conversational v confessional growth

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…



  1. Swandor…food for thought yes.

    But I do wonder whether this is only half of the picture. 2 Peter is interesting here. While it’s one of the most forward looking books in the Canon (with a lot of focus on the return of the Lord), it still underlines everything it has to say with these words near the start – ‘The person who lacks these things [the list of virtues preceding this] is blind and shortsighted, and has forgotten the cleansing from his past sins. Therefore, brothers, make every effort to confirm your calling and election, because if you do these things you will never stumble. (1:9-10) That is to say, every aspect of the Christian life is not only on a trajectory towards perfection in heaven, but such a finishing point in meaningless without a second defining moment – the cross of Christ. This, of course, gives rise to much of the indicative-imperative construction of the ethical direction of the NT – this is who you are, so live it…(e.g. 1 Cor 6:9-20 among many). Thus, while Jesus did meet people where they were (and us also), after his glorification, those he meets are given a grace which reconciles us to God – with necessary implications for things like holiness.

    Part of the question then in confronting sin and encouraging growth is not just ‘where are you going to end up?’ but ‘who are you already?’ The problem is working out how to enter into these conversations maintaining the grace under which we all live…

    Sometimes I worry that a purely forward looking mentality (which I don’t think you’re guilty of BTW) is part of the problem with Christian ethics these days. That is to say, the Christian life becomes more about ‘realizing potential’ and ‘changing the world’ than about manifesting who God has already made you to be in your union with Christ. Without the latter, it seems to me that things may go adrift.


    1. Right on! The danger is a lack of emphasis on the cross — and thus the mortification-vivification pattern that characterises Calvin’s treatment of the sanctified/regenerate life lived in union with Christ.

      I’d love to hear you develop this more — and marry it with the work you’re doing on habit and character! Want to do a guest post (or three)?

  2. I also think that part of the problem here is in seeing the two anchor points of the cross and resurrection (both Christ’s and ours which will be in him) as needing balance. If that happens, then we’re going to forever be wavering between an overemphasis of the two options, rather than seeing them as two very necessary distinct yet inseparable elements of the Christian life. That is, putting off and putting on (to use the language of Colossians) are two aspects of the one movement, not two movements we have to hold in balance.

    As for the guest posting, given that my work on habit and character is not going to be started for a while yet (in earnest anyway), I’ll wait until I’ve got something before committing to this prestigious publication. 🙂

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