One of the most important subjects that is addressed in pre-marriage counseling courses is the topic of communication. After all, the health of any relationship or organization can be gauged by the health of its communication. Do people feel heard, understood and valued? Do they feel informed? Do they feel safe asking questions, or safe giving answers? Marriage counselors tell me that one of the most common “presenting problems” that brings folks into their office is the problem of communication. I can believe it, because I personally have struggled with communication in huge ways. And the primary reason for this is not my personality type, but the fact that I forget the gospel. I forget that I am forgiven. I forget that my righteousness is in Jesus and not in my rightness. I forget that I no longer have to win the argument or prove myself. When I forget these gospel truths, I tend to be defensive and dismissive. I don’t listen well, because I’m formulating my next defense or attack in my head as the other person is speaking. When a conversation turns to an argument, words can become weapons. That is the death of communication, and unless that problem is faced with the gospel, it will be the death of the relationship, too.
If you are at that place of death in a relationship because of communication breakdown, I think this message will help. It has been helping me this week.
The word of God for us today is Ephesians 4:29 which is in a section of Paul’s letter to Christians in ancient Ephesus that reveals how he expects a true encounter with God’s grace in Jesus to change our lives in practical ways. He says that true Christians are not only distinguished by what we believe, but also by how we live. In verses 17-32, Paul addresses a number of these life issues. In v. 29, he specifically addresses the problem of communication. Here is the plan: I’m going to read this passage, then share 3 big concepts and a number of smaller practical applications that I hope you will find helpful.
Eph. 4:29 Do not let any talk unwholesome [ESV, corrupting; harmful] come out your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.
The first “big concept” is that…
I. We have a choice for what kinds of words we use in communication.
We can choose harmful words that tear down or helpful words that build up. Remember, v. 29 says the goal of our communication is that what we say “may benefit those who hear.”
This week I was doing some minor auto repair work, and it was minor. But I pulled out my toolbox and had to choose tools. Some tools are clutter that I never use. Thinking about removing them from the toolbox all-together. There are some communication tools that we may want to eliminate also: insults/name calling/labeling (identity), using inflammatory words such as “you always” or “you never,” making assumptions/expect people to read my mind. Concerning sarcasm. Sometimes sarcasm is a good humored elbow in the side. But it also can be used to tear someone down. Along with these other tools, this kind of sarcasm is unwholesome and harmful.
When choosing words, consider the difference between making ultimatums vs offering suggestions. An ultimatum makes a demand. “We must. We have to.” Ultimatums shut down communication. But a suggestion opens communication with phrases such as, “What do you think about…” or “what if we…”
Or consider the difference between dismissive words vs empathetic words. Rather than, “You’ve got to be kidding!” or “That’s ridiculous!” Try, “Yeah, I can see how you might feel that way. This really helps me understand.”
II. The priority in communication is not speaking, but listening. In other words, I should seek to understand before I am understood. This is the idea in v. 29 when Paul says that we should speak in a way that reveals we know the listener’s needs. In order to know those needs, we have to listen.
Did you hear that the guy who used to be in those Verizon ads is now with Sprint. Remember the question he’d ask? “Can you hear me now?” We have ALL said that on a cell phone. So frustrating when people can’t hear us. It is the same way in ordinary conversation.
What happens if we think we are not being heard? We speak more loudly. Then we may shout. Then we are both yelling, and a conversation has turned into an argument that results in a war of words.
When you feel the heat rising in a conversation, let me encourage you to avoid the automatic reload. You know how this works. You say something that critiques your spouse, then she responds. What am I doing as she speaks? Am I listening, trying to understand her heart and her needs so that I can know how to empathize with her emotions and maybe even concede that her assessment of my issues are correct?
No way! As she is speaking, I’m digging in and reloading! I’m formulating the next statement in my argument. At this point, words become weapons, and communication turns into a war that we are both trying to win. If this is where you are, my suggestion is to enlist a mediator, counselor – someone who is able to help guide the conversation – someone who can help us learn to listen.
By the way, Creekstone leadership is listening and has heard you. We really want to take a practical step in improving our communication. Therefore, rather than trying to post information in a variety of mediums, we are going to focus our communication using the Creekstone Email Group. Most of you are already receiving these emails. For you, there is nothing you need to do except open and read, or sometimes watch a short video. In addition to upcoming event or serving opportunity info, we plan to distribute Creekstone financial updates via that group list as well. In order to save costs, we are working on a bulletin template that we can print in bulk. So, we will not have announcements printed in the bulletin, nor will we make many from the stage on Sundays. There will be limited exceptions, but for the most part, your communication portal is the Creekstone Email Group.
A benefit of this communication tool is that, if you have a question, you can just reply and keep the conversation going. However, since it is a group email, if you use Gmail, you need to make sure that these messages are sent to your inbox rather than your promotions folder. Dragging the next message you get out of your promotions folder and into your inbox should do the trick.
If you are not receiving the Creekstone Group Email, you may sign up to receive it at the link in your bulletin, or scan the QR code, which will take you to the link without having to type it in.
Ok, so to review: in communication, we can choose hurtful words that tear down or helpful words that build up; we need to prioritize listening before speaking. But what about when we need to speak a hard word that may not be received well? What if we need to address an issue in someone’s life that needs correction?
III. If we must wound, we must also be prepared to heal. I think of a heart surgeon who wants to see his patient experience renewed health. But in order to do the necessary corrections, he must cut open a patient’s chest. Now, he would never dream of leaving the heart exposed, would he? No, he would address the heart issues and then take pains to close the wound. Sometimes a surgeon has to wound in order to heal.
As Prov 27:6 says, “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.”
But what does it look like to inflict a wound in such a way that it benefits? I think there are four essential steps.
(1) Ask permission. I don’t want just anyone cutting me open. Going under the knife is a uniquely vulnerable position. If someone I don’t trust approaches me with a knife, I tend to run in the opposite direction. When someone tries to cut on me without my approval, I am going to fight back. This is why saying, “I’m just being honest” or saying “just sayin’,” is like cutting someone open without permission. Even a surgeon must have permission – regardless of his intentions. You can’t just go cutting people – even cutting them with truth. So, the only people we would consider operating on like this are those who really, really trust us, and is another reason why we want to cultivate a culture of small group, life on life discipleship. So that we can receive the benefit from being in relationship with a few people who have access to our hearts. We can only operation if we are trusted, and if trusted, we still need to ask permission. Asking permission can be as simple as, “Could I ask you a personal question?”
At this point, we are recognizing that communication is multi-leveled. To talk to someone about the weather is surface. Safe. To talk with someone about their heart, their struggles, fears and sins, that is a much deeper issue. Like cutting through the surface and down into the heart.
(2) Surgery should be done in person, not via email or even on the phone. After all, the biblical model is to go directly and meet personally. There is so much non-verbal communication that we otherwise miss, such as body posture, facial expressions, and the tone of one’s voice.
(3) Surgery takes place by making observations and asking questions. “I may be wrong about this, but…you seem angry a lot. Would you agree?” “Why do you think that is?” Then, “How do you think the gospel can address this?” How can grace make a difference? This is where the healing can take place at a really deep level in the soul – to realize that God’s grace applies to the deepest heart issues we face!
(4) After surgery, follow up to make sure your friend is healing. And then, offer him or her the scalpel.
The reality is that ALL of us need this kind of surgery. Therefore, let me encourage you to take the risk of your life by voluntarily going under the knife with someone with whom you want to go deep in communication with someone you trust simple steps. Simple, but not easy!
(1) Give someone the scalpel and invite them to cut. Ask them, “What is an area of my life or areas, that you think need attention? If you could change me, what would that be?”
(2) Promise not to make excuses or push back in any way. The place where I push back most forcefully against your probing is probably where my greatest idols live.
(3) Take notes. Write down what is observed and suggested so that you can remember and go back to the specifics.
(4) Set a follow up appointment to re-engage and communicate what you heard and what you’ve learned as the Spirit has spoken to you about these heart.
I handed Kristy and my kids the scalpel several years ago. I had just read a book called, When Sinners Say I Do. That book suggested giving your spouse the scalpel (not a real one!) and, well, doing what I’ve outlined this morning. In my meeting with Kristy, things began slowly. She wasn’t sure I wouldn’t push back or get angry and defensive. She was not in the mood for a war, and neither was I. But once she felt safe, well, I ended up writing down about 3 pages of notes. My conversation with my kids wasn’t as long, but it was as deep, revealing blind spots in my life that I couldn’t see, but that I really needed to see. The result of this experience was not feeling more distant from my wife and kids, but much closer. As we’ve said, healthy relationships depends on healthy communication; because healthy communication leads to a healthy relationship.
Of course, the quality of relationship with have with each other is dependent on the quality of relationship we have with God through Jesus. It is that relationship that influences all others, which is why the last verse in Eph 4 is so crucial, where Paul provides the key to all of the life-change he has exhorted us to consider in verses 17-32, including communication in v. 29. V. 32 reads, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”
Every disciple of Jesus has had heart surgery already. The problem was so devastating that we actually needed more than a stint; we needed a heart transplant. Thankfully, the gospel provides the donor! This is what the cross is about, where Jesus took on the corruption of my sinful heart and gave me his pure heart. His clean heart. His perfectly righteous heart. At the cross, all of my warring, hateful, defensive, vindictive words have been absorbed in the body of Jesus.
This is what it means to be forgiven. It is to be someone whose life is defined as a grace recipient.
This is why forgiven people are forgiving people. Forgiven people are not demanding people. They are not gossiping people. They are not vindictive and verbally abusive. Because of grace, they are kind, compassionate and forgiving, because they are the recipients of God’s kindness, compassion and forgiveness that has been demonstrated through the cross of Christ.
This applies specifically to communication because, if Jesus is my righteousness – my rightness – then I no longer have to defend being right. I can be wrong. I no longer have to defend anything. I have nothing to prove. This means that I can listen in order to understand; speak helpful words that will encourage and heal, building others up rather than tearing them down.
But this takes my heart being freshly calibrated/ aligned to the cross, which is one major reason we meet here on Sundays. This is what I need. If this is what YOU need, then will you join me in believing that we are forgiven. Sins covered. Eternity is secure. Not because of anything we can do, but all because of what Jesus has already done. Let’s believe that together. For if we will, that grace will change everything, even communication.