One of the things I do is teach married couples some basic ways to improve their communication. What spouse, after all, doesn’t want to be heard and understood? The very same spouses, however, may not realize that they are triggering their partner’s defenses by the way they say things. Or if they do recognize it, they figure it’s the partner’s responsibility to listen anyway. The attitude that gets communicated is: I’m right, and you’re wrong, so you should just sit there humbly and take it. And when I’m done, you’ll realize that you owe me an apology.
That doesn’t usually get couples very far, at least not in directions they want to go.
Thus, marriage educators train couples to say things in ways that get a clear message across without making each other unnecessarily defensive. Some of the basic principles seem pretty obvious: Don’t call each other names. Don’t assume you know what the other is thinking or feeling. Don’t go on for twenty minutes without taking a breath. Don’t dredge up decades of old complaints.
Part of this takes for granted the cultural assumption that marriage is about being mutually supportive and accepting. No other human being is supposed to know me as well or love me as unconditionally as my spouse. And when that person hurts my feelings, it feels like betrayal.
The problem, however, is that sometimes there’s more at stake than just hurt feelings. In the context of the church as a whole, we are concerned with each other’s relationship to God. And sometimes, we may need to speak the truth to one another, in love, knowing that the truth may cause offense.
Hurt feelings are not always a bad thing. As we saw in an earlier post, there can be such a thing as “godly sorrow,” a feeling of regret and repentance for what we’ve done wrong. Paul caused the Corinthians much grief with a sternly worded letter, and his rivals wanted the people to interpret such harshness as petty revenge. But Paul made it clear that his intent was not to tear them down, even if it felt like it; his purpose was to build them up, to lead them back to God (2 Cor 10:8).
It makes me wonder: what things do we shy away from saying, because we fear hurting one another’s feelings? And what do we refuse to hear because we’re too busy rejecting the messenger?
I know: even raising such questions risks giving people permission to let fly with all manner of harsh judgment. Let it be understood that we are always responsible for how we say what we say, with full regard for the other person as the beloved of God.
But we are also responsible to listen: important messages may come from unexpected messengers. The question, in the Christian home or community, is this: is becoming like Christ more important to us than always feeling good about ourselves?
We know Paul’s answer. What’s ours, and when would it matter?