Clarity Plus Charity

Last week I posted a story on my blog entitled “Time to Let Go.” In that post I included this statement: “Sometimes [letting go] will call for … accepting a divorce to preserve some measure of cooperative parenting rather than dragging a legal battle out for months.”

The next day I received two very different responses.

  • Reader #1: “I cannot believe that you advocated for not fighting to keep a marriage together. You write about divorce so flippantly, as if it’s a throw away thing – an ‘oh well… let’s do what’s “best” for the kids’ earthly approach. Divorce is horrible. The best thing for the children is to advocate doing everything possible to keep the marriage together. Marriage is a holy institution decreed by God. But instead of saying it needs to be set apart from the way the world does things, you advocated it with one sentence. I am cancelling my subscription to this site. Get thee behind me, Satan.”
  • Reader #2: “I appreciated your recent post, “Time to Let Go.” Good advice for those of us who tend to hang on too long. However, I didn’t know how to interpret your thoughts on when to accept a divorce. My impression has always been that you fight hard to save marriages. Are you changing your position, or am I misunderstanding what you’ve written? If you have the time, I’d appreciate being able to discuss this issue.”

These responses highlight two key relational principles.

Strive for Clarity

One of the most valuable relational principles I ever learned was, “It’s not good enough to communicate so that you can be understood. You must communicate so clearly that you cannot be misunderstood” (Col. 4:3-4).

I failed to apply this principle in my last post. In the interest of brevity, I lumped fighting for a marriage into the same category as fighting for (or letting go of) a variety of other relationships. This was wrong of me. Because marriage is a unique and holy institution in the eyes of God, I should have written something like this:

“Sometimes letting go will call for accepting an undesired divorce. Although this is allowed by Scripture (“But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace” (1 Cor. 7:13)), it should be done only after exhausting every reasonable effort to save the marriage (see The Myths of Divorce, Hope for Troubled Marriages, and How Churches Can Preserve Marriages).

These brief comments and links to other articles I’ve written don’t address all of the complex issues related to divorce. But had I included this additional information, Reader #1 might have been less likely to conclude that I would give up quickly or casually on a troubled marriage. My lack of clarity tempted him to judge me.

Give Others Charity

Both of the individuals who responded to my post were concerned about my position on an important issue. Reader #1 assumed the worst interpretation and judged me without giving me a chance to clarify my position.

Reader #2 saw the possibility that I might be condoning casual divorce. But because my comments were vague and could be interpreted otherwise, he chose to affirm his respect for me, describe his concern, and give me a chance to clarify my convictions:

“My impression has always been that you fight hard to save marriages. Are you changing your position, or am I misunderstanding what you’ve written? If you have the time, I’d appreciate being able to discuss this issue.”

His approach is a good example of a second relational principle: “If you can interpret something either positively or negatively, always try to believe the best about people until you have facts to prove otherwise.”

This principle, which is sometimes referred to as “making a charitable judgment,” is woven throughout Scripture (see, e.g., Matt. 7:1-5; Matt. 7:12; 1Cor. 13:4-7). Making charitable judgments doesn’t mean that we naively assume the best and then bury our heads in the sand. It means loving our neighbor enough to discuss important issues in a gracious way. It means giving others the benefit of the doubt until we get facts that prove otherwise.

And if we get facts that indicate that someone may be straying from God’s truth, making a charitable judgment means engaging others in a respectful dialogue in the hope of helping them back onto the right track.

For a detailed discussion of this principle, including its applications and limitations, I invite you to read Charitable Judgments: An Antidote to Judging Others.

Clarity Plus Charity

These two principles can work hand-in-hand to reduce conflict.

If we strive to communicate so clearly that we cannot be misunderstood, we will eliminate many of the misunderstandings that trigger conflict.

And if we develop the habit of judging others charitably when they fail to communicate clearly, we will encourage a positive discussion that can clarify views, correct errors, and allow all those involved to grow in grace, truth, and relational wisdom.

– Ken Sande

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Reflection Questions

  • What is the main reason we fail to communicate clearly?
  • How do these passages reinforce the concept of making charitable judgments: Matthew 7:1-6; Matthew 7:12; 1Corinthians 13:4-7
  • Read the article on charitable judgments with a friend or in a small group and discuss the applications and limitations of this principle.

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© 2013 Ken Sande

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6 Responses to "Clarity Plus Charity"
  1. I think this is my favorite post since you started this blog! My pride often gets in the way of me ever admitting that I did not communicate clearly enough, and then when someone else misinterprets me I am usually tempted to assume it’s THEIR fault for not trying to understand me better.

    I imagine both Reader #1 and Reader #2’s comments made you sick to your stomach, to know you’d been so misinterpreted. And instead of hiding from it, or only responding to the two of them, you wrote it out here so we could all learn from you (and you opened yourself vulnerably to us all- something I need more of in my life).

    Thanks Ken!

  2. This is so true in relationship with people. We to quickly jump to conclusion. I see this often when I watch some video with my husband, when we discuss after often happens that we understand some details completely different.
    We need to watch some part of the movie again to really understand what was said. In every day conversation we do not have the possibility to stop end rewind. You gave great encouragement to think about clarity and not judging others to quickly. I wish to learn this approach in my daily relationship .

    • You’re absolutely right. We can learn and grow in this area, learning to be more charitable as we are conformed to the image of Christ.

  3. Educating ourselves on why people do what they do and understanding their childhood many times can help us not to judge them. It also helps us be mote understanding and loving towards them.

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