Rick and Tim resume the conversation on themes in Tim’s newest book, Eyes To See: Recognizing God’s Common Grace in an Unsettled World. They look at language, James’ words to Christians on how to communicate, the power of gentle words, the danger of negative spirals, and how God’s gift of common grace is given throughout creation – to those who profess Jesus as Lord and to those who don’t – and why that matters. This is part 2 of a 2-part conversation on common grace.
Rick Langer: Well, thanks for joining us on the Winsome Conviction podcast. My name is Rick Langer, and I'm one of your hosts for this. I co-direct the Winsome Conviction project with my friend, Tim Muehlhoff.
Tim Muehlhoff: Hey, it's great to be with you guys again. I'm a communication professor at Biola University and the co-director of the Winsome Conviction podcast.
Rick Langer: And we have had a great time chatting a little bit about some recent work Tim's been doing on the issue of common grace. And so he recently published a book with InterVarsity called Eyes to See, and we thought we'd take a little bit of time to dive into that, particularly because one of the chapters that Tim had was on the issue of communication. Not simply how do we do it well or poorly, but actually a perspective on communication, seeing it as one of the ways in which God extends to all human beings and all human life his grace. God pours out blessings to us exactly on the way we communicate with others. Now, one of the things that we talked a little bit before about is that we use these gifts that should be given for good, but sometimes we use them for bad.
One of the things that you point out in this chapter is the idea of language in the issue of gentleness. You talk about a study that was done by a scholar we've actually had on the Winsome Conviction podcast, Perry Glanzer, who talked about gentleness from an academic standpoint and the absolute complete lack of studies that had been done on this topic. One of our favorite verses is James, chapter 3, versus 17 and 18, where it talks about the wisdom from above that's first pure, then peaceful and gentle and open to reason. The language of gentleness when it comes to scripture just seems to permeate, not only the example of Jesus in the gospels, but also the language of Paul in the epistles in terms of what he expects Christian communication to be marked by. I think he could safely say it's the spirit of gentleness.
As I think about that, I almost want to cry because it seems like at this moment, and I would argue both within the church and outside of the church, language has become a vehicle for abuse, for shaming, for silencing, for destruction. And the idea that it would be fundamentally designed by God for the purpose of gentleness, that it would be a thing that we would picture a calming influence, comforting. Think of words as a thing where we speak peace to others. We have really departed from that aspect of communication, it would seem.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. And we call it a negative communication spiral is how we envision it. There can be good spirals.
Rick Langer: In the sense that it keeps going down.
Tim Muehlhoff: It keeps going and it gains momentum. It picks up momentum like a tornado. And today, we're stuck in it. Everybody recognizes that by the way, the left and the right. Now, they may blame each other. I just picked up a Mother Jones. I was traveling and just picked up Mother Jones Magazine. I picked it up because it said, "Why a nation of rage?" You know what their answer was? Seriously, the whole article, Fox News.
Rick Langer: Oh, wow.
Tim Muehlhoff: Fox News is why we're a nation of rage.
Rick Langer: Otherwise, it wouldn't have happened.
Tim Muehlhoff: Otherwise, we wouldn't be in a bad state. Now, I'm not defending Fox News or anything like that. But it's so interesting that they would point and say, "Well, it's their fault." I mean, they wouldn't critique CNN or any of the more liberal news sources. So we blame each other for this negative spiral, but we all see that we're in it.
Rick Langer: We all recognize it and realize that we've done it. And we see the absence of things like gentleness, speaking peace, comfort, all these sorts of associations.
Tim Muehlhoff: I mean, when we had Perry Glazner on our podcast, he literally did a study on gentleness. And he's not exaggerating when he says it's literally disappearing from our lexicon and that we're just not using it anymore. That scares us at the Winsome Conviction project. Now, the question becomes, does God just sit back and watch it happen, or does he graciously intervene in partnership with us? And that is, of course, what the book is about. The subtitle is, "Recognizing God's Common Grace in an Unsettled World," because we need to recognize common grace, those intervention moments, and then have that conversation with friends, family members, those outside the Christian community to point to God's intervention. And I think he's doing it by programming us to understand the power of communication. Judith Butler, you may not be familiar with her, but in the field of communication, she's one of our top scholars.
She makes a really interesting comment. Non-Christian woman, she'd be actually pretty hostile towards things that would be religious. She says this: "Could language injure us if we were not, in some sense, linguistic beings who require language in order to be." That's a brilliant insight coming from a non-Christian communication theorist. We are linguistic beings created in language, and we better understand that as we can create ourselves positively, we can create ourselves in a negative way. And that's what the negative communication spiral is. So when it comes to communication theory, Rick, if you and I are in a negative spiral, we've got to find some way to do two things. One, we got to stop the momentum of the spiral, and then we got to flip it and begin a positive spiral that's going in an interesting direction. Let me give you an interesting attempt Peter has at how do you stop a negative spiral? So in 1 Peter 3:9, Peter says, "When insulted, I do not want you to insult." See how that would just add to the negative.
Rick Langer: Right. And you can see that just being described. You insult, I insult back. And I mean, we've probably all lived through this. You can almost feel that climbing up a ladder to insult heaven or hell or wherever that ladder would go. But yes.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. And we can use pop culture to illustrate what the negative communications spiral looks like. So again, the purpose of the book, Eyes to See, is not just to understand common grace, but how do we use pop culture to have conversation starters with non-Christian friends, family members. So remember the show, did you ever watch Malcolm in the Middle?
Rick Langer: Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: Okay.
Rick Langer: So I haven't, but I've seen episodes. Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. It launched the career of Bryan Cranston. So there's a great episode where the wife is doing Christmas shopping, and she's sitting in a mall in her car. And it's not the greatest car in the world. And she's going through her Christmas list. A woman who's in a nice car opens her car... Her hands are filled with Christmas gift. So she opens the car door and bangs the car door of the wife, the mother. Now, she turns and gives her a snarky response. Like, "Hey, I know you didn't think anybody would catch you. You just banged into my door." That's what John Gottman calls a harsh startup. The response from the other woman, she looks at her car and says, "Well, it's not like I'm hurting your resale value." Do you see how the spiral has started?
Rick Langer: This is going to end badly.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. This is going to end badly. So here's the response of the wife is she opens her car door and slams the other woman's car door twice. Now, that's an interesting part of a communications spiral, a negative one, Rick. I don't just match what you do. I increase it. So she got banged once. She bangs twice. Now, they're like demolition derby people in this parking lot. It's a really funny thing. They're literally ramming each other. Horrified Christmas shoppers are watching. And then they zoom in on her bumper sticker and it says, "Make love, not war." But that is what a negative spiral looks like. That's what Peter's saying. When insulted, I do not want you to insult. But I want you to do this instead. I want you to bless that person instead.
Rick Langer: So let's run with that a little bit, Tim. The idea of what can we do to create, let me just call it, one... I'm picking up some of the themes from this chapter. One is a spiral of gentleness. A second one might be a spiral of affirmation, because this is another thing you talked about. The power of positive words to create behavior. You mentioned this study about people being complimented for what they did in one group, people seeing the compliment in another group and not receiving, then a third group that didn't have anything to do with it. And then you come back and check their behaviors and abilities the next time, and it goes way up-
Tim Muehlhoff: Way up.
Rick Langer: ... when they receive the compliment. So you realize, oh, this affirmation actually produces. It isn't just a thing to recognize what they've done as good. It's a thing that creates an environment of goodness and an increase in those activities. So affirmation, gentleness, what could we do to create what you might call an affirmation or a gentleness spiral? I'd love to be able to talk a little bit about both of those, because they both seem neglected in our culture.
Tim Muehlhoff: So let's go back to Malcolm in the Middle for a second. Lois, that's the lovable mom and wife.
Rick Langer: The lovable mom who smashes other people's cars.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. We talked about a chimp in a rhino. Remember we talk about that in our book, Winsome Conviction. She went into rhino mode. Okay.
Rick Langer: She went into rhino mode. Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: But when I share this, when I speak on communication and share the Peter passage, people look at me like, "What? Wait a minute. I've been insulted and you are telling me that I'm supposed to bless. No, that's crazy. I'm going to be condoning the insult, and I'm not going to condone the insult." That's not, I think, what Peter means by bless. So let's go back to Malcolm in the Middle. Okay. So she's sitting in her car. It's the craziness of Christmas. And a woman next to her, her hands are filled with Christmas presents and she opens her car door and hits her car door. Now, what might be a soft startup, using John Gottman language, maybe Lois could have said, "Hey, hi, but isn't Christmas crazy. This is nuts. I'm going through my Christmas list. Your hands are filled. This is nuts. I know you didn't realize it, but you hit my door." That is a soft startup. Now, Aristotle would be proud of her because he would say, "Listen, you need to afford goodwill." Remember the original startup was, "Hey, I know you didn't think anybody would catch you."
Rick Langer: Implying a sense of intentionality about the behavior.
Tim Muehlhoff: And we all know marital communication 101, Rick, do not assume motive.
Rick Langer: Yes.
Tim Muehlhoff: Right?
Rick Langer: Amen.
Tim Muehlhoff: So that, to me, is the blessing is I'm giving you charity. That's gentleness. Now, listen, she has every right to say, "You hit my car, and I'm not going to ignore that." That is not what Peter's saying. But to do it in a gentle way could have avoided now them both demolishing their cars. That's what I think Peter means by a blessing is let's have a soft startup, gentleness. Let's reclaim an idea of that.
Rick Langer: And I suppose that the nice thing about that, that invites a gentle response. So back to your spiral, you respond with this sort of thing, "Isn't Christmas crazy." And the other person, "It is. And I'm so sorry for hitting your car with this." And you can almost imagine her shrugging her shoulders with these arms full of presents. And it gives you an opportunity at that point to, so to speak, negotiate the settlement. And you can decide if you're just going to say, "You know what? I'll just take the dent in my car on me." Or you're going to say, "No, this was a big dent and we may have to do something about it." But it just, you can almost feel the ease in the conversation to be able to just take it one step at a time, as opposed to just leaping to the final Def-Con 4.
Tim Muehlhoff: Now, listeners might be thinking, "Okay, that's great, communications spiral. What does it have to do with common grace?" Well, I was reading an anthropology book where one of the anthropologists made a really interesting observation. He said, "If I could pick one quality that civilizations were based on, it would be something called the rule of reciprocation, that generally speaking embedded..." Now, he attributed it to evolution. But we have this feeling of I'm indebted to you. If you do something for me, I feel this sense of indebtedness and I want to pay off my debt. He calls it the rule of reciprocation. Well, where did that come from? Let's set aside evolution, right? God implanted that. Hey, repay good things. What does Paul say? He gives us a version of the rule of reciprocation when he says, "What you sow, you reap."
So you can sow good things, bad things. So I think that idea that we have this idea of indebtedness, the rule of reciprocation is God's common grace saying repay good things. So let me give you a quick illustration of this, Rick. We lived overseas in Lithuania for an entire year. Me and it was a team of six. It was Cru, Campus Crusade for Christ. But we lived for about five weeks in a hostile in Moscow with a woman who hated foreigners. Rick, I thought, "This was a bad career choice." Right? Why are-
Rick Langer: Running a hostile, and you hate the visitors who were coming in.
Tim Muehlhoff: So we were off doing evangelistic stuff all the time, and sometimes we'd be late to dinner. If we were one minute late to dinner, the doors were already locked and we didn't have dinner. And I mean, we're trying to complain, but she only speaks Russian. And we're like, "Okay, whatever." So a bunch of us were going to go play basketball. There were three of us. So as we're walking out, and its winter. You've seen a Russian car, right? For listeners, think of an American smart car cut in half. That is a Russian car. And a car is stuck in the snow, and an elderly man is trying to push it. He's getting nowhere. So the three of us were like, "Oh, come on." So we walk over. We literally pick up the car and just move it. And now, they're unstuck. Out from the driver's side is the woman, the woman who runs the hostile. And we-
Rick Langer: Oh, she was in the car and you didn't know it.
Tim Muehlhoff: She was in the car. We didn't know that. So now, she's speaking Russian really animated. We even kind of think she's yelling at us. Lady, we just got your car unstuck. Well, guess what? The next day, we were, again, late to dinner. Guess what? We were a half hour late. Doors were open. There was dinner. Next morning, we all had flowers in our rooms from her. That is the rule of reciprocation. She felt indebted to us. Now, I think that comes from God to help offset a volatile world that we live in of rebellion. But what a beautiful thing to have a conversation with a family member to talk about the rule of reciprocation and where did it come from? That opens the door to have the common grace conversation with family members.
Rick Langer: And it would seem the same thing would apply to reciprocation, things like affirmation.
Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, of course.
Rick Langer: If we affirm someone, identify the good things, we're far more likely to get those things back to us. And you can almost see this whole thing spiraling up into a very, very different.
Tim Muehlhoff: But remember, it spirals down as well.
Rick Langer: Well, thank you for pooping on my little party here.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yes. So Cornelius Plantinga Jr, brilliant insight, says, "You know what? You reap what you sow, and that could be the negative." And so imagine we're mean towards this hostile owner. And hey, we're going to pay you back. We're going to make a ton of noise when you're trying to sleep, because we know you go to bed early. Right? That's the negative spiral, and we're reaping what we're sowing. So I think what we're trying to say at the Winsome Conviction project is you can't control people's reactions, but we can control what we try to sow. And let's try to sow gentleness. What was that? Go ahead and mention again from James.
Rick Langer: Yeah. James chapter-
Tim Muehlhoff: Wisdom from above is what?
Rick Langer: Yeah. It's first pure, then peaceful, then gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And I think you could probably take every one of those words and instantly imagine this sort of, wait, can I do a positive or negative spiral with it? If I become insincere, I am likely to get that same thing back. If I am partial, if I am only appealing to my side, not reading their side, you'll likely to get that back. At almost every level, you realize this rule of reciprocation applies.
Tim Muehlhoff: And we understand, when the Book of Proverbs says, "A wise man overlooks an insult," that's not easy to do. So we've been playing around here at the Winsome Conviction project of what does it look like to spiritually prepare to overlook a car door hitting your car? You need to spiritually prepare that. That's why the scriptures say, "Discipline yourself for the sake of godliness." And so we're thinking at our project, what would a five day devotional look like? That if you knew you were heading into a conversation that could easily spiral downward or was already in a negative spiral, you're going to need to prepare spiritually or that thing's going to go south in a heartbeat.
Rick Langer: To be thinking through how you can make it [inaudible].
Tim Muehlhoff: I'm doing an insult for an insult in a heartbeat.
Rick Langer: And one final note on this, one of the things that we think a lot about, is the sense of despair we often get when we look at the world writ large. We see what's going on, and going how can we possibly change this? The answer that we talk about a lot is saying you probably can't change the whole world, but you can change what's right in front of you. You can change the part that you see here. The one thing, I suppose, this really does add to us, back to your issue of common grace, that part of what God has done is implanted things like this in our hearts. So that you actually can begin to change the whole surreal world because you begin one of these positive spirals, and these things actually spread the same way the negative does. And so this is a resource, when we talk about changing the world, to say, "Well, look. It does begin here, but it spirals. And we can really make this bigger difference."
Tim Muehlhoff: That's a great point, Rick. Remember, common grace is, we call it common grace because it's common to everybody. But theologian, Wayne Grudem, makes a really interesting observation that he suspects non-Christians could get even more common grace than Christians. Listen to what he says. He said, "We should recognize that unbelievers often receive more common grace than believers. They may be more skillful, harder working, more intelligent, more creative, or have more of the material benefits of this life to enjoy." So it could be that this idea of the rule of reciprocation or empathy or compassion that you can know that that is being received by non-Christians.
God's common grace is preparing that neighbor you're having a hard time with, a coworker. They're getting this as much as you are getting this. Now, we would get more via the scriptures, and hopefully we're more in tune with the Holy Spirit. But you can be assured that that coworker that you're in a negative spiral with, they are getting this common grace of gentleness, and life and death is in the power of the tongue. Remember what Paul says, "Gentiles, they certainly don't have the Torah, but their hearts accuse them or affirm them." That's common grace. And so we know our neighbors are wrestling with God. Even if they can't identify it as God, there's a wrestling happening. And I think that can give us great comfort that we're not alone as we try to overturn the argument culture.
Rick Langer: Well, thanks, Tim. Thanks for writing this book. Thanks for taking the time here. Of course, I guess you're supposed to be taking the time here on this podcast. But thanks for joining and we, again, would encourage you to check this out. The book is called Eyes to See: Recognizing God's Common Grace in an Unsettled World. And would also encourage you to subscribe to the Winsome Conviction podcast. You can find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcast. And also, check us out on the winsomeconviction.com website.