I recently asked one of the elders of our church this question, “If you were choosing one factor that is most crucial in strengthening a marriage, what would it be?” He and his wife regularly do “crisis” marriage counseling with couples seeking help and on the verge of divorce. The response: “Bear one another’s burdens—learn to be a good listener, pray for your spouse, and communicate that you really care.” Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But even with the best of intentions, practicing this requires good communication skills. Ephesians 4:29 (NASB) says :
“Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.”
The power of our words to destroy. The word translated “unwholesome” in the passage above means “rotting, decaying,” reminding us that our words may spread poison to those around us. This is corroborated in the wisdom of Proverbs, where we find our speech is one of the most frequent areas of warning: “The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.” (Prov 18:21) Proverbs speaks of “life” and “death” as two choices of lifestyle that have inevitable consequences in this life and the next. Proverbs’ stern warnings about our speech are also echoed in the warnings of James 3: “Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell . . . no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison!” (James 3:6, 8)
It has happened to all of us. Something bugs you about your spouse or a friend . . . time goes on, you hold your tongue, and then . . . out come the words. Words emerge that were really not needed, and for the moment give us a sense of release. But, those words cannot be taken back, and often will never be forgotten.
The power of our words to build up. God gives us this wisdom about our speech—BE CAREFUL . . . BEWARE . . . so that we will have a healthy respect for the tongue’s destructive power. But our speech can also be redemptive and full of grace: “ . . . such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.” (Eph 4:29). Mark Twain once said, “I can live for two months on a good compliment.” His folksy wisdom is echoed in the biblical teaching about our words:
“An anxious heart weighs a man down, but a kind word cheers him up.” (Prov 12:25)
“A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” (Prov 15:1)
Advice about our speech not only emphasizes its content, but timing as well.
“A man finds joy in giving an apt reply; and how good is a timely word” (Prov 15:23)
“He who answers before listening—that is his folly and his shame.” (Prov 18:13)
Edifying words are important in all relationships, but how much more significant they are in marriage. Begin with careful listening . . . as you allow time for your spouse to share his/her dreams and interests and fears. Ask questions, and use what you learn in creative ways to encourage your spouse . . . compliments. . . words of affirmation . . . in the tough areas bearing burdens by praying for your spouse.
I’m compelled to give a word of practical advice to the men. We (I’m including myself here) have an irresistible urge to become a “problem-solver” in these situations. When your wife has shared with you a problem she is facing or discouragement she has had, resist for the moment the male urge to “fix it.” By nature, many of us are problem solvers, but there will be plenty of time to talk about a potential solution. What our wives need most is just knowing that we care enough to listen and are there for support! We all need this, and it is part of the importance of timing in our conversational responses.
When actions speak louder than words. Experts tell us that the majority of our communication is non-verbal. Timely, edifying words are certainly important in our relationships, but the Scriptures also emphasize communication through our actions. Here are a few examples, “languages” identified by Gary Chapman in The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to your Mate:
- Quality time spent together
- Giving and receiving gifts
- Acts of service
- Physical touch
When we observe closely the ministry of Jesus, we see him regularly communicating through both actions and words. In fact, his spoken words were often corroborated by his actions. He touched and healed the leper, showing his compassion and identity as the Messiah (Mark 1:40-45). He drove the money changers from the temple, showing his zeal for pure religion (Matt 21:12-13). He washed the disciples’ feet, demonstrating servanthood, and teaching his disciples to do the same (John 13:1-17). All of these actions were accompanied by words, but often the actions “spoke” even louder than the words.
As you think about the importance of good communication in a marriage, consider the many ways we communicate—both verbal and non-verbal. God “speaks” to us in Scripture through the words and the events of history. Our marriage relationships should also reflect this creativity in communication. Ask yourself, in what ways has God gifted me to communicate with and serve my spouse or others in my ministry? This will likely be something you would choose to do and enjoy doing—e.g. acts of service, talking through issues, giving/receiving gifts, etc. Maximize this gift, talk about it with your spouse, and use it often! Another good question to ask is, “What areas of communication (verbal or non-verbal) do I avoid?” Here may be an area God wants you to develop further in you as you mature in the Lord.