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Speak the Truth in Love

“Speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.” (Eph. 4:15)

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Words play a key role in almost every conflict. When used properly, words promote understanding and encourage agreement. When misused, they usually aggravate conflicts and drive people further apart. If your words seem to do more harm than good when you try to resolve a disagreement, don’t give up. With God’s help you can improve your ability to communicate constructively. . . .

When someone has disappointed or offended me, my natural tendency is to come at them with “the law,” lecturing them about what they have done wrong and what they should now do to make things right. This approach generally makes people defensive and reluctant to admit their wrongs, which makes a conflict worse.

The Lord is graciously working to teach me a better way to approach others about their failures. Instead of coming at them with the law, I am learning to bring them the gospel. In other words, rather than dwelling on what people should do or have failed to do, I am learning to focus primarily on what God has done and is doing for them through Christ. This approach is demonstrated and commended throughout Scripture.

Consider again Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman. Instead of hammering away at her sinful lifestyle, Jesus spent most of His time engaging her in a conversation about salvation, eternal life, true worship and the coming of the Messiah (John 4:7–26). She responded eagerly to this gospel-focused approach, let down her defenses and put her trust in Christ. Although Jesus changed this focus when rebuking hardhearted Pharisees, His typical approach to bringing people to repentance was to bring them the good news of God’s forgiveness (see, e.g., Luke 19:1–10; John 8:10–11).

The apostle Paul had a similar approach, even when he had to deal with serious sin. In his first letter to the Corinthians, he had to address divisions, immorality, lawsuits, food sacrificed to idols and the misuse of the Lord’s Supper and spiritual gifts. But before addressing these terrible sins, Paul’s gracious greeting held out hope for forgiveness and change by reminding the Corinthians of what God had already done for them through Christ.

To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy. . . . I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. For in him you have been enriched in every way—in all your speaking and in all your knowledge—because our testimony about Christ was confirmed in you. Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful (1 Cor. 1:2–9).

What a marvelous way to set the stage for repentance and change! Paul did the same thing in his letters to other churches and individuals. He always kept Jesus in the center of his instruction and correction. For example, when writing to the Ephesians, Paul devoted the first half of his letter to a detailed description of God’s redemptive plan. When he finally got around to addressing errors in the congregation, his readers were already standing on a foundation of hope and encouragement.

Paul did the same thing with the Philippians and Colossians, who also needed correction and instruction. He begins both letters by drawing attention to what God has done in each of these churches (Phil. 1:3–11; Col. 1:3–23). Then he continues to refer to the gospel as he moves from issue to issue. For example, in the midst of admonishing the Colossians, Paul injects this marvelous clause: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (Col. 3:12; emphasis added). Before telling them something more that they should do, Paul reminds them of who they are in Christ.

As these passages show, when we need to talk with others about their faults, we should ask for God’s help to resist our tendency to hammer people into submission by dwelling on their failures. Of course, we sometimes need to show them where they have sinned and fallen short of God’s ways. But that should not be the primary focus of our words, because judgment inevitably discourages. With God’s help we can instead offer hope by drawing attention to the wonderful news that God has forgiven our sins through Christ and is eager to help us change our ways.

When talking with someone about gossip you might say: “I don’t think you deliberately set out to hurt Bill, but your words may have damaged his reputation. The good news is that Jesus died to deliver you, me and Bill—all of us—from our sins. God has given us a warning and a wonderful promise: If we conceal our wrongs, he will continue to discipline us until we repent, but as we confess our sins, he will forgive us and restore our relationships. There is such hope because of what Jesus has done for us! If you ask for His help and deal with this the way He teaches, the whole incident can be completely wiped away.” Whether I’m doing peacemaking at home, in my church or in a formal conciliation case, I’ve seen this approach open the door for repentance and peace. The more hope you give by focusing on what God has done and is doing for us, the more likely others will be to listen to your concerns, acknowledge their wrongs, and move toward reconciliation.

[Several years ago], I realized that I could not consistently weave the gospel into my conversations with others until the gospel was woven deeply into my own heart. God showed me that I am a natural “law speaker”; I bring judgment much more easily than I bring grace. When I saw this, I began praying for God to give me a major heart change, to make the gospel central to everything I think, say and do. Perhaps you see the same inclination and need for change in yourself. If so, pray that God will open your eyes more fully to the glory of what Christ has done for you. Learn to delight in reading about, meditating on and rejoicing in Jesus’ completed work on the cross. When your soul, your thoughts and your conversation are saturated with the gospel, it will overflow into others, even if you are talking to them about their need for repentance and change.

From The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict, 3rd ed., by Ken Sande (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2004). Used by permission.

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