Engaging Well

By Dr. Sean du Toit

 
“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me.” This may be one of the biggest lies ever told.
Because according to Proverbs, the tongue carries the power of life and death (Pr 18:21).

Strange to think that we could “kill” a human being, just with our words. Sure, they may not be physically dead, but psychologically and socially, their “lives” could be destroyed by the words that are spoken.

Psychologists, counsellors and social workers are quick to realise the incredible power words have on personalities, social integration and community harmony. In fact, you could easily close your eyes right now and imagine various conversations that have cut you.

I have a vivid memory of my principal in high-school articulating in no uncertain terms that I was a complete waste of oxygen and I would never amount to anything significant. At the time those words were uttered, I had no idea the impact that would linger for years to come. And yet, there are too often times when we don’t realise the power of our words. Too often we don’t reflect on the ripple effect that words will have. This is particularly the case with our digital modes of communication. Somehow, the digital interface often hides the humanity of the people communicated with, and so we feel free to say anything we “feel” like saying. However, I have also been around long enough to see careless words used as knives in public discourse and private communication.

We have to learn to engage with each other more fruitfully and beneficially.


Virtuous Communication

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians provides us with a wonderful framework within which to understand how we communicate and what virtues should shape Christian communication.

While much could be said here, I’ll focus our attention on four elements. Firstly, the call to a distinctive life of virtue. Secondly, the exhortation to speak the truth within a particular context. Thirdly, communication should always aim to be constructive and not destructive.

The goal of Christian communication is to be a carrier of God’s grace.
 

A Distinctive Life

In Ephesians 4:1-2, Paul exhorts the Christian community: “I, therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love…”

Paul begins with a strong appeal to the Christians, begging them to lead a life worthy of their particular calling. This calling is to be part of God’s cosmic reconciling efforts noted in 1:10. As part of God’s mission, Christians are to live distinctive lives characterized by particular virtues. The first is humility. Rather than being arrogant and boastful, the Christian is called to not think highly of oneself. Our understanding is always partial and incomplete, and so humility beckons us to take a posture of learning and growth.

Secondly, we are to be those who are gentle. A gentle person does not overpower or bully another, but understands their strength and position and uses it in a non-threatening manner. Thirdly, the call to patience is to understand that different people grow at different rates and in different ways and we need to not force people into our way of thinking or our time-frame.


 

In a world where there seems to be a growing intolerance of opposing ideas or even critical questions, we must seek to engage humbly and virtuously...


Truth and Love

Eph 4:15 contains Paul’s instruction to “Speak the truth in love…” How does one speak the truth in love?

My suggestion is that when a person walks away from you, having heard the truth, they must know that they are loved. If we cannot maintain loving speech-acts towards those both inside and outside of fellowship is a community then we fail to speak the truth in love.

Love is the context and the commission to speak the truth. It is only within the context of a clear commitment for the well-being and benefit of the other, that truth can be helpfully and clearly communicated. True speech is the most loving thing we can do for people trapped in lies. However, love must be the means by which we communicate truth. The adage that the medium is the message applies here, love must shape the way we deliver the truth.

Love does not entail a compromising of truth, but nor does it allow the truth to be weaponised in service of a destructive agenda.

 

Constructive, Not Destructive

The destructive power of words is highlighted in Ephesians 4:29, where Paul exhorts the Christians: “Let no destructive talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.”

We often think that this merely applies to obscenities, but Paul’s instruction here is much more specific. Words that are destructive psychologically or relationally are to be avoided. Rather, there is to be a focus on words and communication that build people up, rather than tear them down.

Gossip is an example of speech that seeks to tear down, loving and gentle correction is an example of communication that seeks to build-up. Encouragement builds-up. Affirmation builds-up. The truth, delivered in a caring, kind and committed manner builds-up.


Honouring Image-Bearers

The theological rationale that necessitates such virtuous communication is outlined by James when he writes: “With it, we bless the Lord and Father, and with it, we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.

From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so” (3:9-10). Every single human being is a creation of God and is valued by God. To speak destructively to those created by God is thus offensive to God.

In a world where there seems to be a growing intolerance of opposing ideas or even critical questions, we must seek to engage humbly and virtuously, honouring others as creations of God almighty.

In a world where public shaming is popular, we must not mimic this kind of violence but seek to lovingly correct a person or at least relate to them in such a manner that they can understand where we are coming from.