Today’s passage from Ephesians is rich with advice. “Be angry without sinning.” “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.” “Don’t provide an opportunity for evil.” “Thieves stop stealing.” “Don’t let foul words come out of your mouth.” “Put aside all bitterness.” “ Don’t lose your temper.” And then we hear the Matthew passage. And it tells us to be honest and to talk to those who are hurting us. All of these are wonderfully true and important when we consider how to talk to one another. But it can also be hard to muddle through. Still, they all basically come down to the same thing. Be careful and intentional with your words.
But how do we do this? Today’s passage from Matthew instructs us to talk to one another. To “confront” one another, to use a word that most of us find unpleasant and difficult to deal with. It instructs us how to do this…in a direct, but loving way. We are to go and talk to one another first one on one in private, and then if we are not heard, to take a witness with us and try again. This passage is important for many reasons.
First, it tells us what we are not to do when someone hurts us. We are not to go talking about it to other people. This is undoubtedly the hardest part of this. We are to speak to the person him or her-self about what has upset us. Also, we don’t ask someone to do our talking for us. If we are upset about something, we are to talk to the person directly and if they don’t listen, we bring in a second person to listen while we again talk to the person directly. The other person we bring is simply a witness, not an active participant in the conversation.
Neither of these things are easy. It is much easier to “process” with someone else, or to just decide not to talk to a person about a problem. I was talking with another pastor friend this week about her experiences with her church. She was telling me about a parishioner who is a real challenge. This is someone who has no sense of personal boundaries, and who steps into personal space on a regular basis. This person is loud and aggressive in their language. This is a person who is offensive. Yet no one has had the courage to gently say to this person, “when you step that close to me, I feel uncomfortable.” Or “when you use that tone of voice with me, I feel threatened.” Instead everyone just collectively, but behind this person’s back, says, “well, that’s just the way Roger is.” “That’s just Roger.” “He can’t help the way he behaves.” “We are all just tolerant and accepting of Roger.” This is problematic because it has alienated a few people in the church who don’t want to deal with Roger. It has also made it hard on visitors since they don’t “just know the way Roger is.” By failing to confront Roger, they are making a choice about excluding other people from their circle, people who might have a great deal to contribute if they were made to feel important and valued enough to stop Roger’s hurtful people towards them.
But I found myself, as I listened to my friend, thinking more about how I would feel if I were Roger and I found out that everyone was speaking about me in this way. I would feel mortified and humiliated to learn that people were saying, “Well, that’s just Barbara” rather than talking to me directly about something crazy or goofy or offensive that I was doing. And I would guess that most of us feel this way. Wouldn’t you rather know that someone was upset with you by hearing about it directly from the person? Wouldn’t you rather that people not assume that you can’t learn or that you don’t really want to know when you are making a mistake? Wouldn’t you rather that people think that you are open to learning and are open to hearing the truth?
When we think about confrontation, we think about how uncomfortable it is for the person confronting, or how hurtful it is to the person who is being confronted. We don’t as often think about how hurtful it is when we walk around with egg on our face and everyone is afraid to tell us. Or how hurtful it is to hear about something we’ve done wrong third hand, knowing that others know about our mistakes before we are told.
As hard as it is to hear this, the truth is that it is a gift to our neighbors, our brothers and sisters in faith when we speak the truth to them in love. It is a gift to be able to grow from our mistakes and learn from them. It is a gift to be told in a loving and gentle way when we have hurt someone. It allows us to grow. It gives an opportunity for a more real and honest relationship between people.
To love someone is to relentlessly seek the well-being of the other. It is to want and work towards the highest spiritual growth for the other. We cannot do that by failing to be honest with the other. We cannot do that by gossiping about the other. We cannot do that by hiding the truth from the other.
It is also important to not speak for other people. We need to be careful that we only and always speak for ourselves. “People are saying” is not a good way to express one’s opinion about something. It is hurtful because it leaves no room for response, and it is usually not accurate. People say things, but if they really wanted them to be known they would speak to you directly. Own your own feelings and speak for yourself and only yourself. Also, when you use the phrase, “people are saying” you are basically admitting that you are participating in gossip, which again is simply hurtful and tends to grow problems rather than shrinking them.
But while we are called to speak the truth to one another, I also think HOW we do that is as important as what we say. And a helpful way to think about how we talk to each other is to use the acronym “THINK” as in “Think” before you Speak.
Is it True
Is it Helpful
Is it Inspiring
Is it Necessary
Is it Kind.
When we do speak the truth, sometimes we can get stuck at the “it is true” and forget to consider these other things. For example, will this be a helpful thing to say? Going up to someone, for example, and telling them they have an ugly nose, while it may be true, is not going to be helpful since there is nothing they can do about that. Global statements, “you handled that really poorly”, are not helpful. What is helpful are specifics, and if they can be phrased in positive ways, that is especially helpful. “It might be helpful for you next time to not call the person an idiot so that they are better able to really hear what you are wanting to say.”
Second, Is it a necessary thing to say? It is not necessary to say every thought that goes through our heads. But sometimes I think we get so stuck on the “is it true” that we forget that we don’t have to say things that aren’t kind, helpful, and necessary.
Third, can we find a kind way to speak our truth? One way to do that is to use the formula, I feel x when you do y because z. Again, we don’t have to attack others to communicate what we want to say.
And finally, is it inspiring. I left that for last because I think it is the hardest one. What that we say is truly inspiring? What changes people? What motivates people? What moves people? Those are good things to say.
The bottom line is that it is not enough to speak the truth. We have to speak the truth IN LOVE. And that is not always easy. When we become angry, when we feel righteous, when we feel defensive, when we are hurt and hurting, it is way too easy to lash out. I saw a post on Facebook this week that said, “A tongue has no bones, but it is strong enough to break a heart.” I hope for each of us that the legacy of our words is not breaking hearts, but boosting one another in love.
Today’s scriptures give us wisdom about communicating with one another in love. We don’t learn all of these things in an hour or a day, but they are words to grow into. Amen.