“Holy and Healthy Conversation”

James 1:19-27

The Nature of Enthusiasm
By: Michael Roberts

How many of you like to argue? How many of you have someone in your family who is sometimes too enthusiastic about sharing their opinions about things? (If they are sitting next to you, you may not want to raise your hand). Are you that person in your family? Are you that person who would argue with a tree?

So, if you like to argue, then we have some great tips for you today – tips for how you might really make a connection with others. If you don’t like to argue, if it makes you uncomfortable, then hopefully we will help you build your courage today to share your thoughts with others.

I will do some pre-marital counseling with couples before a marriage, and one thing I want them to know is how to argue well. It is important. Every now and then I will hear an older couple say, “Oh, we never argue.” That can be a red flag for me. It may mean that at least one of them does not feel safe enough, too vulnerable, or has built barriers to what is truly going on at a deeper level. People who are invested in each other’s lives are going to argue. Why? Because we come at life with such different personalities, interests, and perspectives on things and sometimes we have to figure all that out in a spirit of love.

To this day, I remember hearing my parents argue, and one line from my father sticks out in my mind. When voices would rise in volume, he would tell my Mom to stop being so emotional. He would call upon her to be rational. It was code for “see the world like I do.” “That’s the solution to this.” Now, I’m comfortable using this example, for one, because my father isn’t here to argue with me, but two, because I have caught myself saying similar things. I must admit that I too sometimes find it very difficult to believe that anyone should be able to see anything differently than I do. That can be so frustrating.

In Methodism, we have this notion of “holy conferencing” or the importance of holy and healthy conversation. (Wesley actually used the phrase “Christian Conferencing,” but he used the image of holiness very frequently to describe how we are to relate to one another). For us, holy conversation is a “means of grace.” This means that it is right up there with prayer and reading scripture. It is a means or way that God uses to bring us into deeper communion with one another.

Here’s an important thing to note. This type of conversation is built upon love rather than on agreement. As John Wesley teaches us, we will not ever all think alike (that’s not ever going to happen), but we can learn to love alike. In the midst of the messiness of our relationships, we are challenged to love with a love that is patient, kind, and humble, never arrogant, envious, or rude, and never insisting on its own way (See I Corinthians 13:1-8). When we have this love, relationship can be so rich and life-living, even in the midst of our differences. And that’s what God wants for us more than anything. In fact, it is our differences that make this kind of love possible. Think of how boring it would be if we were all the same. There would be no need to grow in this love.

So let’s look at some rules for this kind of conversation. The question is: what does it take for us to have holy and healthy conversation that leads us all to grow in our salvation? (Let’s look together at the titles for now, and then I invite you to read and reflect upon the explanations later).

1. Give Respect (r.e.s.p.e.c.t) This relational word summarizes the virtues to which we are called – patience, kindness, humility. Respect is the foundation for all holy conversation. There is a lot more here in this handout for you to reflect upon later.

2. Listen Before Responding (Two ears) There is a reason why we have two ears and one mouth…In our scripture lesson today it is made clear that we are to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. James also makes a distinction between listening and merely hearing. To listen is to work hard and understand the circumstances and perspectives of the other. Listening is a way that we do God’s will.

3. Speak truth in care and love (one mouth) In the handout there is some practical rules for engagement. I want to highlight one of these rules. Use “I” language rather than “You Should” language. It is always better to say “I believe,” “I think,” “I need,” than it is to say “You should.” “I” language builds bridging into people’s hearts. “You” language builds walls.

4. Seek Spiritual Growth Finally, seek spiritual growth. Let this kind of conversation change you… Ask, am I growing in the fruits of the Spirit by the way I am conducting myself? Am I increasing in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and temperance? That’s the hope of all holy conversation. So, I hope you will take this handout home and read it and reflect on it more carefully.

We need this kind of holy conversation in the church. It is not easy. In fact, some theologians have accused us (the church in the general) of allowing this way of interacting to degenerate into nothing more than “being nice” and “being polite.” We need to listen to this critique. Many of us are too interested in avoiding conflict. And then at the other extreme are those who love conflict too much. There are those who are so enthusiastic about their opinions and so convinced of their “rightness” that it leads to contempt for others, impatience with the world, and furious anger – often in the name of Christ. That is so sad and so harmful. John Wesley, in his sermon on the Nature of Enthusiasm, calls this kind of enthusiasm a “many headed monster.” It takes great courage to counter this unhealthy zeal and to bring us once again into the way of love. Will you be among those who pray for that kind of spiritual courage?

Sometimes we see people do amazing and even dangerous things, and they will say, “Don’t try this at home.” Today, I want to say, “Try this at home.” Practice with those you love. Then, try it here, with some others in your small groups or classes. Then, maybe we can find some better ways to do this on a larger scale. Let’s practice such a little bit – just for a start. Last week we worked together to make these prayer chains. This week, I invite you to stand and to share the peace of Christ. GO to those you know, but also seek out someone you do not know, and say, “Peace be with you.” “Peace be with all of you.” Let us stand and start some conversations by sharing the peace of Christ. Amen.

HOLY AND HEALTHY CONVERSATION HANDOUT

(A Wesleyan Means of Grace Necessary for Growing in Salvation)

1. Give Respect

This word “respect” summarizes the virtues of holiness as outlined throughout scripture and in our Wesleyan tradition – patience, kindness, gentleness, and humility, to name a few.  Almost every time Wesley defines holiness or true religion he uses these attributes that flow from a heart connected to God’s grace.  The hope of holy conferencing or conversation, is not merely to tolerant one another in our differences, but to show honor to one another and to connect in love.  This starts with respect. It starts with ascribing the best intentions and motivations to the other. (Reflect upon the exhortation in Romans 12: 9-18; See also I John 4:20-21).

 

2. Listen before Responding (Two ears)

In summary of much wise council in scripture, we hear the call to be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.” (James 1:19).  In surrounding verses, a distinction is made between mere hearing and listening.  To listen is to do God’s will.  It requires that we suspend judgment, and strive to understand the circumstances and perspective of the other.  We listen beyond the words to the heart.  Such listening, or holy conferencing, can also serve an evangelistic purpose. It can illuminate the good news of God’s love and care through the one willing to invest in this work. Speaking too quickly and first trying to convince others that our opinions are “right,” can build walls rather than bridges. (See James 1:19-27; Proverbs 12:15; Matthew 13:13-17)

 

3. Speak truth in care and love (One mouth)

Biblical and spiritual truth moves us beyond mere facts. God’s truth is revealed in relationships that are life-giving and produce love, joy, and peace.  That’s what is true, good, and holy. In such relationships, we are called to speak in a distinctive way. Faithful speaking flows out of a type of love that is patient, kind, and humble, never arrogant, envious, or rude, and never insisting on its own way (See I Cor 13:1-8). In this love, we avoid using inflammatory tones and derogatory names or generalizations. We use “I” language rather than “you should” statements.  We share our opinions and positions, clothed in compassion, humility, and patience, seeking harmony and unity, which is something different from uniformity and conformity on issues that do not “strike at the core of Christianity.” As Wesley says, “Though we may not think alike, we can love alike.” (See Colossians 3:12-17; Romans 14:1-12; and I Corinthians 13:1-8). 

 

4. Seek Spiritual Growth

The hope is not only to reach some desired outcome, but also that the parties involved would be transformed in love within the very process itself.  In the Methodist tradition, we call this practice “conferencing” because it involves persons conferring together in a context of Scripture, prayer, conversation, and mutual goodwill. We call it “holy” because of the expectation that God will be present through the power of the Holy Spirit. We open ourselves to the possibility of new insights and expanded perspectives and the hope that we will all come away “changed” – and perhaps bring some transformation to the world. We test all of this by the fruits of the Spirit. We ask questions to help each other open up to these blessings and to discern where we have experienced them in our lives. (See Ephesians 4:1-6; Galatians 5:22-23).