Grace and Truth: What’s Tone Got to do With It? Much Indeed (Part 2)

Five further insights on tone — continued from the May edition of The Baptist Courier.

6. SOFTEN YOUR LANGUAGE.

Avoid harsh, judgmental language or attitudes. Avoid emotive language. Intentionally use gracious, non-combative words. Remember Proverbs 15:1: “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Another important bit of biblical wisdom appears in Proverbs 12:18: “Rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”

Paul models well gracious speech in a hostile setting in his dialogue with Agrippa in Acts 26:3. The apostle has appealed the reason for his arrest to Caesar and stands before Agrippa, the great-grandson of Herod the Great. Paul’s opening statement is pure Christlike détente: “I consider myself fortunate that it is before you, King Agrippa, I am going to make my defense today against all the accusations of the Jews, especially because you are familiar with all the customs and controversies of the Jews. Therefore, I beg you to listen to me patiently.”

Agrippa is obviously affected by Paul’s careful words, concluding the apostle’s defense by admitting, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” (Acts 26:28) before rendering a plainly worded verdict: “This man is doing nothing to deserve death or imprisonment” (Acts 26:31).

The old aphorism captures it well: “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

7. SEEK CLARITY AND USE “HELPER WORDS.”

Make sure you understand what the other person is saying.

Ken Sande, in his outstanding book The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict, defines clarity as “the process of making sure you understand what the other person is saying.” Clarity necessarily involves asking questions. Do it graciously. Seek clarity by asking or saying things like:

“Are you saying …?”

“Tell me more about … ”

“Can you give me a specific example …?”

“I’m a little confused about … ”

“Here’s what I understand you to be saying. … Is that correct or am I off base?”

Seeking clarity shows the other person that you care about hearing their concern accurately. It’s a good way to signal them that you’re listening. It helps establish trust and often leads to a conversation that brings more light and less heat, because they know you’re genuinely trying to hear them out.

Also, John Crotts provides much-needed help through the use of what he calls “gracious helper words.” Using these words can help you avoid sounding unreasonable, harsh, arrogant, authoritarian or self-righteous. Here’s what he means by “gracious helper words”:

Incorporate words and phrases into your dialogue designed to remind you of the need to be more gracious and to be a conduit of kindness. Expressions such as “I think,” “it seems,” or “from my perspective” acknowledge that you are aware you lack omniscience.

While everyone else knows that you don’t know everything, it is good for the people you address to hear you affirm that you don’t know everything. Regardless of how often you’re right, no one is always right. While you may be certain about many biblical truths, when you discuss them use humble phrases to genuinely help you to remain humble and further the conversation.

8. REMEMBER THE UNMERITED GRACE OF GOD YOU’VE RECEIVED.

This is what the gospel does: It sets us free to treat every fellow saved sinner as an equal. Sande encourages us to remember that we’ve received grace upon grace upon grace, grace that God continues to pour into our lives every single day. Once a believer realizes how much he’s received from the Lord, then he is in a position to breathe grace in his communication with others.

When you need to show others their faults, do not talk down to them as though you are faultless, and they are inferior to you. Instead, talk with them as though you are standing side by side at the foot of the cross. Acknowledge your present, ongoing need for the Savior.

Admit ways you have wrestled with the same or other sins or weaknesses and give hope by describing how God has forgiven you and is currently working in you to help you change. When people sense this kind of humility and common bond, they will be less inclined to react to correction with pride and defensiveness. You’ve been forgiven an infinite debt. Remember that.

9. POSTURE YOURSELF AS A FRIEND, NOT AN ENEMY.

This is particularly vital if you are debating matters of theology, culture, or politics. It makes a profound difference if we assume the posture of a friend and not an enemy. Too many theological disagreements at least insinuate that the opposing side is so wrong on an issue that their Christian faith is probably not genuine. Of course, that may be true when we are debating a matter that is the difference between heresy and orthodoxy, such as at the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325 when the Arians argued that there was a time when Jesus “was not.”

Most of our debates are not matters that spell the difference between true Christianity and false. And when we are talking to fellow Christians, we should not view brothers and sisters in Christ as our enemies. This is true even when confronting a fellow believer about his sins. As Paul admonishes in Ephesians 4:15, we must speak the truth in love.

10. REMEMBER YOU’RE TALKING TO SOMEONE PRECIOUS TO CHRIST, AND YOU’RE ALWAYS DIALOGUING CORAM DEO.

If you’re talking to a Christian, then you’re talking with a person for whom the Lord shed His blood; a person valuable to Him (1 Cor. 8:11, Rom. 14:15). John Crotts writes, “How precious is the weakest Christian in the body of Christ? What does Jesus think about their value? These weak Christians are as valuable as the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Also, remember what Christ admonished us to do in the Sermon on the Mount: Treat others the way you want to be treated. Do you want to be demeaned? Do you want to be made to feel small? Or do you want to be treated with dignity, as a person made in God’s image?

Remember, too, that an omnipresent, omniscient God is monitoring your mouth, and He is concerned about the details.

NEITHER UNDERREACT NOR OVERREACT

There are times when it is simply impossible to be at peace with another person. Paul anticipates this eventuality in Romans 12:18, but his words are instructive as to our manner of treating our opponents even when they won’t be reconciled to us: “If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.” We should do all we can to promote peace in our bearing and in our dialogue, but if things remain volatile, we must prayerfully leave the results in God’s hands and remember that Christ loved His enemies; He has called us to do the same.

In navigating emotion-charged conversations, we want neither to underreact nor overreact. To underreact may mean we are flirting with compromise, fleeing a necessary but difficult confrontation, or we’re not treating the issues being discussed with the seriousness they deserve.

To overreact may lead to relational fractures, an outbreak of sinful anger, or worse. One is a sin of omission, the other of commission. One response is too passive, the other too aggressive. Both are sinful and lead us into further sin. As followers of Christ, called to do all things to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31), we must guard against both extremes. We must ask the Lord to give us a healthy, biblical balance in the way we talk to others, and seek His help to deal with difficult conversations in a Christlike manner, full of both grace and truth.

— Jeff Robinson is editor and president of The Baptist Courier. He also serves as an adjunct professor of church history at North Greenville University.