Katherine is a wonderful woman in our congregation who loves Jesus, stays at home with her kids, and is trying to be a faithful wife to her husband. A few weeks ago Katherine and I had a conversation. She shared about her struggle with sharing her opinions in a way that does not seem domineering. Katherine is a legitimately kind and Spirit-filled woman who wants to be loving towards those with whom she is in relationship. She is aware, however, of a tendency in her own life—which has been confirmed by others—to come across as bossy, preachy, overbearing, and judgmental.
Katherine is perplexed. She is passionate and full of conviction, and desires to speak truth into the lives of people she loves. She is not sure, however, that she understands how to do that in a way that is not harsh. She very humbly asked me what she could do to be able to speak honestly without sounding insensitive.
Now of course there is Ephesians 4:15 to consider and apply: Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ. If we are to grow up in Christ in the context of our conversations, the apostle Paul commands two things about our words.
First he makes a command about the content of our speech—it must be truthful. Second, he makes a command about the method of our speech—it must be loving. Everything we say needs to be both wise and loving. Our speech is to be full of gracious candor. I talked about this passage with Katherine and it helped, but she also was a bit discouraged. The passage points out what she already knows she is not doing. It doesn’t give her steps to change.
So what did I say to Katherine to help her live out Ephesians 4:15? Asked another way: what other biblical principles can we use to help the Katherines of the world know how to lean on the grace of Jesus to have speech that is less harsh, and more seasoned with salt? Ephesians 4:15 describes the goal. That day as we talked, I gave Katherine seven suggestions to help reach the goal.
1. In humility, avoid thinking more highly of yourself than you ought.
These words are, of course, a command from Paul in Romans 12:3, and when the Lord returns and pours out His grace to obey them perfectly there will never again be another harsh word. Sometimes our words sound unkind to others because—even though we were exactly correct, and communicated with perfect pitch—the person who heard them responded sinfully to them. This is possible. But for those of us aware of deep patterns of pride in our own hearts, we should be careful not to assume it is true.
The reality is that, for most of us, our words are wrong before they ever even leave our mouths because they are generated from an arrogant, self-exalting heart. My ideas are correct; yours are wrong. My motives are pure; yours are suspect. My plans are wise; yours are foolish. When words are drawn out of this poisonous well they will not be spoken in love even if they are technically accurate because love does not envy or boast, and is not arrogant or rude (1 Cor. 13:4). My friend Katherine needs to learn, as I do, that before I ever clear my throat to speak I need to repent of the self-righteousness that drives all harshness.
2. In humility, count others more significant than yourself.
These words come from Paul’s admonition in Philippians 2. This consideration is the mirror image of the first point. If we would avoid harshness, our words not only need to involve a flight from self-exaltation, they need also to include a rush towards service of others. Whenever I speak to anybody I am addressing someone whose concerns Jesus wants me to consider above my own.
That means I need to speak as one trying to serve the significant interest of others. So often we speak to serve our own interests. We want others to hear our opinions. We want to air our own advice. We are eager for others to see things our way and laud our insights. We are on the way to speaking wise love when we repent of such motivations, and speak words that we honestly intend to serve others rather than our own interest.
3. In humility, listen first, and speak last.
James 1:19 says, Know this my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak. When I consider myself with sober judgment, and count your interests as more significant than my own, then this command makes perfect sense.
A humble consideration of my own limitations, and an earnest desire to serve you, naturally leads to a listening ear in order to discern how my words can be maximally helpful. We invert this passage and speak first whenever we think too highly of ourselves and too little of the interests of others. People will sense that our words are harsh, insensitive, and irrelevant if they are not aware that we have listened well to their concerns.
4. In humility, deal with the matter as privately as possible.
In the classic passage on church discipline in Matthew 18, the first step Jesus commends is a private conversation between an errant brother and the one who would restore him. This is wisdom. I have been in pastoral ministry long enough to witness on numerous occasions the folly of making a private matter more public than it ought to be.
In our pride we often desire to voice our convictions in such a way that a maximum number of people can hear how smart we are. The wisdom of humility commends a different ethic. If we want to avoid harshness we will usually seek privacy. There is obviously a time and place for immediate, and public rebukes (Gal. 2:11-14), but normally we should hold our fire until we can speak privately.
5. In humility, be honest about your own struggles and limitations.
In Matthew 7:1-5, Jesus teaches His people a process of reconciliation that requires confession to precede confrontation. Jesus’ wise command encourages me to come alongside you confessing my own sin and weaknesses before I help you deal with yours.
This is not the way we often handle similar situations. In our sin we like to avoid our weaknesses, limitations, and struggles. If we would avoid harshness, however, and attain to the goal of speaking the truth in love we must follow Jesus and learn to lead with our own weakness. Doing this will soften the hearts of our listeners, and most importantly, honor Christ.
6. In humility, be honest about the graces of others.
In Luke 6:37-38, Jesus says, Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you. This passage commands Christians to extend charitable judgment to others.
Avoiding harshness as we speak with others means acknowledging that it is rarely the case that the person with whom we are speaking is defined exclusively by their faults. Everyone has positive aspects that are worth considering, and mentioning. It is an act of love and humility to consider and share with others the good things in their character above and beyond any difficulties you are addressing with them. Sharing such things is not a matter of avoiding difficult topics, or of puffing up their ego, but of fundamental faithfulness to Christ.
7. In humility, speak the truth.
The seventh suggestion returns us to Ephesians 4:15 where we started. We are reminded that we must speak the truth. If you fail in the first six steps you’re unloving. If you fail here, you’re untruthful. Neither is good.
Jesus wants Katherine, you, and me to engage others and minister to them by speaking true things into their lives. It is not loving to avoid giving people the truth. It is not wise, however, to think we have discharged our burden by uttering true statements without speaking them lovingly. For those of us who understand that God wants us to speak true things, we need to grow in the grace of avoiding harshness in speaking that truth.
I pray these seven suggestions help you, as they did Katherine, by providing seven areas to examine your speech, seek forgiveness, and lean on Jesus for grace to avoid harshness and pursue love as you talk to others.
Join the Conversation
Which of these seven principles would be most helpful in your speaking the truth in love?
What additional biblical principles would you add?