I’ve just started reading Difficult Conversations: How To Discuss What Matters Most by three members of the Harvard Negotiation Project. And it feels promising. Partly because, like narrative therapy, it adopts a solution-oriented approach to delivering bad news, confronting hurtful behaviour, asking for a pay-rise, etc. Rather than dwelling on past failures, guilt or recriminations, it’s oriented towards growth and positive change. It’s forward looking. It’s about conversation — understanding rather than judging (or manipulating).
When it comes to Christian growth, a forward looking stance seems right. We’re interested in the work of God’s Spirit. And He’s the one who moves us towards maturity. Producing the fruit of Christ-like character.
We see it all the time in the Gospels. Jesus consistently welcomes people as they are — lost and messy and weighed down with baggage. He doesn’t hand out a list of criteria to fulfil before He lavishes grace on them. But nor does He leave them to wallow. His call is: ‘Go. And sin no more’.
The grace God shows teaches us to say No to ungodliness and Yes to holiness. So it seems to have lots in common with a conversational approach to growth.
Until I read things like this (Difficult Conversations, pp 11-12):
[T]alking about fault is similar to talking about truth — it produces disagreement, denial, and little learning. It evokes fears of punishment and insists on an either/or answer. Nobody wants to be blamed, especially unfairly, so our energy goes into defending ourselves […] But in situations that give rise to difficult conversations, it is almost always true that what happened is the result of what both people did — or failed to do. And punishment is rarely relevant or appropriate. When competent, sensible people do something stupid, the smartest move is to try to figure out, first, what kept them from seeing it coming and, second, how to prevent the problem happening again.
At one level, this is brilliant — and directly applicable to the situation of Christian growth. For instance, if you’re taking on some habitual sin or character flaw, dealing with it has got to involve diagnosing what led to it taking root and thus what kind of spiritual weed killer is needed.
At another level, though, it makes me nervous about the role of confession. Where does admitting our fault come in? What about being sorry? Apologising? Taking responsibility?
Rather than throwing the baby out with the bath-water, though, I want to know if conversational growth can accommodate confession and repentance. Accepting blame when we deserve it — not trying to dodge it. But doing so with an essentially forward looking stance. Sorrow that goes nowhere is worthless. But when it leads to repentance it’s exactly right (cf. 2 Cor 7.8-11).
The grace of God in Jesus elicits my willingness to give up pretending about my sin and guilt. But it doesn’t stop there. It enrols me in a ‘conversation’ about how to go and sin no more…