Probably no day passes without hearing something odd or even wrong. Most of us probably have one or two friends who says the weirdest, most off the wall thing on our social media page or in private. I certainly know my wife has heard me say things, that without knowing me as well as she does, would be grounds for “the look”, flogging, or no supper. But she is charitable.
Communication among close friends is comforting. I love knowing a friend so well when he says something odd, he doesn’t have to clarify, I just know what he meant. I love how this reciprocates to me too. I’m thankful for those close friendships. Usually close friends are close because they’ve spent enough time with each other to know each other well. We know each other’s strengths, weaknesses, disposition, trust each other, and love each other. This helps. When we love someone, we will often overlook his or her imperfections that sometimes comes out in speech.
Imperfect communication among friends and spouses tends to be worked through because of love, dedication, and a willingness to trust (aka charity). Charity, the way I mean it is kind of an archaic word. When I hear charity, I tend to think philanthropy. Organizations like St. Jude, March of Dimes, or my good friends Eden’s Fireworks Foundation (fighting childhood cancer, a worthwhile organization) are charities. But Merriam-Webster has this fourth definition, “lenient judgment of others.” Let us camp out here at definition 4. It’s a good spot, nice shade, fire-pit, places for the kids to play, and a soft, flat spot for the tent.
1 Corinthians 13:4-7
I like this definition. But I don’t see any value to pursue it if we cannot find it in Scripture. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7,
Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, 5 does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, 6 does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; 7 bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Those underlined words are key here. “Believes all things.” It’s amazing. I can choose to believe the best in others. I can choose to give them the benefit of the doubt, exactly as I would a friend who stumbles over his words. And I can choose to let my perfectionist guard down, not expecting him or her to be perfect, and believe the best. When my friend stumbles over his words, I assume the best. Even if what comes out of his mouth is something akin to “she looks fat in the dress.” We tend to hope that isn’t what he really meant and believe the best. This is love and charity. Showing friends charity is easy.
Charity in Communication
A couple of weeks ago a famous pastor tweeted,”If you see Jesus losing the infinite love of the Father out of his infinite love for you, it will melt your hardness.” Hmmmm . . . I’m not sure what to make of this. In fact, I’m not even sure how to interpret this. To be honest, this sounds REALLY BAD. It sounds like there is some separation of the Trinity not supported by Scripture, this would strike at the heart of the Godhead’s nature. This is bad!
But, I’m pretty sure if I were his friend, I’d do like I normally do with friends and give him the benefit of the doubt, cover it (pretend not to see it), and continue on in life. In fact, if I were his friend, I’d know he has faithfully ministered the Gospel for decades. I’d know he loves Christ with a strong respect for Scripture. So, although I find this remark odd, I’d give him the benefit of the doubt. I’d give him charity.
God wants us to give charity. How do I judge this pastor’s comment? There are a few layers in communication.
- There is what is said and what is meant.
- How do I interpret the speaker?
- How do I respond to the statement?
These seem easy, but each one requires more unpacking.
First, what is said and what is meant
First, there is what is said and meant. It is possible a person means one thing while not able to effectively communicate it. In the short story, Billy Budd by Herman Melville the hero stumbles when he is under intense pressure. He is well liked, a great person, but under duress he stutters badly making communication impossible. Claggart charges Budd with conspiracy to mutiny, and uses the stuttering to his advantage in his false charge. The failure to communicate allowed Claggert’s lack of charity to have footing. Obviously what Billy meant and what he said could not always coordinate effectively. This is part of the fall. We humans are unfortunately not perfect in our communication. We want to be sure what is said is what is meant.
Second, how do I interpret the speaker?
This is an important step. At first glance, this might seem stupid. “What do you mean how do I interpret the speaker, I hear what I hear.” But we need to employ charity here too and really seek to gain understanding. It’s hard in the tweet above to determine this. But sometimes we hear “Christian love one another.” How do I interpret this? I wish I had a dollar for every time someone responded with, “Yes, but we have to speak truth to people.” Of course, but what in that sentence communicated the opposite. If the speaker sees confrontation being a part of love, then why respond this way?
Once I heard a speaker say, “We have a nursery for children so parents can worship without distraction.” Later someone approached the speaker asking, “Why do you not like children?” Obviously the person was interpreting between the lines a little. We are prone to interpret between the lines. “I’d rather not have hot dogs for dinner.” somehow turns into, “Oh, he hates hot dogs.” lol. Most of us can relate. One main problem in the interpretation step, we often insert our own presuppositions into the conversation and fill in the white spaces with what makes sense to us. Seeking to understand is hard work requiring labor.
Charity demands we interpret the speaker in a favorable way unless some other information is clearly presented allowing us to go against charity. Love believes the best and hopes the best. I want to give you the benefit of the doubt. A vague comment or a double entendre, I want to choose to interpret it along righteous and noble lines. As a literature major I witnessed this regularly. Two characters (Ishmael and Queequeg) were homosexuals because someone wanted to read between the lines of Melville’s narration. *rolling eyes*. It’s frustrating as a speaker to have someone respond and pounce at the same time because he read between the lines.
Love believes the best. Rather than make him say what you want him to say, hear him in a light making him look better, noble, and above reproach. Let him shoot himself in the foot, not me who read between the lines.
Third, How do I respond?
As you can see, this has already begun to be answered. Among friends, this is easy. But on Facebook, this step is not taken often. We have choices. When we read something we have at least three clear responses available. I can a) insult the author (which sometimes feeds the flesh, but never beneficial in the long run), b) give him the benefit of the doubt and ask for clarification, and / or c) just respond.
First, in a Christian dialogue, let us assume the person is a friend we will spend eternity in heaven with. (I know it’s possible this isn’t the case, but starting this way allows for friendly, cordial conversation). Think about it, if we find out he or she is not a believer, then will insults bring them to faith? No, but speaking the truth with kindness wins souls (2 Tim. 2:25).
Second, rather than just disagree, slow down and ask yourself if you can fairly represent him or her. This is YUGE. Slowing down our thinking and emotions can save us some heart ache. False accusations are an abomination to the Lord. We honor Him by fairly representing others.
Third, assume you could be wrong. I think this is a practical step to humble conversations. Yes, the person seems to say something weird, but is it possible it’s right? What if the pastor’s tweet was right? The humble teachable person knows he or she has more to learn.
Fourth, seek clarification. When someone posts something we disagree with, rather than just responding, we would to do better by asking for clarification. Maybe we should respond with, “I don’t understand, can you clarify what you mean?” or “I think I hear you, I have some concerns, but perhaps you could clarify for me what you mean by this?”
Often authors think they are clear. This allows the author to clarify. It serves him (a form of love) by giving him another opportunity to expand his thought and clarify. It may even help him realize he isn’t clear. If doing this avoided a half day of Twitter warfare, wouldn’t it be great (btw, rule 1,348, don’t have theology wars on Twitter. You don’t have enough characters to clarify). Or best, you might serve him helping him avoid looking foolishly because it didn’t come out right.
Finally, be gracious when discussing any issue. We are depraved people, saved by grace, talking to other depraved people saved by grace. Our goal is not to win the argument and earn a badge, our goal is to lead others to Christ. Our goal is to see others following Christ. The goal of our instruction is love (1 Tim 1:5). If love is not the goal, than we are a noisy gong and clanging symbol. We would do better to just remain quiet.
The author of the tweet ended up providing a fuller context elsewhere. For those who pounced on him, they should have sought reconciliation. For those who waited, slowed down, and gave him the benefit of the doubt, their love was rewarded with validation.
In the end, we have choices on how we interact and communicate with people. Instead of judging motives and automatically assuming the worst, perhaps we can show charity instead. Give people the benefit of the doubt.