How Conversations Can Bring Life and Transformation
Has your tongue ever gotten you in trouble? Have your words ever floated out of your mouth, and as they do, you wish you could grab them and cram them back in and just unsay that thing? I’ve had so many moments when my words came out too quickly, and as they are entering into space and time, I have that sinking feeling that I’ve made a mistake. Some call this "foot-in-mouth disease,” and I’ve exhibited its symptoms far too many times to count.
Our words shape the world around us. The way we converse with one another has been a prominent topic lately, especially in the church. Several books have been published recently on the topics of listening and conversation, all in an attempt to stem this steepening decline in the quality of our society’s discourse. Our advances in technology and increased time online haven’t always helped us learn to converse with wisdom, attention, and openness. Words and conversations have been whittled down to edited sound bites or 140-character posts. This decline is perhaps most acutely visible in political conversations (...if we can even call them “conversations”). But this is just one symptomatic manifestation of the issue.
Woven into the Fabric of Creation
What we can all agree on, though, is that words contain an inherent power. Words affect us. They do something to us. So where is it that words get their power?
Scripture begins in Genesis with the preeminence of words. Just three verses in, we see a God who spoke the world into being. He said, “Let there be light," and there was light. The power of words was woven into the very fabric of creation.
Later in the New Testament, John opens with this: “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God… and the Word became flesh” (John 1:1;14). The divine, eternal Word. Jesus. And what an interesting way to describe himself, right? When God decided upon a medium that would communicate who He is—His power and incarnational presence—God chose to call Jesus “the Word."
Words have power because they originated with God. Author Adam McHugh writes, “the mystery of the Word that originates with the Creator is that it reads us. You open the book, lay it down in front of you, but you instead discover that you have been opened, your soul laid bare...The law may have been written on tablets, but the Word is now stitched into our hearts, shaping us and redefining us” (The Listening Life, p. 90).
The Power of Life and Death
Unfortunately, in the times when we do recognize the power of words, it’s often when they’ve been used negatively. I grew up with the phrase “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." If you have lived any amount of life, you know this old saying just simply isn’t true. I've broken bones before, and they've healed up just fine. But there have been words that have stayed with me for years, leaving behind damaging effects that never fully healed.
Proverbs 18:21 tells us, "Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.” That’s a bold statement, proclaiming that words have the ability to create and to destroy. They can bring life and energy and vitality, or they can tear down and hurt. In fact, James reminds us that while our tongues are small, they possess an immense power. He likens them rudders on a ship, bits in the mouth of horses, and sparks that set forests ablaze. One word can devastate and consume everything it touches.
When confronted with this reality, our natural response is to implement spiritual practices to tame our tongue. Something like another old adage from our old friend Thumper: "If you can’t say something nice, then don’t say anything at all." We suppress our words, and we muster up all the self-control we can so that maybe our words won’t get us into trouble—if even for just a day. There is wisdom in that, there are a lot of spiritual practices they can help us tame the tongue. But when we get tunnel vision on their destructive power and try to bring control to our tongue, we forget that there is a another side to our words.
Speaking the Truth in Love
Death may be in the power of the tongue but so is life. Our words have the ability to bring healing encouragement and transformation. In this famous passage that Paul wrote in Ephesians 4:11-16,
“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”
Apostolic, prophetic, teaching, shepherding, and evangelizing giftedness provides context for us to experience fullness in Christ, because we know that equipping the saints for the work of ministry isn’t just designated for those in specific leadership roles. Each and everyone one of us is to be equipped and gifted to serve God and bring the good news of the gospel, attaining "the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God." When we look at spiritual practices that aid us in this endeavor of spiritual maturity, we often think about reading the Bible, prayer, faithful church attendance, giving, and serving. But how often do we think of our conversations as a primary setting for our growth in Christ? What if our words are used to bring life, healing, and growth in one another?
Paul tells that this happens through "speaking the truth in love.” The first time I heard someone preach on this passage, this false dichotomy was taught in distinguishing between truth and love. The truth usually refers to the negative or hard things we have to say, while love refers to the nice things we have to say. If I told you, "I am going to speak some truth to my wife,” you may interpret that to mean I'm going to say something difficult or offer up some criticism. If I were to say I’m going “speak some love to my wife,” then I might tell her how beautiful or lovely she is. You’re likely familiar with this old formula: the "love-truth-love” sandwich, or the compliment-critique-compliment sandwich. If you have something difficult to communicate to someone, just soften the blow of the “hard truth” by surrounding it with niceties. When we think and speak in this dichotomy, it's almost as if love isn’t truthful, and truth won’t feel loving.
But speaking the truth in love is meant to be an action of the heart, making space to share who we are, what we’re experiencing, and how we perceive the Holy Spirit to be working in us. In her book The Lost Discipline of Conversation, Joanne Jung explores the spiritual discipline of conference. Conference was the Puritan practice of getting together to talk about spiritual things. This practice was described by one puritan as “the freedom of speaking and conferring the thoughts of the heart” (p. 19).
As she studied the Puritans, Jung discovered that conference was an essential means of growing in Christ, and she believes it's an undervalued means today. This essential practice for the Puritans was an exchange of the heart. She asserts that more than just a spiritual discipline, “it speaks to our desire to know and be known by God and one another.” We each have this desire to know another and be reciprocally known by them. At the core of who we are as human beings, we long to be known, and it’s a longing that can’t be fulfilled without intention.
Knowing, Being Known, and Being Transformed
Like Joanne Jung, Adam McHugh, author of The Listening Life, writes about how words can be used for connection. Along the same lines as the Puritan tradition of conference, McHugh writes about "sacred conversations,” which “seeks to listen for the divine drama, that redemptive story, the tale of lost and found again that is written on our souls,” by the power of the Holy Spirit (p. 156). There is a powerful reality at work here, and that is that transformation happens as we are known. God designed us for intimacy with himself and with others, and change happens when we enter into conversations centered around connection and an exchange of the heart.
Neuroscientist Curt Thompson writes in Anatomy of the Soul,
“Our western world has long emphasized knowledge, factual information and 'proof' over the process of being known by God and others. No wonder, then, that despite all our technological advances and the proliferation of social media, we are more intra- and interpersonally isolated than ever. Yet it is only when we are known that we are positioned to become conduits of love. And it is love that transforms our minds, makes forgiveness possible and weaves a community of disparate people into the tapestry of God’s family” (Thompson, Anatomy of the Soul, p. 3).
We are changed as we are known. And when it comes to words and transformation, we are known by what we share and reveal about ourselves. You see, speaking the truth in love isn’t just about the receiver or listener being changed, the one who hears the truth spoken in love—it’s also the one speaking who is changed. Conversations around connection and self-revelation change both the speaker and the listener.
Thompson describes what the process of Romans 12:2 ("be transformed by the renewing of your mind”) looks like from a neuroscience perspective. He unpacks all the different parts of the brain and how they function separately and together, and his conclusion is that as we engage in healthy conversation for the purpose of connection and communion, our neural networks undergo physical changes. Sharing our stories in deep, meaningful conversation in a safe relationship actually creates new neural pathways that can lead to healing and freedom.
We are physically and neurologically changed by sacred conversations. The deep soul-and-spirit change we feel in these conversations is confirmed by the change in our brain chemistry. Words spoken in love have the power to transform every part of who we are—the spiritual, the emotional, the relational, the mental, and the physical. That is extraordinary to me!
Sacred Conversations in Daily Life
The challenge for you and I, then, is to actually speak the truth in love, in such a way that both the hearer and the speaker may be built up in Christ. Moving beyond simply trying to avoid saying something wrong. Moving beyond transference of information or just being right. Moving beyond only speaking the ‘truth in love’ when someone needs correcting. But instead moving into these sacred conversations, where our words become holy ground, sacred and ready for producing the Christlikeness and connection that we long for.
How do we do this? Here are a few simple tips for engaging in sacred conversation with a spouse, trusted friend, or family member:
Set aside time to be present to one another, whether that’s in a coffee shop, in your living room, on a walk, or over the phone.
Be gracious and attentive. Set distractions aside, like your phone or computer.
Listen for the sake of knowing the other person.
Practice wisdom in the words that you speak. Ask yourself, “Does what I’m about to say bring life? Or does it bring something else?"
May your conversations be full of life and truth and love and invitations into the heart, bringing about transformation, just like the words Jesus speaks over you!
The books quoted in this blog post (and an extra one for fun!):
Jung, Joanne. The Lost Discipline of Conversation: Surprising Lessons in Spiritual Formation Drawn from the English Puritans (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2018).
McHugh, Adam. The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a World of Distraction (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2015).
Reed, Angela H., Richard Osmer and Marcus Smucker. Spiritual Companioning: A Guide to Protestant Theology and Practice (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 2015).
Thompson, Curt, M.D. Anatomy of the Soul: Surprising Connections Between Neuroscience and Spiritual Practices That Can Transform Your Life and Relationships (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2010).