De-Escalating A Conflict
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Scott SaulsScott Sauls is senior pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee, and author of Jesus Outside the Lines, Befriend, From Weakness to Strength, Irresistible Faith, and A Gentle Answer. Scott also served at New York City's Redeemer Presbyterian Church as a lead and preaching pastor and planted two churches in the Midwest. His work has been featured in publications including Christianity Today, Relevant, Qideas, Propel Women, He Reads Truth, Leadership Magazine, The Gospel Coaliti...more
Pastor Scott Sauls discusses the power of gentle answers in a culture of outrage. Gentle answers communicate, “You matter, your opinion matters.” People don’t get scolded into agreement.
De-Escalating A Conflict
Bob: Have you found there are certain conversations—among family members or outside of your family—certain conversations that just are kind off limits these days? Scott Sauls has some counsel for all of us.
Scott: If you’re in a run-of-the-mill conversation about something that’s important to you, and it’s important to somebody else—oh, let’s just pick a hypothetical subject in September 2020—politics: red state/blue state—it’s getting heated. Here is what Jesus says, “Deal with the log in your own eye first so that you are now qualified to deal with the speck in somebody else’s eye.”
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, September 9th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I’m Bob Lepine. You’ll find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. In the midst of this cancel culture, where we feel like we’re dancing on egg shells if we’re going to try to say anything to anybody, Scott Sauls says the Bible has a lot to say to us about what healthy communication should look like. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I’ve been sitting here thinking, if you ask me, “What kind of answers would you like to be known for?”—I’m just meditating on this. If people were saying, “When I think of Bob Lepine, he’s a guy who always gives _____ answers,”—I would think “right” would be the thing I would want; right?—I give right answers.
Ann: I would say, “wise”—
Bob: —“wise” answers?
Ann: —about you.
Ann: What would your kids say?
Bob: [Laughter] “Snarky” would be, probably, what they’d come up with. [Laughter]
Dave: I’ve heard some snarky answers from Bob Lepine.
Bob: I’ve been known to do that. It’d probably go awhile before you’d get to the biblical response there.
The Bible commends particular kinds of answers.
Dave: Well, hey, you know, since you brought it up, I’m going to ask my wife—your spouse knows you better than anybody—“Honey, what kind of answers do I give?”
Ann: Yes; because you don’t love conflict; so before you’ll engage in anything, I think you’re pretty wise in thinking about it first.
Bob: Well, that’s good.
Ann: Yes; what would you say about me?
Dave: Thoughtful is good.
Bob: Yes; what about her?
Ann: I was going to say she does like conflict: “fiery”? [Laughter]
Dave: That might be the first word.
Ann: That’s probably correct; I need a book! [Laughter]
Dave: Yes; you do. Now, wouldn’t it be nice if somebody would write something?
Bob: We all need a book. We’ve got a friend who has written one, Scott Sauls, who is joining us again on FamilyLife Today. Welcome back!
Scott: Thanks for having me back.
Bob: This is always fun to have Scott joining us. Scott is a pastor from Nashville, Tennessee. He’s an author, a well-known speaker, and somebody that I know I can count on to give thoughtful, measured, and usually gentle answers in the midst of what can be difficult times. I mean, we have been living through some difficult times; and these are not times when gentle answers are instinctive for us. It’s not the first place we go; is it?
Scott: That’s correct. Some have called the current culture a “culture of outrage.” New phrases/new terminology—like “cancel culture”—have hit the scene. Yes; it’s an us-against-them climate everywhere you go—just pick your subject. There are some subjects that are more amplified than others currently. We’re in an election season, too, which has people’s nerves amplified as well.
Bob: The amplification of those nerves happen in families—among extended families—when you’re having Thanksgiving dinner with Uncle Ralph, and he starts talking about what he saw on TV; or when your kids come home from college; or with their kids, and you say, “You think what?!”
Scott: There are a lot of differences across generational lines. I think in my lifetime, probably, younger generations and older generations are on different pages, more than ever in my lifetime, that I can remember on certain issues—which, on the one hand, is problematic because of all the fighting and bickering—but on the other hand, I think it’s a great opportunity; because the best way to learn is to be in community or in family with people who see things differently than you do.
The reason why it’s the best way to learn is, either it gives us an opportunity to change our minds—if we happen to be wrong and have blind spots—or it gives us an opportunity to refine the right things that we hold to and believe by virtue of having them tested.
Bob: It’s the best way to learn if you are humble and teachable.
Bob: If you’re not humble and teachable, then all it is just an explosion going off inside a relationship.
Scott: Yes; either an explosion or a withdrawal, both of which are heartbreaking.
Dave: So how did you come up with A Gentle Answer. I mean, I love the subtitle, Our “Secret Weapon” in an Age of Us Against Them. We’ve already talked about it; there is an us-against-them [mentality]—especially, I mean, you’re one of the guys I like to read your blog; because what Bob said is: “It is gentle,”—but it’s firm—that’s why I read it. It’s like, “I know I’m going to get a measured response.” I mean, there is enough firmness there, and there is even an angst; but it’s not angry.
When I read your title, A Gentle Answer, I thought, “That defines you,” in my opinion. But where did that come from?
Scott: Wow; thanks, Dave. I wonder if my wife and daughters would agree with you on that. [Laughter]
Ann: Maybe, we should call them. [Laughter]
Scott: No; I think they are busy right now. [Laughter]
“A gentle answer turns away wrath,”—that’s Proverbs 15:1. The book’s title is based on that Proverb. It’s not original; it didn’t come out of my brain—a combination of an awareness of that verse and a grief over how much bickering there is right now.
Dave: I mean, it really is interesting. If you’re in an argument—especially, Bob mentioned in a home with a family; in your neighborhood—if you think about it: “If one of us is escalating, and the other escalates, obviously, you’re going to go there; but if one escalates, and the other de-escalates—a gentle answer—it’s really hard to keep escalating.” I mean you can, but you sort of look like an idiot; don’t you?
Scott: Well, because you are an idiot if you keep escalating when somebody else is trying to calm everything down. [Laughter]
I think it’s important, when we talk about de-escalating conversations, too, that doesn’t mean becoming a doormat—because that’s really unhealthy—that’s called codependency; it’s called dysfunction.
If truth is at stake—if two people in a family or any other kind of relationship are at odds—the healthy goal will be: “Hey, let’s get to the truth together.” We realize it might be like two pieces of sandpaper rubbing together; the heat is going to go up, and we are going to feel the friction; but when you rub two pieces of sandpaper together long enough, both of you become smoother—you’re smoothed out.
It’s really so much more, Dave, about the how than it is about anything else: “How do we have those discussions?” We’re supposed to disagree; because we are all flawed, and we all have blind spots. We all have sins in our lives. We are all contributors to the problem—whatever the problem is—in some way, shape, or form; so we all benefit from the friction.
Really, what is important is a climate that allows for friction/a climate where friction doesn’t introduce the threat of rejection, or the threat of bullying, or one person shutting another person down because they are the more powerful person.
Dave: Yes; I know that the verse, “A gentle answer…”/when you respond gently—I’m sure you’re going to talk about this—it invites a response. When you don’t, it pushes people away.
I’ve shared this when we speak at marriage conferences. One day, I was pulling out of my subdivision. It was early in the morning, and a bunch of cars were coming down the street; and I couldn’t get out. You get frustrated: “I’ve got to get out; I’ve got to get out.” There is this tiny little gap—“Well, I can do it,”—whoomph—I pull out; but as I pull out, I realize I really did cut a guy off, who was coming pretty/faster than I thought.
Dave: You know, you do the old look in the mirror and see how he is going to respond. He is irate; he’s on my bumper. I can’t hear him; but he’s yelling—hand gestures/the whole thing. Anyway, long story short, I end up—we’re in one lane; but as the light comes up about two miles later, there are two lanes. I’m hoping he doesn’t pull beside me; of course, he does. He’s right over there, and I can hear him. I finally say, “Okay; I’m going to look,”—so slowly, I just look over. His window is down now, yelling,—
Scott: Window down.
Dave: —“Jerk!” All I did was—I remember I just turned to him, and I just put my hand up; and I go, “Hey, my bad; sorry!” I’ll never forget this; immediately, he is like, “You are the—hey, no problem!” [Laughter] That’s what he did; he just went, “Hey, no problem; see you,”—just sort of waved. I remember sitting there, going, “What just happened?!” That verse hit me—
Dave: —“A gentle answer turns away wrath.” I mean, I had never seen something that quickly change; but I thought, “Wow; I responded gently, and it totally changed his demeanor.”
Now, we’re all saying, “That doesn’t always happen like that”; but it was a picture of: “God’s truth is truth”—so apply that to a family or even online—when we do that, is that what happens?
Scott: Well, I think that that episode you just described illustrates a reality about the human heart. If you feel like you’ve been disrespected by somebody, you’re thinking, “They just care about themselves.” What you did, Dave, in that situation, as he was assaulting you for only caring about yourself—and then you said, “I’m sorry,”—it seems like maybe his perspective immediately shifted to: “Oh, you’re caring about me right now.”
That traffic incident can be a metaphor that applies to family life as well, where—when parent communicates and the kid gets it that: “I care about you. Your opinion matters. Your feelings matter, and my authority matters as well,”—but if all I’m doing is asserting my authority, and in such a way that doesn’t communicate: “You matter; your opinion matters; your feelings matter,” you’re not going to win them.
People don’t get scolded into being persuaded. People get loved and cared for into being persuaded. The Bible talks about speaking the truth in love. You have to put the two together. Peter talks about giving a defense for your faith; right?—apologetics—right? He says, “Be sure that whenever you give a defense for your faith, you do it with gentleness and respect.” In other words: “Honor people who disagree with you. Honor people who are on a different page than you are.” That applies at home; that applies out in the world; it applies online—it’s just more persuasive.
I mean, evangelism—think about it that way—I mean, you’re pastors who—I mean, so many people/there’s going to be a long line, thanking you guys for introducing them to Jesus in glory. I bet you not one of them would say: “Dave, Ann, I just want to thank you. I want to thank your church for lecturing, and scolding, and shaming me into the kingdom. I don’t know how I’ll ever be able to thank you for that.” I’m sure there is somebody out there who exists with that story; but I’ve never met one. I’ve met thousands, who have the story, “Somebody loved me in spite of myself.”
Ann: Even in your book, you talk about how Jesus befriends the sinner in us; what do you mean by that?
Scott: Well, if He did it then, He does it now; because He’s the same yesterday, today, and forever; right? You know, you look at the four Gospels—and just think about the very first Gospel—who wrote it? Matthew, who was a tax collector; tax collectors were known sell-outs. They were known betrayers to the Jewish community, because they took their position with Rome. Rome said, “You need to collect this much for the state, and anything else you can collect on top of that you get to keep.” They had the ability to exert their power to enrich themselves at other people’s expense, so they stole from people in a system that allowed them to do that. Here’s the guy who wrote the first book of the New Testament.
You take a look at Jesus’s encounter with Zacchaeus, who was not just a tax collector, but a chief tax collector. Then that particular chapter talks a lot about Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus’ first encounter with Jesus—where Zacchaeus climbed up in a tree, all by himself—because probably, he has no friends. He climbs in a tree, probably, because he wants to keep a distance; because he has no notion in his mind that Jesus would want to have anything to do with him.
Jesus looks up and calls him by name and says, “I’m coming to your house today.” Who was the last person who went to Zacchaeus’s house?—probably, nobody had ever been there; you know? Here Jesus is saying, “I’m going to show you the greatest hospitality you ever dreamed of in your own house. I’m going to come, and I’m going to take over. It’s going to be the best thing that’s ever happened to you, and the best thing that’s ever happened in your home.” It changed the man.
You look at the woman in Luke, Chapter 7. She is clearly a prostitute, coming off the streets, dressed in a very scandalous way. She barges into a Pharisee’s dinner party that Jesus was invited to so that they could ask Him “Gotcha” questions. In she comes and pulls out all the tools of her trade—her hair, her lips, and her perfume—and uses those three things to demonstrate affection and love for Jesus. The religious guys are—and they are all men—and they are all scolding her/scolding Him, appalled that He would give this woman the time of day. Then Jesus starts to praise her: “She just put on a clinic for you of what it means to love God. You guys don’t get it.” These are the guys who memorized the Bible; right?
There are so many stories of how Christ would do that. He calls Judas “friend” while Judas is in the act of betraying Him; you know?—the guy that Jesus called the son of perdition. He took the time to call the guy, “friend,” on his way to hell. I mean, it’s just unbelievable how kind Christ is.
Bob: I’m hearing you describe these biblical scenes, and they resonate with all of us. I’m imagining someone, who is thinking, “I know that’s all true, but where is the standing for holiness/for righteousness? Where is the confronting sin in other people? Are we just supposed to swallow that/ignore that?”
Scott: I’m so glad you asked that question. It’s my favorite question to answer, and it’s probably because I’m like Ann. I like to be confrontational sometimes. [Laughter] Yes; start confronting in the mirror—start there—that’s what Jesus said. When you’re in conflict, you’re the biggest problem in your own eyes. Of course, if you have a situation—where there is abuse/where there is injustice—obviously, the rule/the game is changed: there’s protection and boundaries, and getting people/third parties in the mix to help protect and resolve, and all of that.
But if you’re in a run-of-the-mill conversation about something that’s important to you, and it’s important to somebody else—oh, let’s just pick a hypothetical subject in September 2020—politics: let’s just do that; red state/blue state—it’s getting heated. Here is what Jesus says: “Deal with the log in your own eye first so that you are now qualified to deal with the speck in somebody else’s eye.”
It doesn’t say, “Leave the speck alone”; because if I see a speck in your eye, Bob, and you don’t see it and I don’t say anything, that speck could lead to infection. It could lead to blindness, eventually, because a speck is not a good thing. Like my daughter—a contact got stuck in her eye two nights ago, and it was awful.
Bob: You are not loving me if you allow the speck to remain.
Scott: Yes; but I’m not ready to confront that speck until I’ve dealt with my own log, as Jesus said.
I think that our current culture—this includes the culture of American society; it includes the culture of Christians, who have allowed themselves to be discipled more by American cable news culture than they are by Jesus Christ—are part of this as well. It happens in families, for sure, that we reverse it—we say, “Hey, let me deal with that log in your eye. Oh, I know you want to talk about my speck; no, let’s talk about the log in your eye.”
That’s, number one, the wrong way to approach it—because it’s not humble; it doesn’t honor Christ; it’s not what He said—and number two, you’re not going to persuade the person; you’re just going to make them more upset.
Bob: I hear, behind that—and it’s a brilliant answer—because looking at the log in our own eye forces us to a posture of humility. If we’re really addressing the log in our eye, we can’t come out of that experience proud.
Dave has reached for the guitar.
Ann: Oh, I know what’s happening.
Bob: Yes; we do too.
Scott: He’s going to play a song!
Bob: So this is a classic Dave Wilson song.
Dave: Yes; I was just thinking—your talking about Matthew 7—just reminded me of a song. Maybe, you’ve heard it. I won’t do the whole thing, because it’s long; but—[Dave singing Log Eye] Come on, honey! [Laughter] [Ann singing]
Bob: Oh, we’ve got the backup. [Laughter]
Dave: There you go; there you go! Have you heard that one, Bob?
Bob: I’ve heard you sing that at Weekend to Remember® marriage getaways before.
Dave: There is a lot more to that song, but it gets at exactly what Scott was saying. It’s poking fun at the inability of us to see our own faults and to see very clearly everybody else’s fault.
Bob: When we do see it—when we are forced to confront the log in our eye—again, we can’t come away from that confrontation proud. We can’t come away, thinking—
Ann: “I showed them.”
Bob: Now, we’re coming to you to say, “I see a speck, but you know what? I’ve just had to deal with the fact that I’ve got a lot more going on in me than the speck I see in you, and God is dealing with me on this.” Now, I’m in a posture where we can have that dialogue and where you are going to receive what you’re hearing from me because—you’re not going to perceive me coming and saying, “I’m a Pharisee,”—but “I’m a fellow sinner.”
Scott: Yes; think about, too—not only addressing the logs in our own eye—but also being willing to name what is right and good from the other person, where they are coming from. The Apostle Paul does this in Athens, brilliantly, in Acts, Chapter 17. He walks in and all these Athenian academic philosophers—they are all kind of speculating about God; they are all sharing their own ideas about God—and he’s grieved because he says there is this idolatry everywhere. People are misleading themselves and each other, and the stakes are high. It says he is grieved.
The first words out of his mouth [are]: “Men of Athens, I can see that you are very religious.” Okay; just think about that. He’s saying to idolaters, “I can see you are very religious,”—people from a false religion—“…you are very religious.” In other words, “You are seeking truth; you are seeking meaning; you’re seeking beauty; you’re seeking the ultimate answers to things—that’s good!” He finds something in there.
Then he says, “As some of your own poets and philosophers have said”—and then he quotes Stoic and Epicurean philosophers, both of which are pretty toxic systems of philosophy as systems; but he cherry picks a couple of statements that are true and beautiful—the image of God is in every perspective somewhere, and it can be found. He cherry picks what does intersect with biblical truth; and he says, “You know, as some of your own people have said…Guess what?”—that becomes the bridge to talk about the truth.
He does that with Jewish people in the synagogues in Acts 13 and 14. He is speaking all their language—the Old Testament language.
Ann: He is a genius in that respect.
Scott: Well, he is; he is. He—it’s what we pastors—Dave and Bob—we call it exegeting your audience. You know, Spurgeon talked about how he would have the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in another as he prepared to communicate the gospel. We’ve got to understand the people that we’re communicating with, and respect who they are, and where they are at.
Bob: This is where parents and adult children, or church members who may be on different sides of a political conversation, can look at one another and say, “I know that what’s behind the view you’re holding to is that you believe in the dignity of all human beings. We’re not arguing over that; we’re not disagreeing over that, and we’re on the same page when it comes to that. What we’re trying to figure out is: ‘How do we express that best?—what does that look like?’”
Now, we’ve just brought the disagreement—we’ve notched it back a level—to where, maybe, some reasonable dialogue can occur.
Ann: It’s tearing down the walls—
Ann: —because I feel like—in my Bible, I have it marked every time that Paul does that; because he was a genius in tearing down walls. All their defenses are gone now; because Paul is basically saying, “I see the good in you that God has put.” Then he begins to dialogue. I think they’re, probably, so much more open to what he has to say because he has done that. We can do the same in our homes, as you said, Bob.
Bob: Most of us are not naturally good at this—
Bob: —because our sin nature pollutes how we do this. It’s why the Bible has to correct us and say, “A gentle answer turns away wrath,” and to help us cultivate this. Scott, your book is really a guidebook for all of us at a needed time in our culture when gentle answers are not popular; they are not trending. You don’t get good ratings if you have gentle answers; yet, it’s what the Bible tells us our manner of speech should be.
We are making Scott’s book available this week to any of our listeners who would like to get a copy. If you can make a donation to help further the work of FamilyLife Today to help us reach more people, more often, with practical biblical help and hope for their marriage and their family, we’d love to say, “Thank you for your support,” by sending you Scott Sauls’ book, A Gentle Answer: Our “Secret Weapon” in an Age of Us Against Them.
Go to FamilyLifeToday.com. You can make a donation online, or call 1-800-FL-TODAY to donate. Keep in mind your donations are impacting hundreds of thousands of husbands and wives, moms and dads, every day all around the world. You are making a difference in their lives, in their marriages, and in their families as you support the ministry of FamilyLife Today. Thanks for partnering with us. Again, we’d love to send you a copy of Scott Saul’s book, A Gentle Answer, as a “Thank you,” when you donate today. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com to donate online, or call 1-800-FL-TODAY to donate over the phone.
Now, tomorrow, we’re going to continue talking about how we have conversations, as followers of Christ, with people that we don’t agree with on important subjects: “How do we do that and still represent Jesus well?” Scott Sauls will be back with us, again, tomorrow. I hope you’ll be back with us as well.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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