November 11, 2012

Gracious Words

This morning we’re going to get back to our series: Married Well.  Before we do, though, as a nod to our conversation last week on the election, whether your guy won or lost, we must keep in mind that the kingdom and its values are our priorities.  It is not for us to gloat in what we perceive as our victory, or to wallow in what we perceive as our defeat.  Our place is to advocate for kingdom values in our community regardless of who happens to be in power.  Let us also remember that God is still sovereign and only grants a measure of earthly authority to those whom He deems fit for one reason or another.  Even rulers who don’t appear to have any inclination toward honoring Him are still used by Him to accomplish His purposes.  I said last week that we need to vote through a kingdom lens, but the principle applies more broadly than that.  We need to live through the same lens in the 1462 days between now and the next election.  With all said, let’s turn our attention to the task at hand.

In the two weeks prior to talking about the election we began taking a look at what the Bible has to say about the institution of marriage.  We started out by laying a foundation on which we could build the rest of our structures.  This foundation, identified for us in Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus, is Christ and the church.  The model for our marriages is Christ and the church.  That relationship should color everything about how we view our own marriages.  Moving forward, the first structure necessary to build on our foundation is the powerful unity that is to exist between the husband and wife.  Drawing our impetus from one of Paul’s comments to the church in Ephesus, we examined Moses’ declaration that in marriage the husband and wife become one flesh together.   This led us to the conclusion that the nature of the relationship between husband and wife is one of a greater closeness and unity than we had perhaps previously imagined.

Well, understanding our foundation and that we are one in marriage are important, but all they do is take us to the day after the wedding.  You see, the next thing we do is to start talking.  This is usually where the trouble starts.  We open our mouths, stick in both of our feet, borrow some feet from our neighbors for good measure, and start digging holes.  All of us are guilty of this.  Misspoken, badly timed, and thoughtlessly phrased words cause more trouble in our marriages than just about anything else.  They are the root of a great deal of the problems we face.  James talks about the harmful power of the tongue in general in James 3, but I would argue that this goes double in marriage.  The question I want to look at with you this morning, then, is this: how do we avoid all this trouble from the outset?  What kind of structures can we build that enable us to use our words in ways that bring life?  How do we manage to tame our tongues so that our relationships can be characterized by the kind of grace that enables us to become fully who God designed us to be?

In order to uncover an answer to this question, I want to look with you this morning at a single verse of Scripture.  This verse comes from another of Paul’s letters, this time to the church in Colossae.  Colossians isn’t a letter we look to all that often as a church.  It kind of gets forgotten, sandwiched where it is between some of Paul’s more well-known letters.  So what’s Colossians about and why would I take us there this morning in order to talk about using our words well with our spouses?  Well, the church in Colossians was not personally planted by Paul.  It came into existence sometime during his three year stay in Ephesus when one of the people to whom he ministered there, a young man named Epaphras, returned home to Colossae and planted the church based on what he had heard from Paul.  Having not benefitted from Paul’s rigorous presentation and defense of Christian teaching including the preeminence of Christ as did the other recipients of his letters, the church in Colossae had started to veer off course.  The people were operating by faith in what Epaphras had told them, but they hadn’t come to understand the reasons for the faith very well themselves and so were easily led astray by someone who could sell a good line.  From the tone of the letter, it seems these false teachers, while using a great deal of Christian sounding verbiage, pointed the people in the direction of a variety of rituals and rites that were to give them power to access some of the deeper Christian truths and practices and knowledge.  These cultic practices became a stand-in for total reliance on Jesus Christ.  Paul was writing to call them back to their foundation.  He wrote to remind them that Christ is absolutely the sovereign head of the church and there is no ritual or rite that can force Him to act in one way or another; that can draw something from Him He doesn’t already give freely to those who follow Him completely.

Well, as Paul was nearing the end of the letter, as was so often his approach, he included a variety of teachings to wrap things up and leave the audience with some memorable takeaways.  In this case, the teachings were designed to give them some simple practices that would increase the likelihood of their putting Christ at the center of their efforts to live in light of the truth of the Gospel.  How interesting this is for our purposes this morning.  Paul was encouraging the Colossian church to keep Christ at the center of things.  We began this series by acknowledging that in our marriages, Christ has to be the center of things.  Paul certainly wasn’t talking about marriage in this outro to his letter, but this point of connection surely makes what he has to say relevant to where we are.  And what was it that he said?  If you have your Bible, open it up to Colossians 4:6 and we’ll take a look at this together.  After offering a few other pieces of advice Paul finally lands on the charge that I want to spend the rest of the morning unpacking with you.  In v. 6 he says this: “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.”

Those are pretty generally applicable words.  They sound vaguely reminiscent of a mother saying to her son, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”  So how is this idea supposed to be transformative in our marriages to a sufficient degree that I felt it necessary to make this the second major structure built on our foundation?  Well, let me see if I can make the case for you.  Paul starts out by calling us to make sure that our speech is always gracious.  Now, to most of our ears, the word gracious calls to mind words like “polite,” “courteous,” or “nice.”  With this in mind what we hear Paul commanding here is basically for us to talk nice to each other.  And for most of us, I suspect if we had to rate ourselves on how we fared on a “niceness” scale with our words, we would rate ourselves pretty high.  So we hear what Paul seems to be saying, at least as most of our translations phrase it, figure we’re doing okay, and move on.  The problem with this is that I don’t think telling people to “talk nice” is what Paul was trying to get across here at all.  Niceness is a value of modern culture and is a rather pathetic parody of real Biblical values like kindness, generosity, and, yes, graciousness.  So what’s Paul really saying here?

The word Paul actually used in his command here is the little Greek word, charis.  Charis is a hugely important word in the New Testament.  Although it is translated in various places as “favor” or “credit” or “thanks” or “commendable,” we are perhaps more familiar with its vastly more common form: grace.  Grace goes far deeper than mere niceness.  Grace is the unmerited favor, made available by Jesus’ sacrificial death and life-giving resurrection, which is bestowed on us by God the Father to enable us to enter His kingdom and live according to His commands.  Grace is what calls us from the death-trap of self-reliance to the glorious freedom found in relying fully on our Lord to help us to the path of life.  Perhaps a slightly different translation of the first part of v. 6 might help bring this out: “Let your words at all times be in grace.”  In other words, let your words always grant people more than their due and call them forward to live as they were designed to live.  More specifically, let your words toward your spouse always grant more than her due and call her forward to live as she was designed to live.  Let them be spoken with the intention of giving to him what he doesn’t deserve so that he can rise above his brokenness and become the man you need him to be.  Now we’ve sailed beyond the borders of niceness and are poised to build a verbal structure into our relationships worthy of the foundation on which they stand.  And the verbal structure is this: our words must be well-seasoned with grace.

Without the fabric of grace woven in and around and through our words toward the people around us, but particularly our spouses, it is frighteningly easy for them to devolve from life giving to life stealing.  That’s actually a funny thing about marriage.  Think about this for a second.  When we are standing there at the altar vowing our unending love for the person standing in front of us, we are fully turned on to caring for them and showing them our love in every way we can conceive.  We would never think in that moment of saying something designed to hurt them.  And yet, how long does it take for us to find ourselves in a position where we hurl hurtful barbs their way the likes of which we could have never imagined aiming at any other person?  We find ourselves hurt for whatever reason and driven to express this hurt to our spouse in such a way that they feel the pain they’ve caused us.  We endeavor to give them exactly what they deserve with our words.  After all, they’ve caused us this measure of pain.  “It’s only fair, it’s only right that they made be aware of how we are feeling,” we reason.  Our words are not seasoned with grace, they are soaked in vengeance; they are effused with human justice.  We strive to win a verbal sparring match and pat ourselves on the back for getting our point across.  We’ve communicated effectively.  And yet, what do such gains actually yield?  Do they foster a climate of intimacy and closeness in the relationship?  Do they invite our spouse to emotionally, relationally, physically move in our direction in order that we can delight in the one fleshness of marriage together?  No!  The slam shut the door and create a rift that without grace is impossible to cross.  Our words must be well-seasoned with grace.  When grace is all the flavor of our words, we verbally give our partner the benefit of doubt.  We vocally call them forward to unite with us as we work through various issues together.

Consider once again our model.  Apart from grace there would be no relationship between Christ and the church.  If Christ treated us as we deserve we would be eternally separated from Him.  Instead, the controlling narrative for His interactions with us is one of grace.  He treats us far better than we deserve.  But wait, isn’t that ignoring reality and asking to be taken advantage of?  No, it’s instead calling forth the reality of the kingdom.  It’s calling forth the reality of who God designed us to be.  When our words are well-seasoned with grace, we do this same thing in our spouse.  But what about being taken advantage of?  How do we prevent that?  Well, other than creating a climate by our words and actions in which we are so present, so available, so generous, so inviting that taking advantage of us doesn’t make any sense—a climate, in other words, marked by grace—we can’t prevent it.  It’ll happen from time to time.  We respond with grace and keep working to see that kind of an environment created with our words.  Our words must be well-seasoned with grace.

And speaking of seasoning, the next part of Paul’s instruction here calls for our words to be seasoned with salt.  Are we supposed to be thirsty all the time?  No, this is a reference to Jesus’ admonition for His followers to be salt and light in the world.  What does salt do?  Lots of things in truth, but in the minds of Paul’s audience it had two primary purposes.  It preserved and it enhanced.  It was used to preserve food and keep it from ruin.  It was also used to enhance the flavor of food.  Now, we’re all pretty familiar with the preservative aspect of salt, but have you thought much before about its enhancing properties.  How many of you use salt and pepper in your cooking?  Do you know what these two common seasonings do?  Pepper is actually a spice.  It adds a distinctive flavor to the food that wasn’t there before.  Salt, on the other hand, doesn’t.  Well, it doesn’t if it’s used properly.  If over used, yes, it masks the flavor of the food and makes everything taste salty.  This simply serves to ignore or disguise reality.  But, when used properly, it doesn’t really add any flavor to the dish.  Instead, it calls out and sharpens the flavor already present.  It enhances the flavor.

In the same way, when our words are seasoned with the salt of grace they enhance the flavor of the person to whom they are directed.  Words seasoned with grace call forth the best out of the person to whom they are directed.  Instead of creating a climate in which we assume the worst possible motive or intention on the part of our spouse and responding to that (an idea we’ll come back to in some detail later in this series), words well-seasoned with grace presume the best possible scenario and create an environment in which the likelihood of that happening is much greater than it would have otherwise been.  In other words, if you have some picture in mind of how your marriage should be if all things were perfect, you can, by your words, call that picture into reality.  If you want your spouse to treat you in a way he currently is not, don’t nag him there.  Don’t belittle her into submission.  Using words well-seasoned with grace, woo him there.  And when she doesn’t respond well, don’t jump immediately to the negative.  Keep wooing.  How hard did Jesus have to work to win your heart?  How hard has He had to work to keep it since you gave it to Him?  Our words must be well-seasoned with grace.  And when they are, as Paul observes at the end of the verse, we’ll know how we ought to answer each person.

Really?  When our words are well-seasoned with grace we’ll know the right response in every situation?  No, and that’s not what Paul said.  He said we’ll know how we ought to answer each person.  We’ll know how we ought to answer to our spouse.  Okay, but how?  That seems a bit far-fetched to me.  I mean, there have been, and probably will be in the future, plenty of times in which in the middle of a conversation with Lisa I don’t have any idea what the right response is.  Still, I don’t think that’s what Paul’s promising.  Okay then, what is he saying?  I think he’s saying that when our words are well-seasoned with grace we’ll know how we ought to answer our spouse not necessarily in the exact words, but in the spirit behind the words (which can, by the way, help with the choosing of the words).  Put another way, when our words are well-seasoned with grace, we’ll understand that regardless of the situation, regardless of what she’s done, regardless of how oafishly he’s behaved, the right response is one of grace.  Now, this doesn’t mean we can’t still get angry.  There is a time for anger.  It doesn’t mean frustration and hurt will be forever off the table emotionally speaking.  But it does mean that those things will no longer be the controlling narrative of our conversations.  Grace will.  It means that when we’re hurt, we won’t speak out of the hurt, but out of grace.  When we’re angry, we’ll put aside the angry words we want to hurl and let grace guide our tongues in expressing our feelings.  When we’re so frustrated that we can’t even see straight, we’ll pause for a moment, forgive in our hearts, and speak through a microphone of grace.  By doing this, rather than driving our partner away, we’ll draw her in so that reconciliation is within the realm of possibility.  You’ll draw him in so that he is motivated, not to hide, but to stand naked and unashamed.  If we want our marriages to have a prayer of resembling the model Paul established for us in Christ and the church they must be well-seasoned with grace.  Our words must be well-seasoned with grace.

Okay, but how do we do this?  What are the steps we take?  Is there a clear pathway to this kind of speech pattern?  Well, in honesty, there’s not an easy way to make grace the centerpiece of your communication.  It’s a discipline.  It must be practice; especially if it hasn’t been characterized by that for any reasonable amount of time prior.  But, I think there are some steps than can point us in the right direction and even set us a little ways down the road.  Let me offer you five principles that I think shed some light on the way forward.  I’ve developed these over the course of the pre-marital counseling I’ve done and I call them my five rules for communication in marriage.  If you like writing this kind of stuff down for later, there are some blanks on the back of your bulletin specifically designed for this.  Here we go.  The first rule for communication in marriage is this: assume the best.  If we start by assuming that our spouse is a good-willed person who has no internal desire to cause us harm, this will create a mental framework for us that will allow for the easy development of grace-seasoned words.  For far too many couples they each operate under the assumption that the other is an idiot, ignorant and unconcerned with their feelings, and secretly trying to push their buttons.  This creates an environment in which real, productive communication is next to impossible.  If your starting belief about your spouse is that he’s trying to hurt you, your words are going to be aimed at erecting defenses while scoring offensive points him.  No communication happens in this kind of scenario.  Our words must be well-seasoned with grace and this means starting by assuming the best about our spouse.

Rule number 2: we must learn to speak the love language of our partner.  Several years ago an author by the name of Gary Chapman wrote a book called The Five Love Languages.  In it he argued that each one of us has a primary way that we send and receive messages of love.  These are: touch, quality time, words, gifts, and acts of service.  You fall under one of these five areas in terms of how you most clearly get the message when someone tries to say “I love you.”  It is also this area to which you default in saying that to another person.  Your spouse does too.  Here’s the kicker, though: there’s only a 20% chance you guys have the same love language.  What this means is that if you’re one of those couples who fall in that 80% range, if you don’t know your spouse’s language (let alone your own), you have very likely been saying “I love you” right past each other for years and wondering all the while why your partner so infrequently sends you back the same message.  The reason is that you’re not speaking the same language.  He’s been buying her gifts when what she really wants is his time.  She’s been serving him with everything she has when what he really needs is the words.  Our words must be well-seasoned with grace and speaking the same language goes a long ways in helping this happen.  If you are interested, there’s a website on your bulletin where you can go, take the relevant survey (and this isn’t just for married folks, there’s a survey for singles, kids, and parents too), and get some clarity on your own love language.  Do this, share your results with your spouse, make an effort toward putting your new knowledge into practice, and see what kind of a difference it makes.

Rule number 3: No contempt.  You need to root all contempt out of your communication.  Contempt toward a person is the mindset that he or she is less valuable as a person than you are.  Treatment usually follows accordingly.  Contempt shuts down communication channels faster than just about anything else.  We send the message that we have contempt for our spouse in a thousand different ways and most of them are nonverbal.  Rolled eyes.  Exasperated sighs.  A lack of eye contact.  Grunts.  Closed body language.  Facial sneers of various sorts.  Paying attention to something other than your partner when she is talking.  All of these kinds of things send a message that we don’t value our spouse or her words.  If he feels devalued he’s either going to shut down or start clamoring for it.  Either way, a problem has been created that wasn’t there before and didn’t need to be introduced at all.  Our words must be well-seasoned with grace and this means getting rid of contempt in our communication with ruthless efficiency.

Rule number 4: make sure that you are actually communicating when you talk.  It’s easy to talk a lot, but never communicate.  This is especially true when there’s an elephant in the room you both are trying to avoid.  Words that are well-seasoned with grace embrace the elephant and kindly show it the door.  Now, cute banalities in marriage can be very much endearing and can help with the process of creating a grace-filled atmosphere, but real communication has to happen too.

Rule number 5: don’t let niceness defeat honesty.  This is a challenge.  In our early efforts to create an atmosphere of grace in our marriages the tendency will be to sugarcoat problems in order to maintain the peace; to maintain the mirage.  Grace, however, doesn’t overlook the truth.  In fact, apart from truth, there is no grace.  Grace acknowledges fully the unworthiness of its recipient.  The one who receives grace readily recognizes that he is ill-equipped for such a gift.  The gift is given and received in spite of this, though, because otherwise it could never be given.  Our words must be well-seasoned with grace, but this doesn’t mean we skip over problems.  It means we resolve them with grace as our guide.

In the end then, where are we?  We are here: if we are going to make Christ the center of our lives, the center of our marriages, Paul’s words in Colossians 4:6 give us a powerful clue for how this happens.  Our words must be well-seasoned with grace.  Words are the primary way we communicate.  Words are the vehicle of truth.  God chose to reveal Himself to us first and foremost through words.  Making certain, then, that our words are well-equipped to be bearers of His truth, His Gospel truth, is a vital part of building well on our foundation of Christ and the church.  Now, make no mistake: Grace-filled words are almost never easy.  Our default will be to defend ourselves and score points and maintain our honor.  But these points will prove for naught in the end.  Grace is the only medium in which we will find life.  That goes both in our lives as individuals and in our lives as couples.  By God’s grace we can live the life that is truly life.  When we let this life shape our words, life is what we are going to find in our marriages (and all our other relationships as well).  Our words must be well-seasoned with grace.  May you explore this life together.