“Men don’t talk honestly with each other.”
“Women don’t talk constructively with each other.”
Do those comments ring bells for you? Of course, neither generalization is always true. Moral issues apply across gender lines. But both comments are true enough often enough to make you think.
Men don’t talk honestly? It’s the easiest thing in the world for a conversation to remain superficial and self-concealing, never getting to anything that actually matters. Empty words. And, of course, many women do the same, and just keep it light. Are your conversations pointless?
Women don’t talk constructively? It’s the easiest thing in the world for a conversation to be revealingly honest, but never get anywhere helpful. Unfruitful words. And, of course, many men do this too, saying what they really think and feel, but not going anywhere good. Do your conversations rehearse what’s wrong but never pursue making it right?
How do we begin to change how we talk with each other? Here are five truths to orient you.
First, Jesus says that God is actively listening to every word, even the most casual, unthinking things we say (Matt 12:36). He takes note of what we are saying and weighs our words. Are your conversations empty, misleading, inappropriate, or judgmental? Or is the way you talk nourishing, constructive, timely, and grace-giving? (Eph 4:29) The Lord gives the rating “Empty” to any conversation that skims over the surface of life and never gets real. The Lord gives the rating “Harmful” to any conversation that digs up dirt and tosses it around. But he sizes up a life-giving conversations with a hearty “Yes and amen! Keep it up!”
Second, Jesus never said a pointless word to other people. He was never just marking time or keeping things that matter at arm’s length. He always engages the important matters. He never just describes, analyzes, and complains about what’s wrong. His conversations always go somewhere helpful. Jesus speaks life-giving words: candid, constructive, relevant, and redemptive. And one of the constructive things Jesus talks about is helping us to assess the quality of what we talk about. “The mouth speaks out of the abundance of the heart”—either good or evil (Matt 12:34).
Third, our God teaches us to have meaningful conversations with him. The Psalms and the other prayers in Scripture are candid, constructive, relevant and grace-filled. They teach us to remember who he is. As we listen, we learn to talk honestly about what is good or bad about us. We learn to speak of hard things as well as happy things in our circumstances. We learn to cry out where we need help, and sing about how we are grateful. Our prayers can express care and concern for others—“I thank God every time I remember you, and I pray that your love will abound more and more with knowledge and all discernment” (Phil 1:3, 9). Prayer gets to what most matters and to what’s true.
Fourth, our God then teaches us to have meaningful conversations with each other. The way we talk with him directly relates to how we talk with each other. Ephesians 4:15 says that we grow up in Christ by lovingly speaking truth with each other. For a few people that includes preaching and teaching. For everybody that means our daily conversations. How do we encourage each other daily in the face of sin’s deadly deceitfulness? How do we comfort each other in whatever afflictions and difficulties each one of us faces today? How do we talk about what matters in a way that makes a difference?
Fifth, the Holy Spirit generates wise conversations. So you don’t skim over the surface. So you don’t stay stuck in the mud. Scripture demonstrates how every conversation can go somewhere good. It even captures how, in some important moments, what must next be said is to be silent. Sometimes there are no more words to say. Perhaps you are grieving. Perhaps you are thinking. Perhaps you are praying. Perhaps your quietness communicates how much you care. Perhaps silence is saying that there is no point to saying anything more right now. When Jesus was silent before his accusers, his silence was the most eloquent thing that could be said. A meaningful silence expresses what is true, constructive, most appropriate, and grace-giving. And then you will find the right words at the right time. In Gethsemane, Jesus had things to say to his Father, to his friends, and to his betrayer. On the cross, Jesus had things to say to his Father, to his tormentors, to the repentant thief, to his mother… to all of us.
Of course, nothing we’ll ever say is that momentous. But everything we say does matter. So what do you talk about, and how do you talk? Where can you listen in and get a feel for what wise words sound like? Let me suggest an unusual starting point:
- Listen in to how Scripture shows us what it’s like to talk with God.
- Talk about the same kinds of things with other people.
Our Father teaches us to traffic in reality—addressing the best and the hardest things in life. You can’t live in reality without seeing both, and remembering your Lord in the midst of it. Facing the hard things, you can be honest about your need. Receiving the good things, you can express joy and thanks. As you learn to pray about what matters, you are also learning to talk with other people about what matters. It’s a curious thing, but entirely reasonable once you grasp the principle. Jesus’ conversations and prayers are about the same things.
He’s committed to you and working in you. You, and I, and all of us together can become much more honest and much more constructive!