“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” – 1 Corinthians 13:1
Have your young children ever decided to make music with items around the house? In our house, some “instruments” have included a wooden flute, plastic whistles from Chuck E. Cheese, and metal pot lids as drums and cymbals. No matter what instrument of torture music the child chooses, the result tends to be about the same: a progression from “grin and bear it” to “on the verge of a migraine” within about 2 minutes.
This is the image that comes to mind when I see the latter part of the verse above. This verse is the opening of the famous “love chapter,” and it’s one that has been on my heart recently. Everywhere we look—from our homes to our communities to our nation at large—there are arguments and debates about everything. Many are the opportunities to use our words to teach, communicate, resolve conflict, or attempt to persuade. In these moments, having the ability to speak in “the tongues of men and of angels” would seem to be a significant asset. Wouldn’t it be great to have such a command of rhetoric that we could easily resolve conflicts simply by discussing them?
Yet it seems to me that more often than not, these controversial conversations serve only to exacerbate the existing problems further. Developing skill in speech may be beneficial. But I think Paul’s point is that no matter how elegant and persuasive our turn of phrase, if our messages are not communicated with love, they will be just as useless and obnoxious as the repetitive tweeting of a cheap plastic whistle.
So how can we best communicate in love? I think this is one of the most difficult questions of our day. Any expression of disagreement with what is politically correct is quickly labeled “hate speech.” And who hasn’t had a child interpret discipline as “being mean,” or had a loved one feel hurt by even a gentle criticism? We are obliged to walk on eggshells to avoid sounding “hateful,” but as a result, it usually doesn’t resolve the conflict at all.
This is why it’s so important to be honest. At the same time, however, we need to find a way to be kind and understanding. Things like sarcasm, eye rolling, and ridicule are never helpful in winning someone over, yet these are the tools we can easily tend to use in a conflict. This is especially true when dealing with family members (who are always around to see our bad side) or when communicating from behind a screen (as in online debates).
There must be a way we can speak our minds truthfully and yet also be loving (Ephesians 4:15). How can we find this balance? I think verses 4-7 offer some good suggestions.
- “Love is patient and kind.” My interpretation: It responds graciously and respectfully, even in the heat of an argument.
- “Love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude.” It is humble, realizing that one is not a better person than another, no matter how much more correct one’s opinions may be. It has a teachable spirit, not presuming to have all the answers.
- “It does not insist on its own way.” It listens to others’ perspectives rather than cutting them short.
- “It is not irritable or resentful.” Love controls its temper and does not fall into defensiveness when someone points out an error.
- “It does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.” Love does not gloss over lies or sins in order to keep the peace. It requires us to be truthful even when it hurts.
- “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” It is willing to hang in there for the long haul, not easily labeling someone as a lost cause.
I will absolutely admit that I have trouble following these guidelines, especially when dealing with my children. In the thick of a busy day, I often dole out discipline or lectures rather than taking the time to connect with them. Yet the most effective parenting moments are usually the ones in which I have offered a listening ear, trying to understand without immediately bringing in my judgment. Something similar is true of marital conflict. It also helps a lot to do my best not to focus on my personal hurt feelings or pride. Even in online debates, I have occasionally found more receptiveness to my arguments when I endeavored to be respectful rather than sarcastic. Snide comments may have given me a laugh, but I can’t think of a time where it didn’t cost me the ear of my audience.
If we truly want to make a difference in others’ lives, we must learn to speak the truth in love. I don’t want to be a clanging symbol, either by avoiding the truth (thereby profiting nothing) or by presenting myself in a way that alienates my listener. In particular, I want to do better about connecting with my children. My hope is not only to improve our relationship, but also to teach them by example how to speak the truth in love to others.
Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of author.