How to Overcome Communication Problems

by Rick Thomas

All marriages experience difficulties. But for some Christians, their faith seems powerless to overcome the discord. They are unable to appropriate the gospel into their marriage practically. There is a solution for these struggling believers.

In other words, they do not have a plan to adequately address and neutralize the unrelenting presence of sin in their marriage (1 John 1:8). Thankfully, the gospel overcomes sin’s curse and restores us to God. Then, through the ongoing work of sanctification (Philippians 1:6), the gospel provides us the potential to change a marriage relationship radically.

This article intends to help couples understand how the gospel should shape their marriage and provide a practical plan to address sin within a marriage.

Purpose of Marriage

To build a healthy marriage, you must start with the right cornerstone; you must approach your union within a gospel context. Unfortunately, today’s culture has become the loudest voice in defining the purpose behind marriage. In the past centuries, marriage was used to secure and stabilize the influence of the family. A few hundred years ago, the concept of romantic love took over, and couples are now encouraged to marry (or not marry) for personal fulfillment and happiness.

The promise of romantic love is desirable and aligns with God’s created intention for relationship. However, under close examination, this view of marriage can quickly become a pathway to satisfy the lusts of the heart. I am not saying romantic love is a sin. But when it becomes the purpose, the marriage takes on a self-centered consumer attitude, “I will be this type of spouse if you are the spouse I want you to be.” Marital conflict results when you don’t meet agreed-upon expectations.

However, gospel love flows out of a covenant, and you don’t base it on the other’s performance. Additionally, the New Testament reveals the mystery of marriage. It is a reflection of the great union between the Messiah and his church (Ephesians 5:31-32). Jesus sees us stuck in our fallen human condition; He lowers and sacrifices Himself, and now leads us on a journey to future glory.

Thus, the gospel purpose of marriage is, “To help your spouse become their future-glory-self through sacrificial service. To help bring them to the full potential God has given them, and to participate in what God is trying to do in their lives.” Therefore, you must have a servant or ministry mindset in your marriage.

This worldview is not a mandate to try harder or sacrifice more. It is a call to repent of your self-serving motives and allow the Holy Spirit to transform the intentions behind your actions. Your motivation must flow from gratitude for God’s love to us through His work of executing His Son on the cross. We must always remember, “there is nothing in our lives that is more profound than what He did for us on the cross.”

Roles within Marriage

Secondly, you must have a correct and precise understanding of the roles within a marriage. Both husband and wife are equals serving in different functions to reflect and bring glory to God through gospel re-enactment. Both parts imitate Christ: husbands in the role of Christ, as He is the head of the church. And wives in the role of Christ, as the Son, who is submissive to the Father for the sake of our salvation.

The scope of this teaching exceeds the intent of this article; however, I will address the topic of submission. Fleshly desires of men have made a significant mess of this dynamic, so here are some key points to remember.

For the Husband

Biblical headship is one of a servant (1 Corinthians 11:3). Sacrificial love is the expression of his authority. Authority is not used to gain privileges but used to meet the needs of the wife/family and to build up the giver of submission.

Submission cannot be demanded, but only given freely by the wife. Thus, a husband cannot require his wife to submit. That is between her and God. If the husband uses anger, manipulations, or forces his wife into submission, he has disqualified himself as a leader in the marriage. A lack of submission is rarely the cause of marital discord.

The husband does possess tie-breaking authority, but he can only exercise the right if the wife is doing something destructive to her or the family. This occurrence should be rare. If both husband and wife are Christians, they both have the same Holy Spirit working within and should reach the same conclusion on the issue. The disagreement may take significant discussion, prayer, heart examination, and humility on both sides, but unity should prevail.

For the Wife

Many women struggle with the term “helper” used to describe the role of the wife. In today’s society, this term indicates a subordinate position. However, the Hebrew word for “helper” most frequently used in the Bible is used to describe God, as in “God our help.”

It is a role of strength or one who can only help from a position of power. It is not the role of assistant. It is also helpful to think about Christ’s submissive role. Kathy Keller states,

If submission is not an insult on the dignity, equality, or value of Jesus, in his submissive role to God the Father, in order to accomplish our salvation, how can I be hurt if I am asked to take on this role in my marriage?

To help accept this command, some women look for practical reasons to understand this arrangement, but this line of reasoning is unhelpful. It is an attempt to understand God’s intentions, and if you find no practical reason for the command, some women will struggle with the command. A better route to take is to is look to Christ (Hebrews 12:1-2) and to rest in God’s sovereign care (Deuteronomy 29:28).

When discussing the subject of submission, many women ask, “should I submit to a husband who is sinning against God?” This question becomes evident if you remember the purpose of marriage. Since your role is to serve him in a way to move him towards his future-glory-self, the answer is no. Your task is to oppose him in a redeeming way.

A Sin Plan

This part brings us to how to handle conflict within a marriage. Generally, this is a difficult subject to navigate for most couples. Hidden heart desires shaped by the shame, fear, and guilt within our souls (Jeremiah 2:13) and forged within our crooked hearts (Jeremiah 17:9) can lead couples to not only forget their in-Christ identity but the real purpose of marriage. This reaction results in quarrels and fights (James 4:1–4) as each party looks to defend their kingdom.

Thankfully, the Holy Spirit gives spiritual insight to understand heart motives and works within to bring humility. This response provides the potential to restore peace within the relationship, but shalom can only achieve if the interactions maintain a proper balance of truth and grace. It’s the balance of cooperating with the Spirit’s work in transforming hearts while continuing to tend and care for the soul.

Many Christian marriages error to the side of all grace and no truth, believing restoration is just a call to forgive. This contrivance allows couples to stay together, but it generates a false peace and hinders spiritual growth. The gospel can neutralize sin, but many times, it must first do its excellent work within the hearts of both spouses; moving them both towards their future-glory-selves.

Examination of heart motives, repentance, and looking to the gospel to overcome pockets of unbelief are often required, which requires speaking the truth. You will need to communicate God’s truth about yourself and what you discern in your spouse.

You will need to be transparent to share the details of your spiritual battle, so your spouse can pray, encourage, share gospel reminders, and help.

You need to speak to your spouse if they appear caught in a pattern of sin (Galatians 6:1). You must share your observations, check on your perceptions, and tell them the impact of their actions on yourself and the family. Truth is needed to help point out blind spots, to build a better relationship, and to assist your spouse in growing towards their future-glory-self.

On the flip side, all truth and no grace will break the relationship and most likely result in divorce. We see this frequently in marriages where the husband or wife does not place a priority on soul care (John 16:12Romans 2:4). Or when their selfish heart motives have blinded them.

Heart Preparation

To maintain a healthy balance while engaging your spouse on marriage issues, you will need to prepare your heart before you interact with your spouse. You must first examine your heart to test your motives (Psalm 139:23-24) and make your heart to listen well.

Heart examination reveals if your heart is captivated by the Gospel, or by the flesh (Galatians 5:18-23). If your desires are not in line with the fruits of the Spirit, you must “do some business with God” before talking with your spouse.

If you have a fleshy mindset, you will want to pay your spouse back to prove you are right, or to make them back away from their position. Criticism done in this mode will eat away and erode at your love. However, if you are walking in the Spirit, your observations and views are a form of pruning and watering (1 Corinthians 3:6).

Secondly, you must prepare your heart to perceive. You must make it safe for your spouse to criticize you without fear of retribution. The heart can employ many tactics to avoid, divert, or deflect the criticism. The most common include anger, manipulation, blame-shifting, explaining too much, apologizing too much, escalating (“we should just get divorced”) or attacking back. These techniques are forms of self-reliance that will quench the work of Spirit and wound the soul of your spouse.

How do you respond to criticism? Are you able to seek to understand the concern better and search for possible blind spots within your heart, or do you feel the need to defend yourself? If you struggle in these areas, I encourage you to reflect upon the cross and remind yourself of your in-Christ identity.

I find this preparation is best accomplished by reading and praying through scripture. Matthew 5:1:12, 6:5-15; Luke 18:9-14 are my go-to verses. This process will help you empty yourself of “self” and move you forward in humility (James 4:6).

Finally, don’t forget about practical considerations. You must find the right time to engage with your spouse and avoid times when it is easier to sin (e.g., sick, tired, etc.)


Now, you are ready to talk to your spouse. If you have to speak to your spouse about your marriage problems, begin by owning and confessing your issues. Despite how small you think your percentage is, admit those things without excuse.

Secondly, you attack the problem and not the person. Your marriage covenant is a one-flesh union. Both parties must be part of the solution. The conversation can go something like;

  • “As I see it, you are doing this?”

  • “It is affecting me like this?”

  • “I wish you would do this instead.”

  • “But I need to find out if I am missing something. Do I have this right or not?”

As the conversation continues, pray and ask for insight on possible heart motives, or pockets of un-belief. As you listen, ask yourself, “What are their thoughts about God, themselves, and the gospel?” If you are correct in your observations, there will be a breakdown in one of these three areas.

Remember, the goal of the conversation is to help move your spouse to their future-glory-self. The discussion should resemble Christ’s example of grace-filled truth, and you can only accomplish this by walking in the Spirit. Thus, you must continue to examine your own heart during the conversation.

If the discussion stays on track, you will get to the point of forgiveness and repentance. Rick’s website has many resources on forgiveness and transformation that will serve you well. I encourage you to visit. I pray this gives you and your spouse a new perspective and a starting point to live out your marriage before the Lord while enjoying the blessings of marriage.

Call to Action

I recommend that you and your spouse both read and discuss the topics of this article.

  1. Are you both in agreement with the gospel purpose of marriage? Are you able to share where worldly views of marriage have infiltrated into your thinking? Are you ready to do this in a grace-filled environment?

  2. Are you both in agreement with the gospel roles within marriage? Are you humble enough to share your doubts and fears about your calling within your one-flesh union? Are you able to pray together, asking the Holy Spirit for help?

  3. Are you willing to help grow your spouse to their future glory self in a way that reflects Christ’s love and compassion? Are you ready to seek assistance in this journey by reaching out to your small group, church leadership, or using the resources found on

Disclaimer: The guidance provided in this article is for relatively stable marriages. If the brokenness of your relationship is beyond this guidance, I urge you to talk to your elders. If physical harm is taking place, you must contact the authorities.

Note: Most of the material comes from two sources; a talk provided by Tim and Kathy Keller titled, Cultivating a Healthy Marriage, and from various resources from I hope this article offers an at-hand summary of these edifying resources.

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Talking at versus Talking to

Article by Brad Hambrick

Here’s another classic argument starter – actually its more of an argument fuel-er, because the disagreement is usually under way when this “debate of classification” is engaged. So what is the difference? Both definitions below assume a difficult life situation.

“Talking At” is the act of engaging with another person in a virtual monologue for the purpose of releasing an unpleasant emotion. Two key components of this definition should be defined further. First, a “virtual monologue” is a conversation in which any dissent, alternative perspective, or even interruption is viewed as arguing or being on the other team. Second, the word “releasing” should be understood in contrast with sharing a burden. When “talking at” the goal is not to invite another person into your struggle, but to unload the struggle on the other person.

“Talking To” is the act of engaging with another person in a dialogue for the purpose of inviting them into your struggle and seeking perspective, correction, or encouragement to persevere in the difficult circumstance. The key element here is that the other person is viewed as more than an audience and the purpose of speaking is more than an emotional release. We are requesting a companion in hard/frustrating times; not seeking to speak against something to a mute set of living ears.

Have you ever been asked to 'talk to' me instead of 'talking at' me? What's the difference?CLICK TO TWEET

So what is the problem when we “talk at” someone? While the list could definitely be longer, I would like to point out two problems.

First, “talking at” someone reveals a heart of pride and defensiveness. Anger is a proud emotion. Notice that in James 4:1-10 when he transitions from the theory of conflict (v. 1-5) to

the practice of resolution (v. 6-10) the pivot point is pride (v. 6). When we speak with someone—usually a loved one—about a problem and do not want to hear what they have to say, that is a battle with pride. We have become the fool of Proverbs who resists instruction (4:13, 8:10, 9:9, 10:17, 13:1, 15:5, 16:22).

While it is not wrong to want to be fully heard and adequately understood before receiving instruction or perspective, sharing a hurt implies that we are inviting someone to speak into our life. It takes humility and courage to allow someone to do that. But to speak and not listen is like giving someone an invitation and rebuking them when they arrive.

Second, “talking at” someone detaches us from the “one another” ministry by which God intends to strengthen and encourage us. Galatians 6:2 says we are to, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” The implication is that this is the normal interaction of believers. So while pride (problem one) reveals that my heart is not where it ought to be, this detachment (problem two) cuts me off from one of God’s primary remedies for this problem.

So what should I do to resist the temptation to “talk at” my loved ones when I’m upset? Consider the following suggestions:

  • Make frequent eye contact during conversation. When we “talk at” someone we tend to look though them or our eyes move all over the room.

  • Ask the person to pray for you after you finish telling your concern to serve as a clear conversational bridge between your sharing and the dialogue to follow. If that seems out of place, you’re probably out of control or defensive a way that will make the conversation unproductive.

  • Make sure you have a few questions in mind to ask after you’re finished telling your concern and that those questions are not merely rhetorical or yes-no questions confirming your perspective.

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12 Rules for Speaking Life-Giving Words

By Juan Sanchez

The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life,
but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence.
The lips of the righteous feed many,
but fools die for lack of sense.
Proverbs 10:11, 21

At a board meeting I was at some time ago, the chairman asked the board members what we had been reading. One of the brothers was reading Scottish Puritans: Select Biographies. He shared with us James Fraser’s 12 rules for ordering his conversations.

In God’s providence, I was preaching through Proverbs. And that next Sunday, I was actually preaching a sermon titled, “Taming the Tongue.” The counsel from Fraser’s book was so helpful, I used it to apply the sermon to ourselves.

Sadly, we live in a culture–and I’m talking about the Christian culture–where we need to remind ourselves of such heart-exposing, conscience-convicting, wisdom-providing counsel.

Let me encourage us then in this way: before we post anything on social media, before we send an email, before we respond to another brother or sister, let us review these 12 rules and choose to speak life-giving words. I’ve updated the language and added applicable Proverbs.

You may find these 12 rules in the Memoirs of the Reverend James Fraser of Brea, Scotland 1798.

1st Rule: Speak nothing sinful

This includes lying, cursing, scolding, backbiting, gossiping, slandering – anything that dishonors God or neighbor.

  • 13:3, “The one who guards his mouth protects his life; the one who opens his lips invites his own ruin.”

2nd Rule: Speak no idle words

Will what I speak profit or is it vain and empty?

  • 25:11, “A word spoken at the right time is like gold apples in silver settings.”

3rd Rule: Speak not much

  • 10:19, “When there are many words, sin is unavoidable, but the one who controls his lips is prudent.”

  • 17:27-28, “The one who has knowledge restrains his words, and one who keeps a cool head is a person of understanding. Even a fool is considered wise when he keeps silent—discerning, when he seals his lips.”

4th Rule: Speak soberly both as to matter and to manner

Don’t be loud and obnoxious.

  • 27:14, “If one blesses his neighbor with a loud voice early in the morning, it will be counted as a curse to him.”

5th Rule: Speak not rashly or hastily

  • 29:20, “Do you see someone who speaks too soon? There is more hope for a fool than for him.”

6th Rule: Speak weightily, seriously

  • 26:18-19, “Like a madman who throws flaming darts and deadly arrows, so is the person who deceives his neighbor and says, “I was only joking!’”

7th Rule: Speak in Faith

Do you know and believe what you’re saying?

  • 12:22, “Lying lips are detestable to the Lord, but faithful people are his delight.”

8th Rule: Speak Prayerfully

Have you prayed about what you’ll say?

  • 15:29, “The Lord is far from the wicked, but he hears the prayer of the righteous.”

9th Rule: Speak timely and purposefully

  • 15:23, “A person takes joy in giving an answer; and a timely word—how good that is!”

10th Rule: Speak in Fear

Keep a bridle in your mouth.

  • 8:13, “To fear the Lord is to hate evil. I hate arrogant pride, evil conduct, and perverse speech.”

11th Rule: Do not let your neighbors’ faults be the subject of your talk, even if true

  • 16:24, “Pleasant words are a honeycomb: sweet to the taste and health to the body.”

12th Rule: Speak not of yourself or your worth

  • 16:18, “Pride comes before destruction, and an arrogant spirit before a fall.”

Juan R. Sanchez (@manorjuan) is the husband to Jeanine, father to five daughters, senior pastor of High Pointe Baptist Church, Austin, Texas, and author of Seven Dangers Facing Your Church.

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The Good Gift of Relational Conflict

Paula Marsteller 

Relational conflict has dogged me recently, in spite of the fact that I’d naturally rather offer up a limb than experience—or inadvertently cause—conflict.

When someone accused me of sin, I prayed, “Lord, don’t let me flatter myself in my own eyes that my iniquity cannot be found out and hated” (Ps. 36:2). I know I’m stained with sin, but I couldn’t see my specific sin in this particular situation.

But then, through Romans 5:3–4, God called me to get off my knees, climb out of the weeds, and look at the bigger picture:

We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character hope.


Hadn’t I just bemoaned to a friend that I had no perseverance? I realized this after a difficult week with my husband. He was depressed, and I took it all personally and acted desperately. My friend’s response was enlightening: “Don’t beat yourself up. You’ve only been married two-and-a-half years. You haven’t had enough hardships to grow that perseverance in you.”

Oh, right. Perseverance is produced through suffering.

Do you want the peace and fortitude you see that woman exhibiting in the midst of chemo? Do you long to withstand raging winds like that flexible palm tree? The only way to grow this kind of perseverance is through accepting the suffering God sends your way. How thankful I am for John Calvin pointing me back to God’s providence:

The Lord has willed it; therefore it must be borne, not only because one may not contend against it, but also because he wills nothing but what is just and expedient. To sum this up: when we are unjustly wounded by men, let us overlook their wickedness (which would but worsen our pain and sharpen our minds to revenge), remember to mount up to God, and learn to believe for certain that whatever our enemy has wickedly committed against us was permitted and sent by God’s just dispensation.


Relational conflict produces perseverance, and perseverance produces character. Not just any character, but the character and image of Christ. I love how Joni Eareckson Tada and Steve Estes paint this picture in their book When God Weeps:

An artist in Florence, Italy once asked the great Renaissance sculptor Michelangelo what he saw when he approached a huge block of marble. “I see a beautiful form trapped inside,” he replied, “and it is simply my responsibility to take my mallet and chisel and chip away until the figure is set free.”

The beautiful form, the visible expression of “Christ in you, the hope of glory” is inside Christians like a possibility, a potential. The idea is there, and God uses affliction like a hammer and chisel, chipping and cutting to reveal his image in you. God chooses as his model his Son, Jesus Christ, “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son” (Rom. 8:29). Suffering fashions us into a “holy and blameless” image of Christ (Eph. 1:4), much like a figure sculpted out of marble.


Relational conflict also produces hope in us. The word Paul uses here isn’t the “hold your breath, make a wish, cross your fingers” kind. It’s, as John Piper says, “the full assurance and confidence of good things to come.”

How does relational conflict contribute to our full assurance of good things to come? As we cry out to God to help us love those who have hurt us, it gives us assurance that our faith is real. While it is obvious to us that we cannot produce love for that person who has wronged us, we see the Spirit of Christ at work in us, prompting and empowering us not to defend ourselves but to pray for that person who has wronged us, to love the unlovely.

This is hope to hang your hat on—a hope far greater than “hoping” everyone will think you’re pretty great or “hoping” you won’t experience any more relational conflict this month.


While I was reminded that this relational conflict would produce perseverance, character, and hope, that didn’t contain my anger for long. I had searched for my sin in this conflict, but I had come up empty-handed. The accused “offender” (me) was really the offended.

I wanted my name cleared, until I saw that God offered me even more than perseverance, character, and hope. Joni Tada and Steve Estes put it this way:

When your heart is being wrung out like a sponge, an orderly list of “sixteen good biblical reasons as to why this is happening” can sting like salt in a wound. . . .

Purified faith is never an end in itself; it culminates in God. Stronger character is character made muscular not for its sake, but God’s. A livelier hope is more spirited because of its focus on the Lord. To forget this is to tarnish faith, weaken character, and deflate hope.

“If you have these qualities existing and growing in you then it means that knowing our Lord Jesus Christ has not made your lives either complacent or unproductive” (2 Peter 1:8PHILLIPS).

“Knowing our Lord Jesus Christ” is keeping your eye on the Sculptor—not on the suffering, or even suffering’s benefits.

Amen. May your relational conflict and mine be used of God to produce perseverance, character, and hope. But more than that, may He use these conflicts to draw us back to Himself, our great and only Good.

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Questions: the window to your child’s heart.

Article by Jay Younts, Shepherds Press

Questions, questions, questions: just what every parent wants, more questions!  However, your children’s questions are an invaluable tool to help make you a better parent. The questions they ask provide you a window into their heart. Their questions tell you what is important in their world. Questions tell you if your child is sad or happy, what he values and what he doesn’t. Questions are huge!

Moses anticipated that the law of God would be so rich and stimulating that it would bring questions from children (Deuteronomy 6:20-21). This is because the word of God does penetrate deeply into the heart. God’s truth is unsettling because it demands change. The light of the Spirit shines into the dark corners of your children’s hearts. When instructions are given with gentleness and pleasant words, when truth is given with the grace of the gospel, good questions will come. 

When children are young their questions may seem to be about things that are mundane. So we tend not to take these questions seriously. This is not wise. What may appear mundane to an adult, may be hugely significant to a child.  So it is important to take your young children’s questions seriously in order to build a strong relational foundation. This will encourage them to continue to ask you questions about things that matter to them for the rest of their lives.

How can you cultivate good questions, the ones that will open the window into the hearts of your children? James gives you the tools you need to invite questions that show you your child’s heart. The Holy Spirit’s wisdom from above will show your children that you are eager to know them and that they will be heard with an open heart that wants to serve them and be a refuge for them. Let’s look at how James 3:17 makes this possible. Here is the verse:

But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.

Let’s break this down:

“Wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable and gentle.” These precious qualities of the Spirit let your children know that your motives are pure and that you will receive their questions with gentleness and peace. 

Next, “open to reason” assures your children that you will hear them out in a way so that they know you truly understand the reason behind their questions. This is important!  This means they will have no fear of being snapped at for asking a question. This means that your children know that their thoughts and concerns matter to you. They will know that they will not be shut down!  Being open to reason is a relationship builder!

Finally, “being full of mercy and being impartial” means that your children’s questions will be answered with grace and love. They will know they are being listened to with respect and honor.

Wisdom from above helps you to hear the questions that truly matter to your children. In turn, these questions give you the insight you need to offer the healing power of the gospel to your children in every circumstance of their lives.

Questions, they really are a good thing!

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Is God Mad at Me?

Article by Jay Younts of Shepherd's Press

Do your kids think that God is only pleased with them if they obey? Do your kids think that the gospel means that they must be good so God will love them? Do your kids think that they must be good for you to like them, for you to love and delight in them?

To answer these questions listen to the way your children talk about the gospel. You may be thinking that children seldom talk about the gospel. But actually, they do. Listen to your children talk. Listen to what makes them happy or sad. Listen to what they say about how you love them:

“Mommy, I’m sorry I make you angry.”

“Daddy, I won’t do it again.”

“Why is everybody mad at me?”

“Do you think God is mad at me?”

“He hurt me, so I hit him back.”

“I am sorry that I am not good enough to make you happy.”

“I’ll be good, I promise. Please don’t be mad at me.”

“I try and try and try but I just can’t do what you want me to.”

“I guess I am just not good enough.”

“Mommy, I just can’t do it. I try but I just can’t.”

Have you ever heard words like these? These statements indicate what your children think about the gospel. These kinds of statements show that performance (not grace) forms the basis of how your children are attempting to relate to you and to God.

Are you able to delight in your children simply because God gave them to you? Or must your children behave to earn your delight and approval? God loves you because you belong to him and not because you obey. Your children need this same assurance.

You must show the power of the gospel to your children. When your children complain that they can’t do what God wants, you must seize the opportunity to respond with the powerful gospel of grace.

This is your opportunity to say, “Sweetheart, I know that you can’t obey by yourself. This is why Jesus died. He did what you cannot do. He can help you to trust Him. Let’s ask Jesus to forgive you and help you love Him by the power of His gospel.”

No one can earn God’s favor. Don’t put your children in the position of earning your approval. Love them because God gave them to you. With tender-hearted kindness love and forgive them just as God in Christ forgave you.

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Six Lessons in Good Listening

Article by David Mathis, Executive Editor,

Listening is one of the easiest things you’ll ever do, and one of the hardest.

In a sense, listening is easy — or hearing is easy. It doesn’t demand the initiative and energy required in speaking. That’s why “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). The point is that hearing is easy, and faith is not an expression of our activity, but our receiving the activity of another. It is “hearing with faith” (Galatians 3:2, 5) that accents the achievements of Christ and thus is the channel of grace that starts and sustains the Christian life.

But despite this ease — or perhaps precisely because of it — we often fight against it. In our sin, we’d rather trust in ourselves than another, amass our own righteousness than receive another’s, speak our thoughts than listen to someone else. True, sustained, active listening is a great act of faith, and a great means of grace, both for ourselves and for others in the fellowship.

Lessons in Good Listening

The charter text for Christian listening might be James 1:19: “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” It’s simple enough in principle, and nearly impossible to live. Too often we are slow to hear, quick to speak, and quick to anger. So, learning to listen well won’t happen overnight. It requires discipline, effort, and intentionality. You get better with time, they say. Becoming a better listener hangs not on one big resolve to do better in a single conversation, but on developing a pattern of little resolves to focus in on particular people in specific moments.

Freshly persuaded this is a needed area of growth in my life — and possibly yours as well — here are six lessons in good listening. We take our cues from what may be the most important three paragraphs on listening outside the Bible, the section on “the ministry of listening” in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, as well as Janet Dunn’s classic Discipleship Journal article, “How to Become a Good Listener.”

1. Good listening requires patience.

Here Bonhoeffer gives us something to avoid: “a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say.” This, he says, “is an impatient, inattentive listening, that . . . is only waiting for a chance to speak.” Perhaps we think we know where the speaker is going, and so already begin formulating our response. Or we were in the middle of something when someone started talking to us, or have another commitment approaching, and we wish they were done already.

Or maybe we’re half-eared because our attention is divided, by our external surroundings or our internal rebounding to self. As Dunn laments, “Unfortunately, many of us are too preoccupied with ourselves when we listen. Instead of concentrating on what is being said, we are busy either deciding what to say in response or mentally rejecting the other person’s point of view.”

“Poor listening diminishes another person, while good listening invites them to exist and matter.”

Positively, then, good listening requires concentration and means we’re in with both ears, and that we hear the other person out till they’re done speaking. Rarely will the speaker begin with what’s most important, and deepest. We need to hear the whole train of thought, all the way to the caboose, before starting across the tracks.

Good listening silences the smartphone and doesn’t stop the story, but is attentive and patient. Externally relaxed and internally active. It takes energy to block out the distractions that keep bombarding us, and the peripheral things that keep streaming into our consciousness, and the many good possibilities we can spin out for interrupting. When we are people quick to speak, it takes Spirit-powered patience to not only be quick to hear, but to keep on hearing.

2. Good listening is an act of love.

Half-eared listening, says Bonheoffer, “despises the brother and is only waiting for a chance to speak and thus get rid of the other person.” Poor listening rejects; good listening embraces. Poor listening diminishes the other person, while good listening invites them to exist, and to matter. Bonhoeffer writes, “Just as love to God begins with listening to his Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them.”

Good listening goes hand in hand with the mind-set of Christ (Philippians 2:5). It flows from a humble heart that counts others more significant than ourselves (Philippians 2:3). It looks not only to its own interests, but also the interests of others (Philippians 2:4). It is patient and kind (1 Corinthians 13:4).

3. Good listening asks perceptive questions.

This counsel is writ large in the Proverbs. It is the fool who “takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion” (Proverbs 18:2), and thus “gives an answer before he hears” (Proverbs 18:13). “The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water,” says Proverbs 20:5, “but a man of understanding will draw it out.”

Good listening asks perceptive, open-ended questions that don’t tee up yes-no answers, but gently peel the onion and probe beneath the surface. It watches carefully for nonverbal communication, but doesn’t interrogate and pry into details the speaker doesn’t want to share, but meekly draws them out and helps point the speaker to fresh perspectives through careful, but genuine, questions.

4. Good listening is ministry.

According to Bonhoeffer, there are many times when “listening can be a greater service than speaking.” God wants more of the Christian than just our good listening, but not less. There will be days when the most important ministry we do is square our shoulders to some hurting person, uncross our arms, lean forward, make eye contact, and hear their pain all the way to the bottom. Says Dunn,

good listening often defuses the emotions that are a part of the problem being discussed. Sometimes releasing these emotions is all that is needed to solve the problem. The speaker may neither want nor expect us to say anything in response.

One of Dunn’s counsels for cultivating good listening is: “put more emphasis on affirmation than on answers. . . . [M]any times God simply wants to use me as a channel of his affirming love as I listen with compassion and understanding.” Echoes Bonhoeffer, “Often a person can be helped merely by having someone who will listen to him seriously.” At times what our neighbor needs most is for someone else to know.

5. Good listening prepares us to speak well.

“The best ministry you might do today is to listen to someone’s pain all the way to the bottom.”

Sometimes good listening only listens, and ministers best by keeping quiet, but typically good listening readies us to minister words of grace to precisely the place where the other is in need. As Bonhoeffer writes, “We should listen with the ears of God that we may speak the Word of God.”

While the fool “gives an answer before he hears” (Proverbs 18:13), the wise person tries to resist defensiveness, and to listen from a nonjudgmental stance, training himself not to formulate opinions or responses until the full update is on the table and the whole story has been heard.

6. Good listening reflects our relationship with God.

Our inability to listen well to others may be symptomatic of a chatty spirit that is droning out the voice of God. Bonhoeffer warns,

“He who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too. This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life. . . . Anyone who thinks that his time is too valuable to spend keeping quiet will eventually have no time for God and his brother, but only for himself and for his own follies.”

Good listening is a great means of grace in the dynamic of true Christian fellowship. Not only is it a channel through which God continues to pour his grace into our lives, but it’s also his way of using us as his means of grace in the lives of others. It may be one of the hardest things we learn to do, but we will find it worth every ounce of effort.

David Mathis (@davidcmathis) is executive editor for and pastor at Cities Church in Minneapolis. He is a husband, father of four, and author of Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines.