Your non-Christian officemate shares stories with you of her alcohol and sex-fueled weekends, but you know her actions are only self-medicating a deep brokenness within.
A Christian friend from college posts on Facebook that he and his girlfriend have decided to move in together. They aren’t married and you know it’s unwise.
The next door neighbor you’re building a good relationship with is openly gay. He knows you’re a Christian and you know it’s only a matter of time before he asks your opinion of his lifestyle.
We face situations like these daily in a culture of increasing moral vagueness. How do we respond? Do we love through actions but not voice disagreement with others’ decisions? Do we speak up forcefully in the name of “speaking the truth in love?” Can we even do that, knowing the mess of our own lives? How can we express concern for our friends and share Christ effectively in these potentially awkward scenarios?
I don’t know about you, but just considering these questions makes my head spin. Social media connections link us to more people than ever before, placing our viewpoints on public display. Christians are already widely perceived as narrow-minded, judgmental, and behind the times. It’s like we have a target on our backs, and our responses might reinforce the stereotype. Or they might be the only Christian perspective someone hears.
Jesus’ interaction with the woman at the well in John chapter 4 is one of several instances recorded in Scripture where He enters into a difficult conversation. What can we learn from His example?
The Setting Matters
John tells us something interesting at the beginning of the story: “His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.” (John 4:8) Jesus was sensitive to this woman’s need for privacy. Had the disciples been there Jesus may not have drawn out such a vulnerable conversation. She even leaves just as they return.
Social media practically begs us to converse about personal and contentious topics in a public forum. But studies have shown that anywhere from 55-90% of human communication is non-verbal, so how much do we miss by just speaking electronically?
Social media is rarely the best setting for conversations about topics where you arrive with strongly held opinions. Consider taking the conversation offline to an environment where you can keep it between you and the other person.
Also, in social media everyone you know could be listening to whatever you’re saying, forming judgements before they have taken the time to understand. If I wouldn’t be comfortable saying something face-to-face, I won’t post it online.
Understand Before Seeking to be Understood
Recently I befriended a Christian couple with an eleven-year old son. I found out they’d only been married eight years so I quickly assumed sexual sin prior to marriage. I formed a judgment without knowing the whole story: they adopted their son three years ago.
It’s easy to find flaws with people or judge behavior without having any idea of their history. But often we’re only seeing what’s above the surface; we don’t know what’s led to their actions and choices.
Jesus’ all-knowing nature meant that He already understood the turbulent past of the woman at the well; one she was very likely ashamed of. But He chose to draw the conversation gradually to those vulnerable personal details rather than dive directly into them. He avoided bringing shame or condemnation on her.
Jesus told us to take the plank out of our own eyes before trying to remove the speck from someone else’s. Our own sin and brokenness is influenced by all sorts of painful experience; it’s no different for anyone else.
What if we take the time to ask questions and understand the experiences that have shaped who a person is today? We might find that instead of speaking to them, we’re speaking with them – a distinction that makes a world of difference.
What Makes Talking With You Taste Good?
Consider salt. Yes, salt.
In the ancient world salt did more than just make French fries tasty. Before refrigeration, salt preserved meat to keep it from spoiling. These dual purposes – flavoring and preserving – offer context to verses like Colossians 4:6 – “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”
Asking questions, listening, and seeking to understand is a great start to this. We can also encourage people with Scripture blended with snapshots of how we experience it personally.
We can give people a taste of Jesus.
My wife experienced this firsthand recently. We had just bought four chickens and put a coop in the back corner of our property. Our neighbor’s dog became obsessed with them, feverishly sniffing along the fence and refusing to do his other backyard business.
A few days later my neighbor saw my wife in our yard, stormed over, and confronted her.
“I’m not okay with the chickens,” he said.
My wife was taken aback, but she took a breath and whispered a prayer before responding.
“Can you tell me what’s bothering you?” she said. “Maybe we can work something out that would be good for both of us.”
His demeanor immediately changed, as he was expecting defensiveness. It was like my wife had disarmed a bomb, and through peaceful conversation they were able to agree to a solution.
This salt-seasoned interaction with my wife warmed him and our relationship has grown ever since.
Jesus was the master of grace-filled speech that brought flavor and preservation. Sometimes His statements appear curious and out-of-place, but He spoke to people’s hearts more than to what they were presenting by their words.
He did this with the woman at the well, giving her a taste of the infinite refreshment of eternal life that He knew was at the heart of her deepest longings. He piqued her curiosity and showed Himself to be supremely satisfying.
Yet He didn’t shy away from speaking truth. He presented the truth of people’s sinfulness and need with grace and gentleness.
Difficult conversations won’t ever go away. But the way we have those conversations can set us apart from the crowd, and draw people’s attention to the greatest communicator in human history.