Here’s the story: someone says something mean to you, or something critical of you (or of others). You weren’t expecting it and suddenly it’s just dumped on your lap like a dog dropping a dead rat there. You are disgusted, irritated, and shocked.
Zero warning. How do you reply?
Here’s Paul (in Eph 4:32):
“Make a clean break with all cutting, backbiting, profane talk. Be gentle with one another, sensitive. Forgive one another as quickly and thoroughly as God in Christ forgave you.”
Paul notes three negative responses and offers two positive ones: Don’t do”Cutting, backbiting, profane” but do “gentle” and forgiving.
How do we speak “grace” to one another? Paul draws a parallel, not between bad language and “clean” language, but between language that builds up and language that tears down.
There is some language that cuts like a whip. I have a book here called Acid Drops written by Kenneth Williams. Recently I came across a review by Stuart Akers which makes the point well.
“Kenneth Williams, of ‘Carry On…’ fame for many, was a troubled character. Clever but socially handicapped, he lived a mostly solitary life. It comes as no surprise, then, that his collection of witty quips and quotes is entirely made up of the sort of put-downs that leave the victim feeling bad. Of course, the title gives a clue to the nature of the assortment; his selection is pungent with acerbic witticisms.
As an optimist and, bearing a philanthropic nature, I found only a few of these short forays into wit amusing. Many are cruel. At best, most are caustic. I laugh easily; it’s in my nature. But I didn’t laugh at many of these, though I can admire the intelligence that created them. … I was overwhelmed by the nastiness of much of the material… For me, it was distinctly ugly, but clever.”
I’m sure that we all just wish that we had the perfect reply when some rude or insulting word comes our way, but if I would build up and not tear down, then it’s a “pleasure” I must forgo.
So what does “grace” look like here? It looks like gentleness. “Be gentle with one another Swallow the insult, (along with your pride). Give a gentle answer or no answer at all. Consider where that cruel word came from and refuse it entry.
For this is the strategy that the Bible offers us to replace the witty-but-cruel comeback: it’s the “gentle answer.”
“A gentle answer turns away wrath. But harsh words make tempers flare.” Proverbs 15:1
Sally Clarkson writes: “Angry words answered with loud voice and accusation, just adds fuel to the flame of anger. Gentleness and sympathy puts water on the fire of one’s angry heart, and soothes the frustrated feelings.. Once I had this scripture in my head and learned to use it in many relationship situations, I saw how effective this piece of wisdom was—all of us desire, in our frustration, to be honored.
There is no absolute solution or formula to calming an angry quarrel. Yet, wisdom from Proverbs has often saved the moment for my family.
A hormonal teen, an exhausted toddler, a school-aged child, or a husband who is angry—all of these, long to be treated with focused attention, an understanding heart and a loving response.
As we all know, it is natural to react in like—anger to anger. However, it is from the Spirit of Him who is love that leads us to react in love. And yet, as the Spirit lives through us, we will see His power and fruit drawing others to Him in us, when we choose to remember bits of truth he has left for us to follow.”
A gentle answer turns away wrath.
And, above all: “Forgive one another as quickly and thoroughly as God in Christ forgave you.”
Some people would argue that you shouldn’t forgive too quickly, that you need to think it through. I read an article in Psychology Today entitled “Six Reasons why not to Forgive. Not Yet.” Well, some of that sounded reasonable enough to me! But in the dead-rat scenario that I’m envisaging here, there’s no time for consideration. The bad word has been spoken, and you have to reply.
So you have to decide to be forgiving ahead of time. It has to become your default position. “Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother who sins against me? Up to seven times?”Jesus answered, “I tell you, not just seven times, but seventy-seven times!…” (Matthew 18) Jesus is not talking quantitatively (as I hope you realise!) but qualitatively.
This is how we live towards one another: forgivingly. “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable in others because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” (C.S.Lewis)
Quickly. Thoroughly. “As God in Christ forgave you.”
Today, even over the next few hours, it may well be that there will be multiple occasions for you to practise this! Frame your reply in your mind and decide whether your answer is gentle or rough. Does it build up or does it cut down?
Gentleness grows stronger with practice. It comes with humility. It grows as wisdom and takes root in the heart that values the ones it loves. May God grant us to become gentle in our love, that others may see Him through us.