Our children are spread far apart in ages. We did not plan it this way, but a couple of miscarriages and a few cycles of military deployments forced several years between each pregnancy. The oldest is a teen, and our youngest just learned to walk over the Christmas holiday. There are several parenting seasons going on simultaneously under our roof! Some days, it feels like I have parenting whiplash bouncing between the demands of each stage.
The teen stage has been a constant learning curve filled with challenge and delight. So much physical and emotional change occurs in such a short span of time! Our teenager is tender to subtlety and dialed in to family patterns; nothing gets past her. For better or worse, as she gets older, she sees us almost as clearly as we see her.
We recently had a lengthy disagreement about her study habits. Somewhere near the end of it all, I asked her to go get the coffee that I made for her and to begin her work right away. I was not yelling, but I said this with a strong exclamation point in my voice. She caught the hook faster than I realized I had even said it. Her response was quick: “Mom, please don’t guilt trip me about the coffee that you made.”
She could have spoken the rebuke with more respect (and we addressed that later), but her overall assessment was right on the money. I had used a soft-handed guilt trip to manipulate her into action. The guilt trip went something like this: I made this for you, so feel indebted, and go do this for me.
Can we push pause here and consider a few verses?
“Lord, who may dwell in your sacred tent? The one who speaks the truth from his heart, whose tongue utters no slander, who does no wrong to a neighbor, and who casts no slur on others.” (Psalm 15:1-4, ESV)
“Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” (Ephesians 4:29, ESV)
Pastor Tim Keller offers us insight here. He says in his book, The Songs of Jesus, that people who draw near to God are “those who speak true words, but in love and generosity. Those who are transparent, honest, and faithful to their word […] If we deceive, vilify, and flatter, if we make empty promises and overblown claims, we cannot expect God’s presence in our lives” (Keller, p.21). I like to think of this as speaking cleanly—speech without emotional residue.
Clean speech is lost when we insert hidden emotional hooks in our words. Instead of using words that deal with the heart, guilt-trips imbed messages about our expectations or our emotions. Even our youngest children can feel the uncomfortable weight of these foggy statements. In each interaction, but especially conflictual ones, are we seeking to speak the truth in love, or are we subtly trying to control the outcome? It cannot be both ways.
I have found that when I use the quiet guilt trip it is because I feel relationally stuck. It is a last ditch effort to get my “needs” met by trying to force another’s actions without actually stating as much. I am inescapably a daughter of Eve, and nothing reveals this fact more than when I try to take control of a situation with my words.
Using guilt trips or speaking passive aggressively—I think it’s all the same. However softly employed, these speech patterns are broken means of getting other people to act on our terms. Guilt speech might produce superficial compliance, but it cannot build up or bestow grace on the other. After all, “a rotten tree cannot bear good fruit”(Luke 6:43, ESV).
The sort of change I want to see in my daughter’s study habits will not come about because I used the coffee hook to get her to study. Guilt trips cannot produce true conviction. Compliance is not the goal; repentance and Godly growth is. Only clean speech can clear the way for authentic communication.
So let’s revisit my coffee comment. What could I have said to my girl that would have been more faithful and fruitful? I could have said something like this: “Honey, I am frustrated that you are not making much progress with your study habits. I see some laziness there, and we ought to talk more about that. For now, I would like you to get started with your work, and we can talk about this subject again after your assignment is finished. By the way, I made extra coffee if you would like to have a cup while you study.”
In this scenario, I am speaking the truth of my frustrations directly, but with a tone that communicates love to her. I am not asking her to perform for me; I am articulating a feeling, a plan for future action, and an offer freely made. The hook for compliance is gone.
Lord, our tongues are like wildfires. Have mercy on us as we seek to speak transparently in our homes this week, especially when frustrations run high and we are tempted to use a verbal hook to get our way. Thank you, Father, that Jesus spoke perfectly on our behalf and that we can draw near to him. In His name, Amen.
*Please leave your comments below! How do you plan to practice “clean speech” in your home?