Posted by Gabriel (G²) on November 20, 2007


The Cutting Edge

Richard L. Strauss

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if nobody ever criticized us, never picked at our faults, pointed out our weaknesses, or reminded us of our mistakes? Most of us would be delighted to live our lives without negative criticism. But we won’t! We’re not perfect, and somewhere along the way, somebody is going to point that out to us. I know God says they are not supposed to judge us, but they may not particularly care what God says. They are going to do it anyway. Then again, there may be areas where we need to be admonished. The question is, how are we going to respond to it?

Moses was a man who took his share of criticism. He was just trying to do what God wanted him to do, yet people kept carping at him. I counted six separate occasions recorded in Scripture when the Israelites murmured or grumbled against him. That word murmur means “to express resentment, dissatisfaction, anger, and complaint by grumbling in half-muted tones of hostile opposition …”4 In other words, it means to criticize. I do not know anybody in Scripture except Jesus Christ who felt the sharp edge of cutting criticism more keenly than Moses. He was not perfect in the way he handled it, but he surely did better than most of us would do, and we can learn some lessons from his example.

What we need is a plan, a procedure carefully thought out beforehand which we can call to mind readily and put into action quickly when the critic strikes. Maybe the word PLAN itself can be the key to remembering four helpful principles illustrated from the life of Moses:

L—Listen and learn
A—Answer positively
N—Note the critic’s needs


What is your first reaction when it becomes obvious that the person talking to you is actually finding fault? If you are a normal human being, your reaction is the same as mine—you defend yourself. It is just as natural as closing your eye when someone accidentally pokes his finger in it, or pulling away when someone is talking rather animatedly with a knife in his hand which gets dangerously close to you. Criticism hurts; it cuts our spirits and we automatically recoil from it.

Moses did not like it any more than we do, but somehow he learned to react differently. Instead of defending himself, he developed the habit of turning to God immediately in prayer. It seems to have been an automatic response with him. We see it first at Marah. The children of Israel had crossed the Red Sea and had sung a jubilant song of redemption. Then we read, “And when they came to Marah, they could not drink the waters of Marah, for they were bitter; therefore it was named Marah. So the people grumbled at Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’” (Exodus 15:23,24). I probably would have said, “Hey, don’t blame me. I didn’t make the water bitter. At least you’re not getting beat up with Egyptian whips. Count your blessings.” Moses didn’t do that. Instead we read, “Then he cried out to the LORD …” (Exodus 15:25a). His mind was on the Lord, so his immediate response was prayer.

We see that same pattern repeated over and over in Moses’ life. On later occasions he actually fell on his face before God in an attitude of prayer (cf. Numbers 14:5; 16:4). He humbly committed himself to the Lord. He recognized that when he was endeavoring to do the will of God, and people criticized him for it, it was God’s problem, not his. So he turned to God for wisdom.

He even said it was God’s problem the next time he was criticized. The place was appropriately called the Wilderness of Sin. This time they scolded him because they had no food: “… For you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Exodus 16:3). Ouch! That hurts. What a caustic and cutting thing to say, and they knew it was blatantly false when they said it. We probably would have told them how ridiculous their accusation was and how much we had done for them. But Moses just committed it to the Lord. “… For the LORD hears your grumblings which you grumble against Him. And what are we? Your grumblings are not against us but against the LORD” (Exodus 16:8b). He is saying basically, “We are nobody. Your complaint is not with us. It is with the Lord. He controls the circumstances.”

It would be good for us to commit the situation to the Lord and go directly to Him in prayer when a barrage of criticism is unleashed against us, just as Moses did. We can believe that He is in control of what is happening, even the indignity that we may be suffering at that moment, and we can commit it to Him in prayer. We can ask Him to help us listen patiently, to be aware of what He wants us to learn, to control our anger, to respond positively and to be sensitive to the needs of the critic. We can even pray that God will bless the critic. Jesus told us to do that. “But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).

Moses actually did that! It was at Kadesh Barnea after the ten spies brought back a discouraging report that the criticism started again. “And all the sons of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron; and the whole congregation said to them, ‘Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness!’” (Numbers 14:2). They even threatened to fire Moses, choose a new captain and return to Egypt. This time God became exasperated with them. He wanted to exterminate the whole bunch of them and make of Moses a greater and mightier nation. But Moses prayed, “Pardon, I pray, the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of Thy lovingkindness, just as Thou also hast forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now” (Numbers 14:19). And God pardoned. What an example for us!

There was another instance of Moses praying for his critics, and this time they were members of his own family. Aaron and Miriam criticized Moses for taking a Cushite wife and for assuming too much authority on himself. God struck Miriam with leprosy for her unsubmissive spirit. A lesser man may have said something like, “It serves you right. Now we all know who’s in charge here.” But not Moses. He turned to the Lord and prayed for her healing (Numbers 12). That kind of attitude can bring harmony and strength to our relationships, even with critical people.

We need to learn to keep our minds on the Lord. Then they will be there, fixed on Him, when critics start using the cutting edge on us. Our first reaction will be to talk to Him rather then to defend ourselves. And that in itself may defuse a potentially explosive situation. The first thing we need to do, and the most important of all, is pray!

Listen and Learn

It isn’t easy to listen when somebody is cutting us to shreds with words, or even when they are giving us a mild and much-needed rebuke. Before their first few sentences are out, most of us are thinking how wrong they are about us, and what good reasons we had for doing what we are being criticized for doing. We are formulating our reply already before they are finished saying what they want to say, and we even may interrupt them to justify ourselves, which, by the way, is not a very good idea. Solomon said, “He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him” (Proverbs 18:13).

The critic probably has thought about the problem for some time. He knew it would be unpleasant to tell us about it, but he cares enough about us to endure the unpleasantness in order to help us. He knows he may arouse our hostility, but he cares enough about us to take that chance. That is really a compliment. Even if he is guilty of an emotional outburst, he probably has mulled it over in his mind for awhile before he popped his cork. So listen and learn! As Solomon reminded us, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Proverbs 27:6).

Moses listened and learned. When his father-in-law criticized the way he was judging the people and suggested an alternative, we read, “So Moses listened to his father-in-law, and did all that he had said” (Exodus 18:24). We can do the same. Let the critic finish. Interruptions may keep us from ever hearing what is on his heart. Take notes on what he says. When he seems to be finished, be sure he has said everything he wants to say before you answer. You could say, “Is there anything else you’d like to share with me?” Or, “I wasn’t aware of that. Would you tell me why you feel that way?” Communicate genuinely and sincerely that you are interested in hearing what he has to say.

It is important to realize that this experience is not by accident, unpleasant though it may be. Even if the criticism is totally unjustified, God is still in control of our circumstances. He knew this would occur, and He could have stopped it if He had so chosen. But He allowed it, and He promises to bring some good purpose to pass through it (cf. Romans 8:28). So view it as a learning opportunity. It may be God’s way of getting our attention and showing us something about ourselves we have not been willing to acknowledge—some offensive attitude or habit that may be causing somebody to stumble.

Others see things in us we cannot see ourselves. Our own family members are particularly expert at seeing our faults. And as difficult as it may be to hear it from them, listen and learn. Compliments make us happy, but criticism can help us grow. Unfortunately, some of us would rather be destroyed by flattery than strengthened by criticism. But if people as great and godly as Moses could learn and grow through criticism, we surely can too.

Answer Positively

Up until now we have been talking about what takes place in our own souls, our inner thoughts and attitudes—prayer, a willingness to listen and a desire to learn. But now it is time to respond, and God would have us answer positively. That means, first of all, that we will answer calmly and quietly. As a famous Proverb puts its, “A gentle answer turns away wrath” (Proverbs 15:1). If the critic is angry and hostile, a gentle spirit can be used of God to calm him down and make the whole discussion more profitable. An angry, indignant reply is negative; it fuels the fire and makes any profitable communication impossible. A gentle response is positive.

We are reminded of Moses’ meek and gentle spirit in one of the most provocative attacks he suffered, that of his brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam. Immediately after their angry, self-centered accusations, and before we learn of God’s righteous discipline, the Holy Spirit saw fit to insert these insightful words: “Now the man Moses was very humble, more than any man who was on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3). So follow Moses’ example. Maintain a gentle and humble spirit.

A second element in a positive response is to be sure you understand what the critic is saying. Much hard feeling has lingered among believers because people have assumed they understood what others were saying when they really did not. Sometimes words are poorly chosen, or in the heat of anger things are exaggerated or overstated. It might be good to say something like, “What I hear you saying is ________. Am I understanding you correctly?” Give him opportunity to clarify. Repeating it a second time helps him say it more calmly and with less animosity. People who handle complaints over the telephone are taught to politely ask the customer to repeat his complaint. Invariably it is clearer and calmer the second time around. Sincerely requesting clarification is a positive way to answer.

Now we understand what is bothering the critic about us, and we must do some honest, objective self-evaluation. The sovereign God of the universe has allowed some human being to express what he perceives to be a fault in us. We cannot take that lightly. A third factor in a positive reply is to find the truth in what he says and immediately agree with everything we can possibly agree with. Jesus said, “Agree with thine adversary quickly” (Matthew 5:25, KJV). Agreeing with the critic will tend to blunt the sharpness of his spirit.

Most of us are reluctant to admit our failures. We consider what we do and say as so closely tied to what we are that to admit we were wrong is to give up some of our self-esteem. We believe people will think less of us. We want to sweep it under the table and forget about it. It is painful to admit it. But the consequences of admitting it are so refreshing, we cannot afford not to. Nothing can restore harmony and healing to strained relationships as effectively as admitting we were wrong and correcting it. If there is just a grain of truth in it, admit it. The critic says, “You did a terrible job!” You can reply, “I know I could have done it better.” The critic says, “You think of nobody but yourself.” You can reply, “I admit that I have a tendency to be self-centered.” Those are positive answers that defuse the explosiveness of their attacks.

Sometimes we honestly cannot see that the criticism is valid right there on the spot. Rather than defend ourselves, it might be better to say, “I appreciate you calling that to my attention. I’ll need some time to think about it.” Then do just that. Give it serious thought. Ask God to show you the elements of truth in it. Then go back and acknowledge them to the person who leveled the criticism. Seldom will any of us be so perfect that we cannot find any truth at all in the criticism people level against us. It’s there! Find it, and admit it.

A fourth positive response would be to ask for the critic’s help in finding a solution to the problem or a way of correcting the weakness. Ask, “What do you think I should do?” That can melt away the barriers and bring us together, instead of pitting us against one another as arguing or defending ourselves will do. Discovering a mutually agreeable course of action becomes the common goal that helps us overcome our differences.

There may be times when a criticism is absolutely invalid. It is based on hearsay, secondhand opinion, false assumptions or imagined slights. We have taken the time to think about it, to apply the Word of God to our lives, and to ask God to show us the elements of truth in it. But we still consider it to be false. We now have two choices. We can go back and say something like, “You’re wrong, and let me tell you something, buddy. You’re not so great yourself.” But counter-accusations will only escalate the hostility. It would be much more positive and helpful to explain lovingly, graciously, kindly and without resentment or vindictiveness that we have examined our hearts before God and cannot honestly admit to their evaluation. We might add, “I’m sorry you feel as you do, but I hope it won’t affect our relationship.” Then we can pray that God will help them to see the truth and bring us together.

Note the Critic’s Needs

Sometimes the people who criticize us have far deeper problems than what they are accusing us of having. Their hostility may actually be a smokescreen to hide their own faults, or a muted cry for help. It may stem from their own insecurity, or the fact that they do not like themselves very much. By God’s grace, we can see past the cutting criticism to the people themselves. It does not do them one bit of good for us to prove that we are right and they are wrong. What accomplishes the greatest good is showing them forgiveness, patience, understanding and acceptance. God wants us to reach out in love to minister to their needs.

There is a beautiful example of that in Moses’ experience. When Korah and over 250 other high-ranking princes in Israel criticized Moses for usurping too much authority, God took their lives in an awesome display of divine discipline (Numbers 16:1-40). That was when the rest of the nation started criticizing him again. “But on the next day all the congregation of the sons of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron, saying, ‘You are the ones who have caused the death of the LORD’s people.’” (Numbers 16:41). God has just about had it with them. “And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Get away from among this congregation, that I may consume them instantly’” (Numbers 16:44,45). I would think Moses might have said, “Go get ’em Lord.” That’s probably what I would have done. Instead, he instructed Aaron to hurry to the Tabernacle and offer a sacrifice of atonement for them, and the Scripture records that the plague was checked (Numbers 16:48). That is a man who looks past the criticism to the people and their needs, then reaches out in love to minister to those needs.

When someone criticizes us, it would be good to ask ourselves, “What is happening in his life to make him this critical? What hurts is he feeling? What needs are not being met? How can I show him that I care about him?” That is not easy to do when someone is cutting us to pieces with words. It takes grace. But isn’t that what God has promised? He is the God of all grace (1 Peter 5:10). His grace is sufficient for all our needs (2 Corinthians 12:9). If we become channels of God’s grace, He can use us to make other lives vastly more effective in His service.

Satan can use criticism to discourage us and distract us from doing the will of God. If every time we try to do something, somebody shoots us out of the saddle, eventually we may be tempted to say, “That’s enough. I’ll just hang up my spurs.” Don’t do it. Reexamine your direction. If God has led you, then keep moving ahead. Don’t let petty criticism from little people dissuade you from your commitment.

I read the story of a small-town judge who was frequently ridiculed by an egotistical lawyer. When asked why he didn’t rebuke him, the judge said, “In our town there is a widow who has a dog. Whenever the moon shines, the dog goes outside and barks all night.” Then he began talking about something else. Someone said, “But, Judge, what about the dog and the moon?” “Oh,” he replied, “the moon just keeps right on shining.”

If we are wrong, we have no business defending ourselves. God wants us to be open to correction. But if we are right, we have no need to defend ourselves. We can just keep on shining, keep on doing the will of God with greater dependence on Him. The cutting edge of criticism will not hurt us when we let it drive us to Him in greater trust. Instead, it will keep us serving Him with renewed enthusiasm, renewed determination and renewed power from on high. Will you memorize the PLAN we have discussed? Then be alert to the criticism directed toward you and apply the principles you have learned?



Going along with that,


An Encouraging Word

Richard L. Strauss

When our children were growing up, one of the things Mary and I tried to teach them was unselfish consideration for other people. But I have to admit, I thought very little about how selfish and inconsiderate our conversations may have sounded. It did not occur to me that I should be teaching them how to communicate with unselfish consideration for others and then modeling it before them, probably because I had never learned much about it myself.

Judging from what I hear, I suspect that there are others who have not learned a great deal about considerate communication either. Some of us have a tendency to interrupt while others are talking, dominate conversations with stories about ourselves, show little interest in what others are saying, get impatient and irritated when they disagree with us, say sarcastic things that offend or belittle, or commit any number of other conversational blunders that demonstrate a gross lack of consideration.

We may have little appreciation for the power of our words. “Who am I?” we ask. “Just a little old nobody. It doesn’t matter what I say. My words don’t affect anybody.” But they do! They affect everyone we speak to—absolutely everyone. They have the power to help and heal, or the power to hurt and destroy. “There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing,” wrote King Solomon (Proverbs 12:18). Some professing Christians swing verbal swords, piercing the souls of other people, inflicting emotional wounds on their spouses, their children, their neighbors, store clerks, telephone operators, or anyone else who gets in their way.

As we have seen, the Apostle Paul penned an extended passage on the use of words (Ephesians 4:25-32). And in one verse he summed up a number of good communication principles: “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29). Paul established two categories of communication in that verse: unwholesome words and edifying words. The first, he says, should be eliminated entirely from our verbal repertoire. There is no room for even a trace of it. We are to weed it all out, then replace it with the second. Obeying this command could vastly improve our ability to get along with each other. But we need to know what kinds of words each category includes. Let’s explore them—first the unwholesome or destructive words, then the edifying or constructive words.

Destructive Words

The word unwholesome means “decayed, rotten or diseased.” It is used of rotten or degenerate fruit (Matthew 7:17-18), and rotten or degenerate fish (Matthew 13:48). Unwholesome things are putrid, offensive, useless, worthless or unprofitable—fit for nothing but the trash heap. But worse, when we put a rotten apple in a barrel with good apples, it corrupts the whole lot. It is not only useless, but injurious and harmful. It affects others adversely.

Paul seems to be using the word in this sense of damaging others, because he contrasts unwholesome words with edifying words—words that build up, strengthen and heal. Unwholesome words do just the opposite. They tear down, destroy, offend and hurt. What kind of words did Paul put in this category? The context reveals some. Lying words can injure (v. 25). Bitter words can injure (v. 31). Angry words can injure (v. 31). Malicious, gossiping words can injure (v. 31). All these are discussed in other chapters. What other kinds of words injure people and relationships? Let’s think about a few.

Cutting Words. Solomon spoke of words that pierce like a sword (Proverbs 12:18). They sound like cutting words. David had a problem with people whose tongues cut him. He mentions it several times in the Psalms. For example, he says his former friend Ahithophel, who turned against him, spoke words that were like drawn swords (Psalm 55:21). He spoke of people with swords in their lips and tongues (Psalm 57:4, 59:7, 64:3). We’ve all known folks who have been endowed with sharp tongues. They have the gift of sarcasm. They are masters of the cut, the chop, the put down. They have razor-sharp minds that shoot out razor-sharp words quicker than most people can keep up with them. They may do it to be funny, but they fail to think about how much it hurts the victim. Their verbal assaults smack of the foolish talking or jesting which Paul condemned in Ephesians 5:4.

Some husbands and wives take advantage of social gatherings to cut down their spouses. Rather than lovingly confront in private and talk issues through where they can explore what one another is thinking and feeling, they find it easier to drop little razor blades into the conversation when their spouses cannot fight back. One sharp-tongued husband said, “Dottie doesn’t sleep too late. She gets up in time to watch the afternoon soaps on TV.” But Dottie was not to be outdone: “Max always remembers my birthday—three months later.” And a few more wounds have been inflicted that will arouse antagonism, lead to retaliation, and further decay the relationship. Destructive words! “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth.”

Nagging words. The book of Proverbs says quite a bit about nagging and its effect. “It is better to live in a corner of a roof, than in a house shared with a contentious woman” (Proverbs 21:9). “It is better to live in a desert land, than with a contentious and vexing woman” (Proverbs 21:19). “A constant dripping on a day of steady rain and a contentious woman are alike” (Proverbs 27:15).

There is a difference between nagging and reminding. A reminder is friendly and free from impatience or irritation. But nagging is a repeated, critical request marked by exasperation and anger. It is exactly what Solomon labeled “contentious.” A nag has a tendency to scold, lay blame, make insinuations or accusations that strike at a person’s self-esteem. “When are you ever going to paint the house? Don’t you care what people think?” That is an attempt to create guilt. “Don’t you know any better than to slurp your soup? You eat like an animal.” That is an attempt to shame.

I don’t know why Solomon only picked on the wives. Maybe it was because he had so many of them. But men can be just as guilty. “I wish you’d lose some weight. I’m ashamed to be seen in public with you.” Those words are critical, humiliating and insulting. They hurt and destroy. “I’ve told you a hundred times that I don’t like my coffee this strong.” There is that note of humiliation again. The idea is, “What’s the matter with you? Don’t you understand English? Or can’t you remember one simple request? Or can’t you do anything right?”

Nagging words like that are destructive. They irritate, just like the continual drip, drip, drip of a leaky faucet. They hurt by making other people feel badly. Such words heap guilt on people, cause them to think less of themselves, chipping away at their self-esteem. Those people probably will strike back in some way in an attempt to restore that injured self-esteem. The result is usually further rotting of the relationship. It isn’t necessary to make people feel badly. When we ask someone to do something, and if they agree to do it but fail, we can remind them lovingly and kindly without communicating disgust, frustration or humiliation. “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth.”

Exaggerated words. There is a ramification of the falsehood we discussed in the last chapter which should be mentioned here in connection with words that destroy relationships, and that is exaggerated generalizations that take the form of absolute statements. I’m referring to words like always and never. “You never take me out to eat.” “You always greet me with a gripe of some kind when I come home from work …” “All you ever think about is ________” (fill in the blank: food, sex, new clothes, etc.). Absolute statements are seldom true and they tend to arouse antagonism in us. They hurt us, so instead of trying to discover what the real problem is that prompted the statement, we focus on proving the statement wrong, and so repairing our injured self-esteem.

When a wife says, “You never take me out to eat,” her husband may reply, “Why of course I do. I remember taking you out just six weeks ago. You don’t remember anything. And besides that, you don’t appreciate anything I do for you.” And the fight is on. The foolish thing is that they are fighting about a false issue. The issue is not when they went out to eat last. It is probably that she is feeling neglected or overworked. He needs to be more sensitive to her needs. But if she would try to identify her feelings and her desires, then express them directly, lovingly and honestly instead of making absolute statements that accuse, there is a good possibility that the relationship would be strengthened rather than strained. “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth.”

Vengeful words. Peter identified some unwholesome words that injure relationships. “To sum up, let all be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit; not returning evil for evil, or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing” (1 Peter 3:8-9). We normally respond to angry accusations with angry accusations. We answer put-downs with put-downs, and sarcasm with sarcasm. That is our human nature.

“You never listen to me,” she charges.

“That’s because you never say anything that’s worth listening to,” he responds.

We usually live by the adage, “When hurt, strike back and hurt in return.” And it does nothing but intensify our conflicts, until they reach the stage of one couple who stood before a judge seeking a divorce.

“Will you please tell the court what passed between you and your wife during the argument that led to this court action?”

“I will,” said the husband. “It was a rolling pin, six plates, and a frying pan.”

Peter suggests that we not return evil for evil or insult for insult. We have a new nature, a supernatural nature which is capable of responding just as the Lord Jesus Himself responded. “And while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Peter 2:23). By consciously depending on His power, not only can we hold back the vengeful words, but we can speak words that will calm the angry accuser, heal the hurts that have been experienced and strengthen the relationship.

Constructive Words

We have seen some words that destroy relationships; now let us look at some that heal and strengthen them—constructive words. “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29). Here in this one verse are some powerful biblical principles that can solve many of our communication problems. If we use them to govern our words, we shall find our relationships improving overnight. Ask yourself, “Do my words edify—do they build the people in my life rather than put them down?” “Are these words what they need at this particular time?” “Will these words minister grace to them—will they benefit them in some way?”

If a wife says to her husband, “You never listen to me,” she surely doesn’t need to hear, “You never say anything worth listening to.” The first statement is false, but two falsehoods do not produce truth. The second falsehood will do more to hurt and destroy than the first did. What does she need at that moment? Words that build! Here are a few.

Gentle words. We mentioned gentle words when we discussed how to deal with the faults of others (chapter 3). But their importance demands some further emphasis. Solomon wrote, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). The word gentle implies words that are tender, delicate and mild. Paul said much the same thing: “And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32). The same tongue that stirs up strife also can communicate kindness, tender-heartedness and forgiveness when it is controlled by the Holy Spirit. Gentle words can soothe and quiet the atmosphere after foolish words have been uttered. When passions rage, accusations are made or unkindnesses hurled, try gentle words. Purposely speak in calm, quiet, kind tones, and choose words that are non-threatening and non-retaliatory. It will be like pouring cold water on burning coals. It takes two to fight. If one decides there is a better way and refuses to retaliate, there will be no fight.

Understanding words. If we are only to speak words that build others up according to their needs, then we obviously must understand those needs. That may require some prayerful thought before we open our mouths. Many of us would rather spew out the first thing that comes to our minds when we are issued an invitation to fight. Solomon has some choice observations about that:

“Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him” (Proverbs 29:20). “The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, But the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things” (Proverbs 15:28).

Part of that prayerful thought will be an effort to determine exactly what the other person is feeling and trying to communicate to us. They may be saying it rather poorly, but there is probably some need behind it. “You never listen to me” translates into something like, “I don’t think you are listening to me attentatively enough to make me feel loved and understood. And I’m hurting because of it.”

It is unfortunate that we cannot phrase things more carefully and simply say what we feel and what we want, instead of accusing, criticizing, manipulating, exaggerating, belittling, nagging or judging motives. But we all have the problem to some degree, and that should help us try to be more patient with others when they are not communicating properly, and help us try to grasp what is behind their words. Then we can respond with understanding words rather than vengeful words. An understanding response might be, “You may be right. I probably don’t listen to you as carefully as I should. And I can understand why that bothers you. It would bother me, too. I really want to do better. Can you suggest some ideas that would help me improve in this area.”

Do you see what you have done? You have assured her that you understand why she is disturbed. You have given her an opportunity to say more about it, which she probably wanted to do and needed to do. You have let her know you are interested in making the changes in your life that will bring her greater happiness. And you have focused on a solution, getting the discussion out of the fruitless realm of blame. That kind of answer will help build her up, meet her needs and benefit her. It is kind, tender-hearted and forgiving. And what has it cost you besides giving up a clever, smart-alecky remark that wasn’t true in the first place? Understanding words build up and encourage.

Appreciative words. The Apostle Paul himself gave us an example of words that edify and benefit. In many of his letters he included words of commendation and appreciation. For example, to the Philippians he wrote, “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all, in view of your participation in the gospel from the first day until now” (Philippians 1:3-5). To the Thessalonians he wrote, “We give thanks to God always for all of you, making mention of you in our prayers; constantly bearing in mind your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the presence of our God and Father” (1 Thessalonians 1:2-3). Neither the Philippians nor the Thessalonians were perfect, but Paul praised them before he dealt with their problems. There isn’t one of us who is so confident and self-assured that he does not need a word of praise periodically. Without it, we become overwhelmed with self-doubts and are incapable of functioning at peak efficiency.

Some of us seem to think that people will get proud if we compliment them too frequently. Quite the contrary! People often become boastful when they are starved for appreciation. A sincere compliment will encourage them to do even better.

Alan McGinnis relates a study of a second grade class in Wisconsin. The children were getting harder to control, standing up and roaming around the room instead of doing their work. Two psychologists spent several days in the back of the room observing. They found that seven times in every twenty-minute period the teacher said, “Sit down!” But the roaming continued. They suggested that she increase her commands, and she did, to 27.5 times in twenty minutes. The walking around increased fifty percent. Then they suggested instead that she eliminate the commands entirely and quietly compliment the children who were staying in their seats doing their work. The roaming around decreased thirty-three percent from what it was originally.7

Psychologists tell us that, generally speaking, we need at least four positive statements to balance one word of criticism. Delinquent children report getting approximately one to one. Most of us are the same way. We enjoy cooperating with those who show us appreciation and we resist those who criticize us. It would make a significant improvement in the way we get along with the people we live with and work with if we looked for the positive things in their lives and expressed our appreciation. A husband can say, “That was a great meal. Thanks for the time and effort you put into it.” A Sunday school superintendent may say to a teacher, “Thanks for your faithfulness to the class. I always know that you’re going to be here unless you’ve notified me ahead of time.” Statements like that communicate an important message. They say, “I care about you. You’re important to me. I value you highly.” They are constructive words that encourage and build.

This is not the false flattery which some people use to get their own way or obtain some favor in return. The Scripture warns about that: “A flattering mouth works ruin” (Proverbs 26:28). But it encourages people when we sincerely commend the praiseworthy things we see in them. Train yourself to look for them in the people around you—the checkout clerk at the grocery store, the difficult neighbor, the usher at church, your spouse, your children, your parents, your employees, your boss—everyone!

Let’s take the Word of God seriously and begin to weigh our words. Weed out those that damage people and cause relationships to decay. Replace them with words that build up, meet needs, and minister gracious benefit to people’s lives. We will be the beneficiaries in the end as we experience the joy of harmonious relationships.


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