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Clarity Plus Charity

Last week I posted a story on my blog entitled “Time to Let Go [1].” 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.

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 [2], Hope for Troubled Marriages [3], and How Churches Can Preserve Marriages [4]).

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. [5]

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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© 2013 Ken Sande

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