Ron is the founding pastor of a church in Harrisburg, PA, and a graduate of Denver Seminary in Colorado.
All of us want great relationships in our lives. Whatever kind of relationship it may be, whether with a husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend, parent, child, even a boss, we want it to work.
But great relationships don’t just happen -- they must be built. In fact, in all of our relationships we are, by our actions and attitudes, always in the process of either building them up, or tearing them down. Every relationship requires an investment of time and effort and godly wisdom to keep it on track.
We All Need Help With Our Relationships!
If you are anything like I am, you’ve had enough dysfunction, pain, tears, and outright failures in your life to realize that when it comes to relationships, you need help! And there is one particular passage in the Bible (out of many we might choose) that I believe provides exactly the help we need:
Ephesians 4:29-32 (NKJV) Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. 32 And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.
This passage highlights two critical keys to building great relationships. It tells us what we should do; but just as importantly, it tells us what not to do. Let’s look first at what we should avoid doing. Here’s an illustration of what I believe is perhaps the most critical, but also most neglected principle in building great relationships:
A Critically Important Principle
In April of 1865 President Abraham Lincoln was shot at Ford’s theatre in Washington. Bystanders took the still breathing president to a nearby house and laid him on the bed. Then the doctors came. Knowing that the bullet was still lodged in the president's brain, they believed Lincoln’s only chance at life was for them to get that bullet out of his head. So they started probing around with their fingers to try to find that bullet and remove it from the president's brain.
Understand: this was 1865. These doctors had no idea, medically, what they were doing. They didn't even know enough to wash their hands. Some modern medical experts have said that if the bullet hadn't killed President Lincoln, the doctors would have.
What those doctors in 1865 didn't understand is what is now thought of as the first principle of medicine: before anything else, DO NO HARM. Whatever a doctor may think he can do to help the patient, his first responsibility is to make sure his treatment doesn’t make the situation worse.
The First Principle of Building a Relationship: DO NO HARM!
Just like a doctor trying to build up the health of his patient, if we are trying to build up a relationship, the first rule is, do no harm! We must make sure we are not doing the things that tear a relationship down.
That’s the focus of the very first sentence of our biblical passage:
Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers.
Key #1: Stop the Corrupt and Disrespectful Words!
Corrupt words are words that tear down rather than edify or build up. They are words that explicitly or implicitly attack the personhood of an individual. The fastest way to knock a relationship totally off-track is by words that communicate dishonor and disrespect for that person.
This is an issue that has everything to do with the principal of “do no harm.”
Angry Words Stir up More Angry Words
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Whenever any of us feels attacked, our first concern is usually to defend ourselves. And I'm sure you've heard the saying, "the best defense is a good offense." So, if my relationship partner feels I have verbally attacked him or her, I should expect an immediate verbal counterattack. The Bible puts it this way:
Proverbs 15:1 A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.
So now we go into a downwards spiral of anger… My angry words toward that person provoke a response of angry words back at me, which in turn stirs up more of my anger right back at them. And it just spirals down, and down.
Eventually that dispute will probably run out of gas. We've said all the nasty and hurtful things we can say to one another, and eventually we get to the point of… "Whatever." You may think the argument is all over. But not really. Look at the words the Bible says are associated with anger:
Ephesians 4:31 Let all BITTERNESS, WRATH, anger, CLAMOR, AND EVIL SPEAKING be put away from you, with all MALICE.
By my put-down words, I have injected bitterness, wrath, evil speaking, and malice into the relationship. All those things are like a time-released medicine capsule. They may not show their effect immediately, but over time they can permeate a relationship with the poison of ill will, mistrust, or indifference.
Disrespectful and Dishonoring Words Have a Powerful Impact
The moment you start communicating disrespect to another person, the relationships stops in its tracks.
Whatever else may have been going on in the relationship up to that point becomes, for the moment at least, irrelevant. The total focus now shifts to the disrespectful words, actions, and attitudes you have expressed toward that person. Here’s an example of what I mean:
Some time ago, I got out of bed, put my feet on the floor, and ouch! There was a sewing needle stuck in my foot. I have no idea how that needle came to be on the floor of our bedroom. But here's the thing: as long as that needle was in my foot, I didn't care about anything else. You could talk to me about my job, about breakfast, about my car, even about financial issues… I wasn't listening! Until that needle was removed from my foot, I wasn’t attending to anything else.
That's the way it is when we speak critical, disdainful, disrespectful, and accusatory words of disapproval toward another person. Once you start putting that person down with your words and with your attitude, they will care about nothing else but responding to your attack on their personhood.
If I and my wife were having a discussion about where to go for dinner, and I said something, or displayed an attitude, that implied she was stupid or selfish for wanting to go to the restaurant she suggested, that would be like a needle in the foot.
From that moment, the discussion would no longer be about where to go for dinner. The discussion would be about my words and my attitude that have attacked who my wife is as a person. Now, until that issue is resolved, she will have no ability to pay attention to anything else I might say.
Corrupt Words Can Kill a Relationship
Anytime I say something that communicates disrespect for who an individual is as a person, that is a "corrupt word."
Anytime I start a sentence with, "you are so…" and the rest is something negative, I am in great danger of speaking corrupt words that will tear down rather than build up the relationship.
Anytime I start a statement with, "you always…" or "you never…" and the rest of the sentence is something negative, I'm on thin ice.
The first rule of building a relationship is: DO NO HARM! And the easiest way to do sometimes irreversible harm to a relationship is with negative, critical, disrespectful, and dishonoring words.
Now that we know what not to do, let’s turn to what we should do.
Key #2: Build the Relationship With Positive Words of Grace
Ephesians 4:31-32 Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. 32 And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.
Even when someone has said or done something that deeply hurts or offends me, I can’t afford to respond with angry, bitter, and disrespectful words. Instead, the Bible commands me to put away all my words of bitterness, wrath, and anger, and replace them with words that are kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving.
The interesting thing about speaking kind words is that they are not necessarily deserved.
If you work a 40 hour week and I give you a paycheck for 40 hours of work, I'm not being kind. You earned that paycheck! But if I give you money you never worked for, just because I know you need it, that's being kind.
So, if I limit my positive and approving words to only what I think you’ve earned or deserve, those are not words of kindness, and they don’t fulfill the Bible’s command.
In other words, if I am to follow the biblical injunction that I focus on words that are kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving, I can't wait until I think you deserve those words. I have to be willing to speak them, and speak them sincerely, when I am quite sure you don't deserve them.
I know from personal experience that speaking sincere words of grace and kindness when I'm still struggling with feelings of resentment is not easy. But God has given us the awesome privilege of asking for the power we need from the One who, while we were still sinners, gave His Son to die for us. In reality, that kind of prayer is the only way it can be done.
Forgiveness is a crucial element in any relationship. To forgive means that you will not hold a person's offense against them anymore.
You can only forgive someone when they have actually harmed or offended you. That means the scriptural call for forgiveness comes into play in exactly those times when you have been the most hurt, frustrated, offended, and angry about what the other person has said or done to you.
"Forgive" sung by Paula Disbrow
Forgiveness doesn’t happen because we no longer feel the pain of what was done to us. It happens when we make the decision that in our words, actions, and even our thoughts we will no longer hold what the person did against them.
In my experience, one of the things that strengthens a relationship the most is when each partner knows that even when they say and do things that are genuinely hurtful or offensive to the other person, they will still be treated with kindness and grace in return.
Issues Must Be Dealt With
This is not to say that we should sweep the other person's offensive words or actions under the rug. The Bible is not asking us to be doormats, afraid to say anything about what bothers us. In fact, it's just the opposite:
Ephesians 4:26 Be angry, and do not sin": do not let the sun go down on your wrath.
To be genuinely angry when the other person says or does things that are hurtful or offensive to you is not only natural, but healthy. When we feel anger, that is a signal that something in the relationship is not right, and needs to be corrected. That's why the Bible says "be angry, and do not sin." The sin is not in the anger, but in the way we respond to it.
Scripture says we are to handle our anger immediately: "do not let the Sun go down on your wrath." Don't let it fester, and don't let it go underground in your emotions where it turns into bitterness and resentment. So, what are we to do when our relationship partner says and does things that stir up our anger?
Matthew 18:15 Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother.
If you're feeling angry because your friend George has been spreading gossip about things you told him in confidence, the Bible says that you need to go to him and let him know what's bothering you.
Or, if you're a wife whose husband always seems to say snide or disrespectful things about you in public, you need to let him know that his behavior is hurtful and unacceptable to you.
But here's the key: the principle of “do no harm” still applies.
Even when you are confronting the other person about actions that have been deeply offensive or painful to you, you must still do it with words and attitudes that convey not disrespect, but your love and respect for that person.
Ephesians 4:15 but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head-Christ
We must speak the truth - but we must be careful to only do so in a spirit of love, grace, and respect.
More Relationships Wisdom From Scripture
Proverbs 15:23 A man has joy by the answer of his mouth, and a word spoken in due season, how good it is!
Proverbs 16:24 Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, Sweetness to the soul and health to the bones.
2 Timothy 2:24 And a servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient,
The Foundation of a Great Relationship
The Bible has much more to say about building godly relationships. But if we will use the keys of avoiding words that tear down, and being sincerely generous with words that build up, we’ll be laying a strong foundation for the great relationships all of us long to have.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2013 Ronald E Franklin