“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:31-32, ESV)
We’ve all been there before. There is a difficult conversation- perhaps we’d even call it an outright confrontation– that needs to be had. Someone is in the wrong, and it has to be addressed. We know it, and perhaps have known it for some time. But for all that knowing, we just can’t bring ourselves to start talking; the thought alone is enough to make us sick with awkward discomfort. And the closer our relationship with the other party in question, the more intense our aversion becomes.
Much like you, I’ve been here before- in marriage, in friendship, in work relationships, and even in relationships within the local church. And keeping it real, I often haven’t handled such situations very well. I typically fall into one of two “ditches”- one, the ditch of chronic procrastination, followed by the release of an explosive flood of emotion (i.e. a fancy description for a temper tantrum), and two, the ditch of cowardly equivocation, the proverbial “halfway conversation” that seems easier in the moment, but in the end represented a massively wasted opportunity. Can you relate?
Very few of us enjoy hard conversations (if you do, you may have your own set of issues to deal with!), but the reality is, sometimes they are necessary. Sometimes they are even better than necessary; they represent incredible opportunities for healing and growth in maturity. According to God’s Word, we must make the most of our opportunities to engage them, especially when God’s glory, the health of relationships, and the effectiveness of the church’s mission are at stake. But what are the signs that you may not be fully prepared to initiate such a conversation- and what you can do about it, presuming that an indefinite delay is neither healthy nor possible? Read on, and allow the words of Ephesians 4:31-32 guide you…
1- You aren’t ready to forgive. I’ve long contended that forgiveness- particularly the extreme variety modeled by God in the Gospel, and commanded for His followers- is among the most difficult things that God demands in His Word. It’s a process, no doubt- and often one that must be repeated over and over (and over) again. It is, however, a non-negotiable if we’re going to handle confrontation in a God-exalting, life-giving away. So first step, before we go to someone else, is to put away “all bitterness and wrath and anger” from our hearts, positioning ourselves to offer others the gift which God has lavished on us- undeserved grace.
2- You aren’t ready to be kind. Just speaking from personal experience, I can’t think of a single instance when someone yelling at me, demeaning me, or humiliating me gave birth to deep, long lasting, Jesus honoring transformation. Especially in difficult conversations, basic kindness goes a long, long way. So as you put away that first set of barriers to forgiveness, take a cue from Paul’s words in Ephesians and set aside “clamor and slander and all malice” as well.
3- You’re not certain of your convictions. To use a sports analogy, confrontation is an offensive– not defensive– action. In other words, it isn’t reactive, but is instead strategic and well planned. Often, I think our unrestrained emotionalism in tough conversations is a result of a lack of clarity in our own convictions. The firmer we are in what we want to communicate- and the more that communication is anchored in the timeless, authoritative Word of God- the less prone we will be to slipping into counterproductive, insecurity driven words and actions.
4- You don’t have a clear end game. Before engaging someone in a hard conversation, always ask yourself this- What’s the point of this? What do I hope to accomplish here? Like, if this thing went perfectly, what would be the result? If the answer to that question isn’t more glory for Jesus, more maturity for the party in question, more healing in relationships, and more health for the church, then settle those things in your heart before opening your mouth. Obviously you can’t control, or make yourself responsible for, others’ responses to you, but you sure can set everyone up to win by having a well-defined plan for success on the front end.
So let’s say one or more of these “four signs” describe you right now. You’re not unusual; I’ve found myself in all four of these places before. But what can we do about it when we do? Paul answers that question as well, by pointing us back to our “roots” in Jesus Christ. Look again at the end of Ephesians 4:32, into 5:1-2-
“…Forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 4:32b-5:2, ESV)
Notice what Paul is doing here? He is tying our relationships with others to our relationship with God in the Gospel. The New Testament does this all the time, communicating to us constantly, “Remember how God has treated you in Christ? That’s how you’re to treat one another, even (especially!) when they struggle and stumble and fail and fall.” That being the case, the single best thing you can do to get ready for a hard conversation is to reflect deeply on the Gospel of God’s amazing grace. When is that last time you did that? I challenge you to search the Scriptures this week for all of the (many) texts which address this very thing.
Remember this one thing- God gave you His best, even when you gave Him your worst. That truth should impact and transform us to the core of our being, and color every single other relationship we have. How is it impacting you today, and how will it inform the hard conversation that you need to have?