This is the second post in a series on how following Jesus transforms our relationships.
Sometimes we just don’t know what to say or how to say it. For fear of saying the wrong thing we say nothing at all.
Sitting quietly with a grieving friend, waiting patiently for a loved one to find his own words in times of confusion, and even holding our tongue in response to an insult can be a powerful, healing gift.
And yet silence can also be corrosive, since it can be taken as indifference, collusion with evil, or acceptance of behaviors that grind us into dust. Most of us have missed the opportunity to utter a healing or reconciling or boundary-drawing word when it was really needed:
It breaks my heart to see you so hurt (or lonely or afraid or ashamed).
I’m sorry. I was wrong.
That’s just not how I see things.
Don’t do that again. Ever.
If you’re like me, you spend the next several years rerunning the scene in your imagination so that you get a second chance to say just that right thing.
Sometimes we know better than to say something. And we catch ourselves thinking what a terrible idea it is to say that word or phrase or novella to that person after those very words have, in fact, poured out of our mouths.
Even as the words stream from your lips you hear the delicate shattering of a heart, the steam kettle of emotions starting to shriek, or a thick curtain of resentment and defensiveness falling.
Again, if you’re like me, you keep talking long after words have become anything but poison, desperately believing that more talk could somehow make this better right now.
There is more to our relationships than words. But what we say and what we leave unsaid can powerfully influence the shape, quality and depth of our relationships.
So how do we know what to say when to whom? Great question.
The Bible doesn’t give us a surefire recipe for each and every situation, but it gives us clear principles that help us to avoid some of our most common mistakes.
What we need to do is to learn the principles and learn how to apply them by following the example of a reliable mentor.
First, some of the principles:
Just because you think it doesn’t mean you have to say it. Or, as Proverbs puts it, “The LORD detests lying lips, but he delights in men who are truthful. A prudent man keeps his knowledge to himself, but the heart of fools blurts out folly.” (Proverbs 12:22-23)
When we speak, we should speak the truth. But a wise person knows when to speak that truth. Timing is crucial. If we speak a truth in anger, it will fall on deaf ears. Conversely, telling a person a difficult truth when they’re in no state to hear it may in fact lose us the opportunity to be helpful.
Here’s another basic principle. God gave us words to do good with them. Sift whether or not to say something on the basis of what you hope to accomplish by saying it.
If you want to give greater life to someone else, say it. Even if they are painful to the listener for the moment or for a season, true words offer healing and growth.
If you just want to express yourself, you might consider holding your tongue. Sometimes all we’re trying to express is a heated passion like resentment or irritation, and this will likely end up in tearing someone else down and damaging the relationship.
Another passage from Proverbs makes this point. “The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life, but violence overwhelms the mouth of the wicked.” (Proverbs 10:11)
To speak the truth in love is to speak with the mouth of the righteous. But righteousness is not the same as perfect moral conformity. The mouth of the righteous is not the stinging, condescending mouth of the moral know-it-all in the next pew.
The righteous person is connected, connected to God. And we Christians know that we are connected to God through his Son Jesus. He and only he is the perfectly righteous one.
He offers us a ridiculous trade. He’ll die for our sins and we can be given credit for his righteousness.
Jesus is the incarnate Word. Jesus is what God has to say to us: mercy.
And God speaks to us in his Son so that we can learn to speak a heavenly word ourselves: mercy.
We are, each of us, learning to talk. When to speak. When to be silent. What to say. And Jesus is the reliable mentor from which to learn the only word really worth saying.
With our spouse. With our children. With our parents. With our friends. With our colleagues. Jesus will teach us the word of mercy in all its rich, tender, challenging, powerful variety.
Your son wrecks the car. You trust him again with your car keys.
Your father has Alzheimer’s and doesn’t remember that he told you that story just five minutes before. You smile and laugh just to hear him speak and to see his pleasure in telling it to you.
Your spouse has had a hard day. He tells you about frustrations or soreheads or anxieties. You listen. Just listen. Without advice about how to fix it or what to do next. You just show up and look alert.
Remarkably, sometimes we get it right. Unsurprisingly, we say too much, too little or simply the wrong thing. But Jesus is teaching us. Teaching us to talk in the language of mercy.
It’s a course that no one fails so long as we keep showing up for the lessons.
In the next posts in the series we’ll be touch on vulnerability, intimacy, keeping secrets, and when to disclose personal truths (and when not to do so).