It’s easy to come off as ungracious to others, especially if you’re passionate about what you have to say. I confess to doing this often in the past, unfortunately. It’s also easy, in our society, to be charged with ungraciousness during times of heated disagreements. I confess to having charged brothers in Christ with ungraciousness when it wasn’t warranted. Most, if not all of us, are probably guilty of doing this to one extent or another.
Our fallible nature paired with charges of ungraciousness, warranted or not, make it difficult to tell whether or not we’re really being ungracious. Are we really being uncharitable, or is the other person merely calling us ungracious because he or she doesn’t like what we have to say? There must be some sort of objective standard for what constitutes graciousness, and I hope we can both walk through this post together and discover what that standard is.
Either way, we want to be careful to acknowledge our imperfections and shortcomings as sinners, knowing that we could be wrong in our approach. But we also want to ensure truth is communicated and that people aren’t wrongfully accused.
I can’t promise an elaborate doctrine of graciousness laid out for you in a blog post. But maybe it’s possible to find some biblical data which can inform our attitude during times of disagreement. After all, there are times to be bold, and times to tread carefully; times to be loud, and times to be silent. We want to make sure our boldness isn’t being labeled as ungraciousness, but we also want to make sure we are sensitive to others and conscious of our own tendency toward moral failure.
Gracious Examples in the Bible
The term gentleness (Gk. πραΰτης) is used eight times in the New Testament. It more accurately translates to meekness. Meekness is defined as a mildness of disposition. In the Old Testament, it’s much the same: a non-reliance on self and a full reliance on God. “In the Old Testament,” Larry Pierce remarks:
…the meek are those wholly relying on God rather than their own strength to defend against injustice. Thus, meekness toward evil people means knowing God is permitting the injuries they inflict, that He is using them to purify His elect, and that He will deliver His elect in His time (Isa 41:17, Luk 18:1-8). Gentleness or meekness is the opposite to self-assertiveness and self-interest (Outline of Biblical Usage, G4239).
For Pierce, then, meekness is to rely on God rather than self, avoiding our sinful tendency to be self-assertive or self-interested. In Scripture, we are presented with words like “foolish,” or, “stupid (Ps. 49:10; 92:6).” These are words, when used today, are generally seen as offensive or ungracious. But if Scripture uses these terms positively, it must be the case that it’s not always ungracious to call something or someone foolish or stupid. After all, God is not ungracious, nor would He encourage His creatures to be ungracious. Ungracious, then, cannot simply be as superficial as calling people names, or the bold proclamation that an idea or position is ridiculous or absurd. Those things can be ungracious, to be sure, but they aren’t always.
It seems more likely that, if one is to be ungracious, they will use this type of language while aiming to advance their own self-serving agenda. Their will is not aligned with God’s will. Rather than have righteous indignation, they have unholy anger driven by sinful passions. This is what it is to be truly ungracious. An ungraciousness characterized simply by strong language and/or the hurt feelings of the other party seems foreign to both Old and New Testaments. The ancients didn’t really think in terms of emotionalism; whereas today, if our feelings get hurt by someone, that someone must have been ungracious.
To suggest mere semantics constitute ungraciousness is to undermine the depth of biblical categories. It is almost to attach a gnostic mysticism to our verbal communication where words, in themselves, can be evil or ungracious. But this militates against Christian deontological ethics and the doctrine of creation (God created sound). In Christianity, there are no ethics of created objects (e.g. a rocks, marbles, cars, beer, etc. cannot be evil in their own right). Rather, actions and thoughts are ethical or unethical (e.g. it is unethical to kill people with rocks, marbles, cars, beers, etc.).
In Colossians 4:6, Paul seems to appropriate graciousness with the knowledge of what to say. Content, therefore, is Paul’s concern in Colossians, not necessarily tone. It is possible for someone to be gracious in, say, a rebuke. In v. 5 wisdom is the focus and Paul immediately exhorts readers to “always be gracious” in speech. This is important because it determines how we will respond in any given situation. We are to cling to wisdom, which is found in Christ, and to choose our words carefully to the glory of God. This does not mean we shouldn’t be bold, but we need to be careful about what we plan on saying in any given situation. We could say something totally out of a desire to be more superior than the other person, this is the opposite of gracious. However, one could use similar wording to achieve a God-glorifying end.
Saying something like, “That is an absurd idea,” could be sinful if there is really no truth behind that claim and it’s made simply from a superiority complex. However, “That was a stupid decision,” is something any responsible father would tell their kids who confess to eating all the Flintstone Vitamins in one sitting!
If a person called another person a false teacher, for example, would it be uncharitable? Ungracious? Perhaps, but if it is true that the person really is a false teacher, it would not be an ungracious statement according to Scripture. In Scripture, this type of language is used quite often. Paul agrees with the Cretan prophet, that they are always “liars, evil beasts, [and] lazy gluttons (Tit. 1:12, 13).” According to many people today, Paul would be seen as ungracious. But was Paul really being ungracious there? I don’t think he was if by ungracious we mean self-asserting. Paul was cautioning Titus about the general norm on the island of Crete. In fact, one could say it was gracious of Paul to warn his pupil of such activity.
There is a gracious way to call out false teachers. By gracious, I do not mean to say that there are necessarily different terms one ought to use, rather than seemingly harsh ones (although the situation may dictate). I mean to say that graciousness is in the heart’s intent of the person doing the calling out. Do they simply want to look better for others, or are they doing what’s right for Christ’s church? The same goes for correcting and rebuking brothers or sisters in Christ. Do we want to truly see others grow in the Lord, or do we simply want to win arguments and show off our piety?
Personally, I would love to see more dialogue within the church about what charitability and graciousness actually look like from a biblical perspective. Too often are well-meaning people arbitrarily labeled as ungracious when it is often the labelers who are being ungracious! Likewise, many get away with being truly ungracious even while using joyful and charming language. It would do the church a huge favor for Christians to discuss this topic, especially in our 21st century American context where words seem to cut more deeply than they ought.