Is Small Talk Unspiritual?

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Scripture gives great significance to our words:

“I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37)

“Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29)

“Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Colossians 4:6)

As men and women created in the image of a speaking God, our words have great capacity to build up or tear down. What we say or don’t say matters. But that raises a question. If, as Jesus says, we will give an account for every careless word; and if, as Paul says, all our speech is to be gracious and good for building others up – is it a sin to small talk? Is conversation about the weather or sports or any other insignificant topic an absolute waste of time?

I know – this might sound like hyper-spirituality. But as apparently small an area of life as it is, our view of small talk is significant. Because it’s the most mundane area of our conversation it reveals much about how we think about all conversation. Or, to put it another way, it’s the place where we’re most likely to have our guard down, and therefore the one that shows what we really think about our words. We can boil it down to one question: does your small talk build walls or bridges?[1]

The difference is not so much in what’s said, but why it’s said. Building walls is when your conversation about the latest sports news or the weather is just a means of keeping someone at arm’s length. It might be because you don’t really care about them – at the precise moment of your conversation, baseball is more important to you than what’s going on in your neighbor’s life. It might be because you’re afraid of what will happen if the conversation gets serious – better keep it on the weather or you’re going to end up on a subject you’re not prepared to handle! But the end result is that you use your small talk to build a wall. And that is ultimately wall-building is a failure of love.

But the exact same conversation – “How about that game?” or “Starting to feel like fall, isn’t it?” – can be a means of building a bridge towards someone. Maybe you don’t have an established relationship. Casual conversation is a first step towards turning a stranger into a friend. Maybe you do have a solid friendship, and sharing sports news is one of the things you enjoy together. A conversation that touches nothing deeper than Peyton Manning’s latest game can still be a way of moving towards your friend, strengthening and reinforcing your relationship. The bridge is there, even if you don’t walk all the way across it in this conversation.

So is it a sin for Christians to engage in small talk? No, not at all – provided it isn’t used to build a wall separating you from a person God’s called you to love. Use your words to tear down walls and build bridges – because that’s what God for you.

“In the beginning was the Word…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

 

[1] I’m indebted to David Powlison in his counseling class “Dynamics of Biblical Change” for this question and image.

Photo by Bert Kaufmann

Can A Christian Lovingly Use The Slippery Slope Argument?

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“That’s a slippery slope.” Have you ever heard that phrase used in an argument before? A slippery-slope argument is one in which it’s assumed that holding Position A leads inevitably to Position B, then Position C, then to D, and on down the line. The assumption is that no one wants to hold Positions B, C, and D, so therefore Position A is discredited. Usually the person holding to Position A responds that the slippery slope argument is a way to obscure the issue by smuggling in other topics, while the Slipper Sloper thinks his logical links are unassailable.

It’s worth thinking about the slippery slope argument because it’s in the headlines a lot these days in connection with debates on same-sex marriage and gender/transgender issues. Opponents of same-sex marriage argue that legalizing it would start the slippery slope towards crossing other sexual boundaries such as polygamy, pedophilia, or incest. The other side responds by saying the slippery slope argument is nonsense and an attempt to make anyone supporting same-sex marriage look bad. So my question is: can a Christian use the slippery-slope argument? And if so, how do we do it in a way that honors the commands to love our neighbor, and to be quick to hear, slow to speak?

I’m going to suggest two answers to that question, especially with regards to gender and sexuality debates. But first, in the interest of full disclosure, let me state where I stand. I think legalizing same-sex marriage would be wrong from a Scriptural standpoint and would ultimately be very harmful to our society. I also think the slippery slope argument has considerable force in this debate. (See the recent headlines about incest laws in Germany and polygamy laws in Utah.) But I’m also convinced that in this discussion, as in any other, those biblical commands still apply. So how can we love our neighbors while disagreeing with them?

Don’t assume that this person accepts Position B because they believe in Position A.

This is simply an application of Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:12: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them.” You’ve probably had, or at least heard, someone say, “Oh, you’re a Christian, you guys believe ______” with the blank filled in with an outright distortion of Christianity that neither you nor anyone you know actually believes. You would like that person to actually ask you what you believe rather than write you off as ignorant, bigoted, or outdated based on a false assumption about what Christians are like. We owe that same respect to anyone we disagree with. You might be convinced it’s a slippery slope between A and B, but don’t assume the person you’re talking to sees it exactly as you do. Which leads to my second suggestion:

Ask the person to explain why they believe Position A doesn’t lead to Position B.

Questions are always better than assumptions. Use them. “In my mind there are implications to what you’re saying that trouble me. Could you help me understand if I’m hearing you correctly?” Or: “If you believe _______, what are your thoughts about ___________?” Two things might happen. One, you may find there are valid ways to hold Position A and not Position B that you haven’t thought of. Honesty and respect require – actually, let’s rephrase that: our Lord requires – that we consider those possibilities. Two, you may discover that the person you’re talking to hasn’t actually thought through the implications of their belief. That’s not the time to do a victory dance and pound your chest for having won the argument – not if our goal is to “always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). Instead, this is the time to gently ask the person to reconsider their beliefs, and then give them time and space to do so.

Beliefs have implications. There are slippery slopes that need to be recognized and, with love and compassion, exposed. But any debate or argument brings its own slippery slope: slipping away from love, compassion, and a desire to help people see their need for Jesus towards a miry pit of arrogance, poor listening, and hard hearts. Don’t slip down that slope!

Photo by John Haslam

The Antidote To Selfish Ambition

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Our culture tends to be self-focused and self-absorbed.

We say things like “You have to look out for number one. Because if you don’t look out for number one, no one else will.” TV commercials constantly tell us what we need to make us happy. TV psychiatrists tell us we should love ourselves more and be sure to bolster our self-esteem. But when Jesus comes into our lives and rescues us from our sins, he begins to reorient our whole mindset about everything in life, including our tendency to be self-focused.  So he tells us in Php 2:3-4:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

Selfish ambition and conceit (pride) tries to get more of this world for itself, tries to advance itself over others, always wants more. More admiration, more power, more possessions. But contrary to what the world says, selfish ambition won’t fulfill us, but is really the enemy of joy.

As believers in Jesus, we need to remember that we have all the riches of God in Christ. We have the encouragement, comfort, sympathy and affection of Jesus! We have the fellowship, comfort, guidance and counsel of the Holy Spirit. We don’t need to get ahead of others or get more than them. We don’t need to be admired more than others; we have Christ to encourage us. We don’t need to be loved more than others; we have the comfort of Christ’s love.  So God says out of our fullness here’s what we should do:

in humility count others more significant than yourselves.

This doesn’t mean that everyone else is more significant than us, but that we should COUNT or CONSIDER them to be so. Think of them as more significant than ourselves.  When we go to church or our fellowship group, we should think, These brothers and sisters of mine are SIGNIFICANT – they are important to God. I’m not going just for myself but for THEM.  This mindset leads us to do what verse 4 says:

Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

This doesn’t say don’t look to your own interests or that your interests are unimportant.  It says “Let each of you look NOT ONLY to his own interests, BUT ALSO to the interests of others.” All of us have concerns. All of us go through tough times. All of us have prayer requests. So our mindset should be – I’m not just focused on me and my interests. I want to focus on others as well. I want to be concerned for them ALSO.

D.A. Carson says, “It is also very practical to make a habit of thinking and speaking of the interests of others rather than boring people by constantly dwelling on our own interests”

In other words TAKE AN INTEREST IN PEOPLE. Find out about them. When you first meet someone you don’t start with What’s your biggest struggle? You get to know them. You find out about where they work or what their major is. You might ask about their families or maybe about hobbies they enjoy. You may say, Mark I hate making small talk. But in church it’s not simply small talk. Eventually they may open up about a problem they’re having or a spiritual struggle that you can encourage them about.  Romans 12:15 says:

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.

Our Christian life is a shared life. We live this life with others. We’re not isolated individuals. We’re all part of Christ’s body. So what happens to you affects me. When you’re blessed, I’m blessed. When you suffer, I suffer. When I stub my toe, my whole body goes into action to comfort my toe. My arms send my hands down and my eyes direct them to the aching toe. My fingers grab my toe and massage it as my mouth cries, “Ow, ow, ow!”

You may say, Mark, I feel like no one cares for my soul. If that’s the case, I feel really bad for you. My advice would be – and I know this might be really challenging for some of you – but my advice would be for YOU to begin to try to care for the souls of others. Ask others how they are doing. Ask how you can pray for them. Because in MT 7:12 Jesus said:

Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

Do you want others to take an interest in you? Then take an interest in them. Do you want others to be compassionate to you? Then be compassionate toward them.

We can all be tempted to think about our church or fellowship group at times, “What am I getting out of this?” But our gatherings are not ONLY for what we personally get out of it, but they are for what we can do for others.

So I encourage you today to meditate on and thank Jesus for the riches you’ve received in him and look for ways to take an interest in others.

Don’t Be So Quick To Quote Scripture At Your Friends

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Is there ever a time not to quote Scripture? Imagine this scenario. Sunday after church your friend approaches you asking to talk. He’s having struggles in his marriage. At the office a project is requiring extra hours and at home the kids are in a high-octane phase that’s driving his wife nuts. The result is a household full of tension and irritability, with a number of petty, smoldering conflicts gradually merging into one ongoing conflagration.

“I know these arguments don’t please the Lord, and I know I’m partly to blame,” your friend says. “What do you think?” It’s your opening. Time for Scripture, right? “Bro, you just need to love your wife as Christ loves the church. I’ll pray for you!”

It’s biblical (Eph. 5:25). It’s true. It applies to his situation. But is it what he needs to hear? Surprising as it may seem, the answer is no. Not yet. Why? Here’s the principle: don’t quote Scripture until you can personalize the truth. “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loves the church,” is true – gloriously and challengingly so. It’s also generic, one-size-fits-all. Husbands from Papua New Guinea to Pennsylvania can apply it. But your friend isn’t a symbolic representative of all husbands everywhere. He’s one person walking out his life before the Lord, loving a specific woman and specific children in a succession of unrepeatable, never-to-be-duplicated moments. God’s ultimate goal is for Ephesians 5:25 to be embodied in concrete, particular ways in real time, at 5:47pm on Friday the 29th and 9:30 on Saturday morning after breakfast.

What does that mean for you? Simply this: ask more questions. Don’t use a Bible verse to end a conversation before it requires too much of you. Find out how your friend is struggling, in specifics: when did it happen last? Where? Why? When you can help your friend see what loving his wife, in this season, this week looks like – then you can remind him that planning to take the kids Saturday afternoon or pick up pizza for dinner Wednesday night so she doesn’t have to cook is his personalized expression of Ephesians 5:29.

Sometimes, even with good question, you may not know how to help someone particularize truth. You know a verse applies, but you’re not sure how because the situation is complex. That’s okay. In that case you’re honest with your friend, and Scripture doesn’t become a conversation stopper. You talk about the verse. You pray together. You commit to helping walk with your friend while you both grow in wisdom. But the goal is to make truth personal – even when it takes time.

Why is this so important? The ultimate answer is because God is personal. He is not a general truth about life, but a person. And he relates not to abstract humanity, but to real people. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The living Redeemer writes down names, whole chapters of them (see Romans 16, for instance).

So yes, your friend needs Scripture. So do you – but Scripture that’s personalized, melded to real life. Don’t be content with abstractions. Ask questions. Pray for wisdom. And then speak.

Photo by Brett Jordan

How Do I Grow in Love?

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The New Testament often distills the Christian life down to its most basic essence: faith and love. For instance, Galatians 5:6:

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.

Or consider Paul’s summary exhortation to Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:13:

Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.

Of course, other descriptions apply as well – but, in the broadest sense, faith and love pretty much cover it. Faith towards God – belief in his promises, in who he says he is for us in Jesus Christ – that’s the vertical element. And love, directed towards others – that’s the horizontal element.

Which, of course, leads to a question: how do you grow in love? You know you’re supposed to love your wife, or your neighbor, or the other members of your church. And you do love them – but you want to grow in that love. What do you do? What does that look like? A change in emotion? More warm-fuzzies? More sentimentality?

Here’s a simple answer. Love expresses itself in actions for someone’s good. If you want to grow in love, grow in taking actions – real, concrete actions – that do good to another person.

You’re probably thinking, Wait: isn’t love an emotion, too? Yes, emotions are a necessary part of love. If you claim to love a person but never have any feelings of warmth, affection, enjoyment of their presence, happiness for their success or sadness over their loss – then you probably don’t genuinely love that person. But the emotions of love, like any other emotion, are such an up-and-down, unstable thing that if we’re really going to grow in love, we can’t just sit around and wait for an overwhelming emotion to strike us. The call to love is too vital for such inactivity. Instead of waiting for the Emot-O-Meter to rise, take action. Do something. What does that look like?

A meal delivered when the new baby comes. A card written on the anniversary of a significant loss. Help with an oil change. A day given to pack boxes and load the moving truck, a word of gratefulness for a service rendered, a word of encouragement when someone has stepped out in faith. “Doing good” has a thousand outfits but a few of them are formal dress. Most of the time, love wears its street clothes.

So here’s an assignment: consider a few people around you that you are called to love. Pray for them, and ask God for a concrete idea to bring good to that person. (Be content to think small.) Then go and do it! You’ve just taken a step of love. Now repeat.

Oh, and don’t forget – you can give love because you’ve already received love. Remember the apostle John’s words: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” Even today, the God who saved you through the gift of his Son is plotting kindness towards you in a thousand disguises: food, protection, friendships, moments of worship and spiritually enlightened eyes and fellowship in prayer. We’re simply imitating him, the God who is kind in all his works (Psalm 145:17).

So go, put on your street clothes, think small, be creative, and demonstrate love. It’s a family trait.

Photo by Kophe