (1 Cor. 12). There’s no room for distorting the truth to gain advantage. That’s the Tempter’s modus operandi.

As followers of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Truth, we must speak the truth—in love. Yes, sometimes that means saying things that are not “nice,” but how we do so makes all the difference.

We don’t say whatever comes to mind. We are members of one body called to maintain meaningful dialogue regarding different viewpoints while focusing on the truths that unite us. If we believe we must point out error, we’d better be sure our correction is based on truth given by God. When Jesus speaks to the church in Laodicea, he does so as one intimately acquainted. He confronts out of love, expecting a change of heart and behavior.

What would Jesus say today about our use of words and our commitment to each other? Ignoring Thumper’s mom, let’s hold hands and communicate—clearly, calmly, and compassionately! 

Guidelines for Successful (Marital) Disagreements

1. Express your opinions, desires, and concerns as calmly and clearly as possible. Be willing to listen actively as well as talk. Share your feelings as well as your thinking.

2. Appreciate the other person’s viewpoint, even if it doesn’t make sense to you at the time. Appreciate feelings, whether they seem rational or not.

3. Remember that timing is essential. Don’t start something when you have to leave shortly or when you’re on your way to church or bed or elsewhere.

4. No name calling! It hurts and assassinates character.

5. Don’t zero in on vulnerable areas. We all have an Achilles heel.

6. Forget old scores and arguments. Stick to the present disagreement. Avoid collusion with references to “my father” or “my brother-in- law” as well as generalizations such as “You always.”

7. Don’t withdraw. Silence ends effective communication. No doghouses!

8. Give up accusations, vulgarity, verbal abuse, or shouting down. Threats of separation, divorce, “going home to Mom,” or suicide are blackmail. Noise is no substitute for communication.

9. Avoid playing analyst or shrink with your spouse, whatever your education.

10. Do not engage in physical violence. Adults talk things through, while children act out.

11. Remember that tears can be a form of psychological intimidation based on previous success. Understand what tears mean in your relationship.

12. Know when to call a truce. If emotions run out of control—STOP! Take time to cool down and reflect. Get back to it later. (Normally it’s best to finish your fight and move on. Dragging it out and out is sinful!)

—George Vink. Guidelines drawn from several sources over the years.

For Discussion

  1. How do you keep a “tight rein” on your tongue when you are having a conversation with a person with whom you disagree? What makes communicating honestly difficult?
  2. What have you noticed about communication in our culture? In your church?
  3. George Vink says that "God wants words to encourage and comfort, as well as to challenge." What guidelines from Vink will help you to communicate in this way?
  4. What part does listening play in meaningful communication?
  5. What is your heartfelt desire as you try to speak the truth in love to people or organizations with whom you interact?

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