Interview with

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

Audio Transcript

Happy Friday and welcome back to the Ask Pastor John podcast. Listener Rachel in Cameroon, writes in to ask: “Pastor John, we all have difficult experiences in life with respect to interpersonal communication and conflict, both with fellow Christians and non-Christians. Processing this with other people can lead to gossip or slander. Is there benefit to processing these conflicts with our spouse or is this gossip and slander? For example, Pastor John, if you had a difficult interpersonal interaction or relationship with an elder in your church, is it okay to process through that at home in confidence with Noel? Is that helpful?”

This certainly can be helpful — and it is fraught with dangers as well.

Maybe the first thing I should address is the issue of permission. That is, it is possible to simply ask the person that you are having difficulty with or in conflict with permission, “May I share this issue with my spouse?” That may seem awkward since the whole issue is about conflict and difficulty. And yet you maybe surprised, because they might feel respected because of the request instead of your just assuming that you are going to go talk about it with anybody you please. So, it might go a long way towards some healing. And if you have permission, then I think you are free, at least, to consider the possibility of speaking with your spouse about the situation.

“Will a discussion with my spouse really serve to lead toward maximum healing — not only for the immediate conflict, but any others who might be drawn in?”

But even then it is not automatic, I don’t think, whether you should or not. There are other factors. And the next thing I think of is: There are two people that you need to know really well in this process and that is yourself and your spouse if you are going to discern what would be helpful to talk about, what would be appropriate. The reason I say that you need to know yourself really well is because, even if you have a green light in every other regard to share something with your spouse, your attitude in doing so could be sinful. This is why it seems to me there are so many warnings in the Bible about how we speak of other people, especially other Christians, like James 4:11: “Do not speak evil against one another.” In 2 Corinthians 12:20, Paul is afraid that he will find slander and gossip and conceit and disorder in the church.

I think part of the reason these texts are in the Bible is to warn us that we are so prone to speak about others when our own attitude is the real problem. We need to know ourselves really well so that we don’t even share the things we have permission to share if our motives are impure or if we feel jealousy or undue anger or sinful fear and anxiety or revenge or just the subtle pleasure — we all know this — of sharing news, especially bad news or questionable news, that nobody else knows about but us, and we get to be the first one to talk about it. There is something not good about that desire that is in us. So the watchword here is: Test yourself. Know yourself. Put to death any selfish motives in yourself before you talk about it with your spouse.

The other person you need to know really well to make right decisions about when to share or when to debrief is your spouse. Will we be tempting him or her — I will just say her, since I am talking about Noel here — will I be tempting her toward anger or resentment or fear? What is the emotional makeup of our spouse? Do we know her? Is our spouse vulnerable to certain kinds of sin which she might get sucked into in the relational conflict? Or is our spouse strong enough and able to give us good counsel without becoming embroiled in the situation to her own detriment? So, knowing our spouses will have a significant effect on whether we share and what we share and how we share the difficult situations that we are walking through.

Here is another biblical guideline to think about — when I was thinking about this question, I think I got the most helpful maxim that might guide us. So, I am thinking about Matthew 18:15–17 here where it says, If your brother sins against you, go privately to see if you can get it worked out, and then if that doesn’t work out, take two or three, and if that doesn’t work, go to the church. Now what is the overall drift? That is what I ask. What is the overall thrust of that approach? And it seems to me that the overall thrust of Matthew 18 is to keep relational sins or breakdowns as private as would be helpful for maximum healing to all concerned. That is my maxim.

The application would be: Will a discussion with my spouse really serve to lead toward maximum healing — not only for the immediate conflict, but any others who might be drawn in? You don’t want to multiply the pain or the conflict by having it be known by people that it is unnecessary to be known by if healing can be achieved another way.

So, it seems to me that that is one of the most significant principles we could express. If there is a green light for sharing a concern in every other respect, then the question is: Am I truly motivated by a desire for wisdom that leads to healing, or am I merely caressing an injury? Am I picking at a scab? Am I licking my own wound and looking for some kind of gratification and, thus, putting my spouse at risk of joining with me in that sin?

Just recently in my life there are two scriptures that have been standing out, functioning as a kind of “Piper sieve” for putting motives and possible actions through. Let me just mention them, because they have been so powerful for me.

One is 1 Peter 3:8: “Finally, all of you, have” — and listen to these words — “unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.” Those are amazing words: unity, sympathy, love, tender heartedness, humility. So in weighing what to talk about with another person, put it through this sieve. Pass it through this test. Do those words mark what you are about to do?

The other one is James 3:17: “The wisdom from above is first” — and here they come again — “pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” — another amazing collection of words that function as amazing tests of whether what I am about to say is pure. Is it peaceable? Is it gentle? Is it open to reason? Is it merciful? Is it impartial? This is simply astonishing. I need to check myself — and those are two verses that have functioned as sieves for me in dealing with people recently that have been so convicting and so helpful.

So, my answer to the question about Noel and me — I think part of the question was what did we do — is that there were many situations in my 33-year pastoral ministry where I talked to Noel about a church issue or about a personal issue, and there were many when I didn’t. And I tried to use these criteria. Will I put her soul at risk? Will I burden her in a way that simply would not help her and probably wouldn’t help me sufficiently to put her at risk? And have I filtered my motives so that I am not acting in a way that is contrary to 1 Peter 3:8 or contrary to James 3:17. And from this perspective, Tony, I would just say: Lord, you know how many times I either succeeded or failed at those criteria.


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