January 7

“Aren’t We Just Talking to Ourselves?”

Almost forty years ago I was fortunate enough to hear a sermon by someone whose name is now only a fuzzy memory – it was something like “Tim Timmons” or “Tom Tommons” or some variation thereof. The phrase he kept coming back to – because it was the point of the sermon – was “Aren’t we just talking to ourselves?”

The speaker was addressing an all-too common practice found in people generally and believers specifically, i.e., talking to ourselves and thinking that we are talking to others. He said things like,

“When we preach the gospel in hopes of winning the lost, but fill the message with jargon and theological terms that only believers understand, aren’t we just talking to ourselves?

“When we stand our ground on moral issues but base our arguments on realities and authorities than only Christians hold to, aren’t we just talking to ourselves?”

When I first heard the sermon I was a senior in college working on a degree in communication theory. Understandably, the message struck a responsive chord within me, setting me on a course of avoiding jargon, irrelevant arguments, or abusive words that would do more to prevent communication than facilitate it.  I’ve failed miserably at times; I’ve succeeded when I’ve taken time to evaluate my message. How successful I’ve been, though, can only be determined by others.

If, as Haddon Robinson once said, communication is “a meeting of meanings,” then no real communication will occur if a meeting of meanings does not take place. Until we present the gospel or our positions with clarity and a grace that dissolves barriers, we’re just talking to ourselves.

This matter was brought to mind recently by an open letter that came across my screen. The author, with whom I agreed on pretty much every matter, made important points and expressed a legitimate concern over practices and positions of others with whom he strongly disagreed.

But he used some words that would result in praise from those who already agreed with him but would likely cause others to dismiss his arguments before giving them a fair hearing.  Words that are inflammatory and insulting; words that would cause many to become defensive.  Those on the other side of the issue, who very much needed to hear and give heed to what the author was saying, might very quickly stop reading or begin arguing back given the smallest excuse or provocation. And he was providing them with a easy out.

When I pointed this out, I was accused of being critical. It was a fair accusation and my only response was to plead guilty as charged:I was being critical, but constructively: I criticized the tone, not the content, because the net result would be that we were once again just talking to ourselves.  Too many of us quickly seize upon an offending word or statement in order to ignore the essence of what is being said.

We all tend to read and believe those things that support our biases and to avoid threats to our positions. (Psychologists call this confirmation bias but it really means bias confirmation.) When we do that, when we only address or read those that we know will agree with us, aren’t we just talking to ourselves? If we deliver a much-needed message to others but do so in a way that all-but guarantees that it will not be heard, aren’t we just talking to ourselves?

And if I, in pointing out this very real problem, am labeled as a critic, aren’t we just saying that we prefer to talk only to ourselves and that we really don’t care if others hear us or not? If we have become so entrenched in our own “rightness” that we need to engage in ad hominem defenses (“you criticize everything!”) and shoot the messenger, have we lost our love for our enemies? And aren’t we just talking to ourselves?

If our messages are only designed to prove to ourselves how right and righteous we are, is that in keeping with what God has intended us to do as ambassadors of Christ and His Kingdom? Of course not, and I do not think for a minute that offending and alienating those we are trying to reach is the intent of those who defend divisive and unproductive letters.  But it can be and too often is an unintended effect.

Our calling is higher than this (I preach to myself as much as to others).  We are to “speak the truth in love” and to have “speech that is gracious and attractive.” It is good to take a stand on important matters. It is good to defend biblical positions and beliefs. But it must not be done in a manner that offends others and comes across as unloving or uncaring. We are called to love people – even our enemies – and not to push them away for the sake of less important matters. The gospel is an offense; we are not to be.

As my wife has told me, it is possible to be so right that we’re wrong.

And when this happens, aren’t we just talking to ourselves?