Recent research on the topic of conversation has revealed that both men and women speak about 16,000 words per day. We are people that speak a lot of words and our words do a lot of work for us. They can be productive, or destructive, they can help, they can hurt, they can be annoying, they can be comforting.
Communication, though done with the best of intentions, often goes wrong. We try so hard and yet interactions slip away and spiral into misunderstandings. The more I look at and work on my conversations the more I see areas of potential growth. And with God, there is hope for that growth to happen.
Today from Colossians 4:2-6 we are going to tackle conversation with God and conversation with people and try to take some practical steps forward in our communication by looking at the heart in conversation. Prayer and conversation are two massive areas of our lives. Think about how awesome this concept of prayer is that we can talk with the God of the universe. And think about the importance of talking to each other. Almost everything we do requires some form of communication.
And, Jesus profoundly taught us in Matthew 15:18 "what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart." In all of this, we must always be asking, what from within me is prompting these words and this attitude?
Let's start with prayer
Colossians 4:2 says "Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving."
So, Paul is in prison. He is getting up to speed on this church by chatting with Epaphras. As Paul analyzes this church this final short instruction comes to mind that the people should be rock solid in their daily prayers. He gives us three succinct commands for prayer life.
1. Continue steadfastly
Continue is the main verb and it means to keep on a course of action. So the Colossians began their faith journey with prayer and now Paul says keep on doing that. Keep coming back to the conversational floor to dialogue with God. Be devoted to prayer.
Steadfastly means to be fixed in a direction, firm in purpose. Resolved.
Jesus said in Luke 18:1 to his disciples that they ought to always pray and not lose heart. Paul says in Romans 12:12 "Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer." We ought not be discouraged in our prayers. Implied here is that God hears us and he is listening even if it doesn’t feel that way.
We all have this earthly tendency to not pray. We tend to want to do things on our own and figure things out away from God. We think highly of ourselves so if something is not right between us and God we resort to ignoring him. These are heart issues that pull us away from the one who can help. And having conversation with God in prayer as a response to his Truth is the place where we can address the complexities of our heart. The call here is to persevere in prayer and specifically it's a call to fight through the excuses that will prevent us from talking with God.
As we consider continuing steadfast in prayer we should take some time to consider why our hearts are pulling us away from the conversational floor with God.
2. Be alert
Next Paul tells the Colossians to be alert or to be watchful, be vigilent, be awake in their prayers. Give attention to prayer.
Again, the focus is always on our hearts. Jesus was clear that he is not impressed with people who make it look good on the exterior but the interior is focused on self and not Christ. With prayer we need to pay attention to our hearts - our desires, our fears, our attitudes, and our tendencies. We are not looking for mechanical prayer but rather prayer from the heart. God already knows your heart, so you can approach him honestly about it. But that's difficult because in our sin, we act like Adam and Eve did, we hide. They hid after they sinned, and we want to hide. We want to run from the conversational floor. We don’t want to see God. Yet, Paul is saying, "be watchful" and "be alert.”
Jesus said in Matthew 26:41 "Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak."
Jesus is saying that prayer is exactly where we need to be alert, or watchful. It's the place where God allows us to put our issues on the conversational table before him.
3. Be thankful
This is a tough one because we are not always thankful. Our hearts are not always pleased with what God has done. Emily and I have walked this road. When our son, Henryk, passed away at 5 months and 10 days old, I would not characterize our emotions and our heart towards God as being thankful. It is still difficult at times to be thankful in light of our loss. But, in light of this passage we are called as Christians to push our hearts to dig deeper to be thankful for something that is most foundational, most important, most concrete in our hearts, and it is that Jesus died on the cross and paid the penalty for our sins so that all our debt was nailed to the cross and wiped away. Gone. We must point our hearts to the gospel and then let thankfulness flow from that.
In concluding our look at these three short words on prayer, here is an example that we can use as an exercise in diagnosing the state of our heart in prayer and it comes from a book that I read on sales. My background is chemical engineering but now my job is in sales- I sell pneumatic conveying systems that batch, blend, and convey powder in manufacturing plants. In a book on sales by Chuck Bauer he gave the following observation. He said, "When I coach a client on a live sales call I get responses to my ideas for improvement that will fall into two categories. The first is "ok, I will try that next time". The second is "well, the reason I did it that way was because… they're not listening to a word I am saying, they are only thinking about ways to deflect what I've told them and make excuses for the habits they're determined to stick with."
The question is, are you coming to God with a thankful and humble heart ready to change or are you coming to God to justify yourself and explain to God why you are right and why you are doing what you are doing?
That's the application question to think about as we now transition to part 2.
Conversation with People
Now for part 2 let's look at verses 5 to 6 and talk about our speech in our conversation with others. These verses say, "Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person."
In our time here I want to talk about wisdom, intentionality, and graciousness in our conversations with others.
Paul says "walk in wisdom toward outsiders". Walking was a common metaphor for the New Testament authors. Paul used it to describe everyday living. Day in and day out Paul wants followers of Jesus to use wisdom as they interact with non-Christians. I believe this includes the actual words we say and the manner in which we say them.
Why? Well, people are evaluators. People judge. Our lives are on display and this is where perception becomes a big deal. There are two sides of the horse to fall off on in regards to perception:
1) To be consumed with what people think of you – that's not good because then people have the ultimate power over you, not God.
2) To say "I'd don't care what people think of me"- this is giving yourself the ultimate power over you and not God. It causes you to withdraw and put yourself up on a pedestal away from people.
Though these are some areas to fall out on, perception is still important and it is wise to think about people's perception of you. And in regards to connecting with people, perceptions often get made (or broken) in conversation. When we speak we are sending a message. We don’t want the message to be that others matter most or that I matter most but that God matters most.
It takes humility and wisdom to sincerely ask yourself "what do others think of me and what can I learn from that."
For me, the place where I have been challenged the most in regards to perceptions is at work. I've received tough, constructive feedback from co-workers that call me out and when I listen to their perceptions of me and they don't line up with my heart or what I'm feeling, I need ask myself, what, in my words and my mannerisms, am I communicating? What verbal and non-verbal language am I sending?
As you think about wisdom in interacting with people and what perceptions you are communicating, consider again your heart. How are your conversations impacted by your thoughts, attitudes, interests, and ambitions?
Next Paul says that we are to make the best use of our time. We are to take advantage of every opportunity. We are called by Paul from Scripture to be intentional in every conversation. Engage in that conversation.
The context is "outsiders". And this makes sense why Paul is saying take advantage of every opportunity because you don't get many conversations with some people. Those you meet you may only have one conversation ever, or one per quarter, or one per month, or one per week. So when we converse with people let's be intentional and focus on having a good conversation with them.
Intentionality is difficult because it can take mental, emotional, and physical energy sometimes to try and connect with a person. Often we get distracted in a conversation because we are thinking of other things and not the person. I just did this on Friday at work. I mean I am prepping for this sermon on having a good conversation and I totally missed it when a co-worker came and started a conversation with me. I was short and dismissive and the conversation dropped. And it was because I had my sales pipe line and customer follow up to think about and I let that distract me. And being an engineer it's not as if conversing with people comes naturally anyways. We need to work on making conversation happen. So the conviction to be intentional with people starts in your heart to care about the person you are talking to.
By the way I did send an email to the guy last night apologizing. Good form of communication right, send an email. It's the heart that matters, right?
Paul says "Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person."
The challenging part of this verse is understanding the meaning of “speech” and “grace”. In verse 3 "speech" refers to the gospel. And Grace usually refers to divine grace. So this could very well be referring to evangelism and divine grace. Or on the other end of the spectrum it could be general words and speech with outsiders and when you speak to outsiders, speak pleasantly.
Since the words are broad, I think the meaning can be broad in scope. Whatever situation, whether common conversation or specific gospel sharing, our conversations and our speech would do well to have a spirit of grace and refreshing kindness.
Paul assumes that Christians will at times get asked about their faith and he wants our words and our speech to be winsome as we respond to people. Our answer to people should have a flavor of grace and clarity.
This text doesn’t say talk a lot, it doesn't say be the center of attention, it says, let your words be gracious. This becomes a heart issue. What bubbles up from inside that causes you to not be gracious?
In thinking about being wise, intentional, and gracious I will give an example and some practicals. First, let me give an example from my life. When you start to look at your conversations with people and consider these points, by God's grace you'll start to make observations of areas of improvement, and don’t be cynical, there is hope for change and making efforts in these areas does reap fruit. It's worth the effort.
Ok, the example, Lily and I came back home after running some errands and Emily was chatting with our neighbor. I gotta be honest I was a bit frantic, but I was courteous and said hello and smiled, which is a great first start. But then I chose to multi task, which meant that I was listening to their conversation but I was helping Lily and I started to clean and straighten, which is what I do when I need to have some control because I'm feeling overwhelmed or frantic. Anyways, I started to clean and listen at the same time. But my neighbor was sharing some big things and at one point he asked "Michael, are you listening?" And I said "yes, of course I am." But I was so clueless to my lack of conversational skills that I thought everything was perfectly normal. I am respectfully listening I thought, while I’m putting away the dishes – win, win! See, I was listening, which is good, but I greatly lacked the skills to connect with my neighbor. I wasn't intentional to ask questions. I was not gracious in helping carry on the conversation. I was not wise in my conversing because I wasn't conversing. When our neighbor left I was still clueless to what had taken place and Emily kindly asked me "what was that all about? You did not engage at all in that conversation."
And I think this is typical for many of us. So my encouragement is to consider your conversations and how you are interacting with others and go to the heart to start making changes.
Anne Curzan is a professor at the University of Michigan and her lectures have really helped me think about practicals that help me connect with people and ultimately help me talk about my faith and talk about Jesus and the gospel. Here are some highlights from the course that can be turned into application questions:
1. Acknowledging People
Do you acknowledge people and say "hello, how are you?" It's a standard greeting, but important to begin a conversation. Do you notice people, do you engage people, do you care about others, or are you consumed with your own life? Every culture is different, but in the US possible greetings are "Hi", "Hello", "Good Morning", "Yo", or my favorite "Hi there". Or a greeting question like "how are you?", or "What's Up?" And the standard response "fine", "not much". This may seem inauthentic but actually these are important steps in a conversation.
To begin a conversation without this standard or ritualized progression can feel very direct or pushy or too much and can send the message that you can do what you want or say what you want on your terms without considering how the other persons' day is going. It can be assuming to start with a direct point or "can you do this?" or "I need this" or "I'm thinking that…". So it is wise to take note of how you begin your conversation with someone, even your spouse, like how do you greet your spouse in the morning. A courteous greeting acknowledges the other person. It is being gracious.
2. Help Carry the Weight
Another question is, do you help carry the weight of the conversation? What I mean is that do you think ahead of time of topics that you can offer to add to the conversation? And, do you ask questions and help others? Do you take turns on the conversational floor, asking a question, starting a new topic, engaging with the other person by listening well? These are wise and gracious things to work on so as to connect with the person you are talking with.
For an application point, let's look at verses 3-4. These verses pull together conversation with God and conversation with people.
4:3-4 says "At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison – that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak."
While we approach people on the conversational floor, we also should be approaching God on the conversational floor asking him to help in these conversations. We want to ask God for help as we interact with people. We need help to grow in our conversational skills and we need help in connecting with people and ultimately sharing the gospel. Having a moment with a person and having that connection with someone does not happen easily or naturally but its importance is so significant.
We want to pray for miracles to happen on the conversational floor. That winsome and relevant and gracious Truths about Jesus and his death on the cross would be shared between people. This is not straightforward and the battle between our flesh and our spirit often doesn't help, so we need help from God and we need to take steps forward in our conversation skills.
Once the door is opened and Paul can enter in, Paul wants to make sure he takes full advantage of the situation. Paul wants to declare the mystery of Christ.
As you leave today, think some more of what Jesus profoundly taught us in Matthew 15:18 "what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart."
Our words come out from our heart. Underneath our words is a battle. It is a battle to try and figure out what to say and how to say it, between spirit and flesh, faith and unbelief, obedience and sin. The battle is in our hearts and it is a battle for our worship. And our words and the way they come out reflect where we are at in this battle. Let us speak and act in our conversations from a position where God is the supreme treasure in our hearts.
Jesus has come as the Word in the flesh to die in our place so that we can confess this sin and we can be forgiven and because of this we can change. God leads us out of sin and replaces our dead hearts with soft hearts to love God and serve others. And as our hearts change, so does our speech.