COUNT TO EIGHT FIRST

A Listening Strategy for Keeping Your Cool and Loving Others Well

Blonde woman having tongue in clothespin

One night last week, Jan and I welcomed new friends into our home. We shared a meal with a couple who have served locally as missionaries for twenty-six years among First Nation peoples, especially the Nez Perce Tribe.

As newcomers to the area, we were eager to gain insights from their experience for understanding this special part of rural Idaho’s population.

We quickly learned that a number of complexities accompany building relational bridges with Native Americans. Their painful history and challenging circumstances present significant hurdles.

At one point in the conversation, I heard the most important takeaway for me:

“We’ve learned to count to eight first.”

Before saying anything, especially in more stressful conversations, they’ve discovered that mentally counting to eight before offering any verbal response communicates empathy and a desire to understand, not just be understood.

I then recalled this biblical admonition: “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God (James 1:19-20).”

I also felt convicted. Not only do I not use this particular strategy, I typically find myself mentally framing my responses to others before they finish speaking!

The Scriptures counsel repeatedly about this dynamic.

“When words are many transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent” (Proverbs 10:19).

“If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame” (Proverbs 18:13).

“When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent” (Proverbs 10:19).

“Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding” (Proverbs 17:27).

“Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly” (Proverbs 14:29).

“Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city (Proverbs 16:32).

The Count-to-8-First Strategy benefits relationships in another way.

It loves others well by showing empathy through listening–the deepest form of understanding another person.

The authors of Difficult Conversations explain:

As an empathetic listener, you are on a journey with a direction but no destination. You will never “arrive.” You will never be able to say, “I truly understand you.” We are all too complex for that, and our skills to imagine ourselves into other people’s lives too limited. But in a sense this is good news. Psychologists have found that we are each more interested in knowing that the other person is trying to empathize with us – that they are willing to struggle to understand how we feel and see how we see – than we are in believing that they have actually accomplished that goal. Good listening . . . is profoundly communicative. And struggling to understand communicates the most positive message of all (184).

Next time you find yourself in a tough conversation, keep your cool and try listening empathetically by counting to eight before opening your mouth.

But skip the clothespin!

Question: When have you felt understood well by someone? What did they do?

OH, HOW GOOD IT IS!

A Worship Song I Wish Every Church Would Sing

One cannot overstate the blessing from God of prolonged peace and unity within a congregation.

So says the inspired song writer in Psalm 133:

Behold, how good and pleasant it is
    when brothers dwell in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head,
    running down on the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
    running down on the collar of his robes!
It is like the dew of Hermon,
    which falls on the mountains of Zion!
For there the Lord has commanded the blessing,
    life forevermore.

The Gettys have given us an easy-to-sing, biblically-credible version of the text with which to bless our churches.

We owe them our thanks. We sing it at Trinity.

I commend it to pastors and worship leaders everywhere.

A HELPFUL WEAPON FOR WAGING PEACE

A Review of “The Path of a Peacemaker”

Our age abounds with peace-breaking tension.

Internationally, the streets of Hong Kong and the Strait of Hormuz–just to name two–know life-threatening tension.

Nationally, our nation’s capitol reverberates with rancor and division over immigration policy and a host of other clashing views.

Evangelically, the Reformed camp struggles with sharp disagreement such as I have never seen in my pastoral lifetime over issues of ethnic diversity, social justice, and racial reconciliation.

And these say nothing of the other forms of conflict and disunity that affect our communities, churches, homes, and relationships of all kinds.

path of a peacemakerThankfully, Brian Noble of Peacemaker Ministries has contributed another helpful weapon to the peacemaking arsenal for fighting the good fight of peace in any context. The Path of a Peacemaker: Your Biblical Guide to Healthy Relationships, Conflict Resolution, and a Life of Peace (Baker, 2019, 238 pages) turns the tables on tension early on in its pages. Noble relates his own tension-filled upbringing story and how God used it as a positive force in his journey.

He then proceeds to develop in detail a four-part rubric for navigating tension born of conflict to positive, peacemaking ends.

He guides the reader through one, story–tell our stories together; two, ascend–pray and read Scripture together; three, reflect–take personal responsibility; and connect–ask, confess, seek, and forgive. He encourages the reader:

A path of a peacemaker conversation is not about perfection. It’s about being willing. It’s about being vulnerable. It’s about being sincere in seeking peace. It’s about caring enough to involve yourself in something that—let’s face it—could be uncomfortable (194).

I particularly appreciated Noble’s repeated emphasis on the importance of humility (I’ve suffered my share of failure with my prideful nature) at every point on the peacemaking path.

Citing Jesus’s example in John 8:1-11 he writes: “Humility has the power to change everything. It is one of the most important lessons we can learn from Jesus. Jesus changed the world with humility” (101).

Brian Noble writes well. He relates stories effectively to bring home his points. He excels in the practical. The questions he suggests asking for connecting in the chapter on forgiveness could be worth the price of the book!

Noble includes plenty of biblical references pertinent to a sound peacemaking theology. He does not make it his purpose to delve deeply in exegetical study. But he writes on solid theological ground–including his appeal to the gospel as the means and power for putting the path of a peacemaker into process.

traveler at the edge of a cliff with amazing view behind him

You have to love where he lands the plane:

Even though this book is based on a set of steps to help you find peace with someone you’ve been warring with, it’s not about the process. The process is just a means to an end. What really matters is action. When you invite someone to sit and talk about something that has hurt you, that’s taking action. When you forgive someone who’s hurt you, that’s taking action. When you make amends for some offense, that’s taking action.

Buy the book. Master the process. Walk the path.

Question: What area of relational tension would you hope this blog might address in future posts?

WHEN YOU CAN’T OVERLOOK

How to Have a Difficult Conversation without It Blowing Up in Your Face

My post The Beauty of Overlooking stressed fighting anger with magnanimous forgiveness.

The follow-up post When Overlooking Is No Glory unpacked diagnostic questions to determine the difference between active overlooking and passive denial.

Soldier in full combat ammunition pulls a check from a grenade.

Now, how do we proceed with a difficult conversation with someone who offends without escalating conflict?

Douglas Stone and company, in their book Difficult Conversations: How To Discuss What Matters Most, nailed the challenge at hand:

Delivering a difficult message is like throwing a hand grenade. Coated with sugar, thrown hard or soft, a hand grenade is still going to do damage. Try as you may, there’s no way to throw a hand grenade with tact or to outrun the consequences. And keeping it to yourself is no better. Choosing not to deliver a difficult message is like hanging on to the hand grenade once you’ve pulled the pin. So we feel stuck. We need advice that is more powerful than “Be diplomatic” or “Try to stay positive.” The problems run deeper than that; so must the answers.

Galatians 6:1 gives us four deep answers.

“Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.”

Remember Your Goal 

If you think someone has sinned against you, then they’ve gotten caught in a transgression. Your goal is not to vent; it’s to restore.

Don’t just look out for your own interest in repairing the harm done to you. Aim for his best interest in escaping the trap which has ensnared him (Phil. 2:3-4).

Walk in the Spirit

Offenses often trigger fleshly reactions–especially fits of anger (Gal. 5:20). Work them through BEFORE the difficult conversation. That might take some time.

Ask the Lord to fill you with the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23) and to keep you in step with the Spirit all the way through the difficult conversation (Gal. 5:25).

Be Gentle

Paul stresses this aspect of the fruit of the Spirit for these assignments. Gentleness tempers an approach, lessening hand grenade impact.

Ask questions way more than making judgments. I love to lead such conversations with something like: “Remember that thing you said/did that time? What was going on there? Can you help me understand what that was about?”

Strive not to put others on the defensive; make them a partner in solving the matter.

Inventory your Contribution

You may have sinned, however slightly, so as to affect the situation. Heed Jesus’s instruction to remove any logs from your own eye (Matt. 7:3-5).

A preemptive, legitimate confession goes a long way to deffusing bomb threats to the conversation. You may only be 20% responsible for the conflict, but you are 100% responsible for your 20%.

It shocks me how often folks tell me how they’ve been hurt by others but never talked to the offender about it.

When you can’t overlook an offense, the best advice is TALK TO THE PERSON (Matt. 18:15)!

Just take care how you do it. Leave the hand grenades behind.

Question: What is something that has helped you navigate difficult conversations?

WHEN OVERLOOKING IS NO GLORY

How To Avoid Denial When Someone Offends You

My last post urged fighting anger by choosing magnanimous forgiveness whenever possible when someone sins against you.

Proverbs 19:11 applauds that kind of covering-a-multitude-of-sins love.

“Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense.”

Choosing to graciously forgive an offense with no need to confront the offender is a beautiful thing–a glory. And the gospel compels us to do so often.

There is, however, a danger worth noting inherent with this virtue.

Toy forklift hold letter block d to complete word avoid on wood background

In the name of overlooking we can actually shut down in silence and even file the offense away for later use.

Ken Sande rightly labeled that “a form of denial that can easily lead to brooding over the offense and building up an internal bitterness and resentment that will eventually explode in anger.”

I get this form of “peacefaking” all too well. My inherent loathing of conflict can deceive me into a faux-overlooking that is no glory at all.

Pastor Alfred Porier, in his excellent book The Peacemaking Pastor, prescribes two helpful diagnostic questions to help avoid this mistake.

Question #1: Is the Offense a Persistent Sin?

Galatians 6:1-2 speaks to this: 

“Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens , and so fulfill the law of Christ.”

Paul pictures someone sinning habitually as trapped like an animal in the wild. The law of Christ’s love demands a spiritual process of restoration for that person’s welfare to help free him from sin’s grip.

When you encounter an offense that is an ongoing, spiritual problem, it is no glory to overlook; it’s a lack of love.

Question #2: Is the Offense Hindering My Relationship?

If the matter keeps invading your thoughts and alters the way you interact with the offender, you likely need to address the situation in love.

Poirier gives himself a two-day test:

If I find myself frequently reflecting upon my brother’s or sister’s sin for more than two days, if it is there when I rise and when I go to sleep, if I think about it while I am showering and when I am driving, and if I am reticent to greet this fellow believer at church, then I cannot overlook the offense. I must address the matter with the person (139).

Either way–overlooking with magnanimous forgiveness or confronting with truth in love (Eph. 4:15)–fighting anger in the face of offenses is a matter of wisdom, choosing one or the other with God’s help.

Question: What’s another sign which helps you know when you cannot overlook an offense?

You can leave your comment below.

THE BEAUTY OF OVERLOOKING

Fighting Anger with Magnanimous Forgiveness

A Google search of royal jewels yields, among others, Queen Elizabeth’s Imperial State Crown.

Imperial_State_Crown

The crown is set with 2868 diamonds in silver mounts and colored stones in gold mounts, including 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds and 269 pearls. What a glorious treasure that must be to behold!

Proverbs borrows that kind of imagery to describe a figurative glory to behold–overlooking personal offenses. I’m talking about Proverbs 19:11: “Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it his glory to overlook an offense.”

The word “glory” is the same Hebrew term used in Proverbs 4:9. “She [wisdom] will place on your head a graceful garland; she will bestow on you a beautiful crown.”

When we choose forbearance in the face of insults by granting unilateral forgiveness of wrongs without confrontation, Scripture likens that to wearing a priceless tiara–a glorious crown. It makes us spiritually beautiful!

In this introductory post about this virtue for peacemakers eager to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace in their churches (Eph. 4:1-3), please note that there are three essentials to grasp from the text.

The Aim Is Good Sense

The Hebrew is variously translated discretion, wisdom, understanding, and insight. The book of Proverbs champions this pursuit as priority-one in life. “Good sense is a fountain of life to him who has it, but the instruction of fools is folly” (16:22).

Wisdom is a moral issue won or lost on the battlefield of human relationships.

Group scream

The Enemy Is Anger

Proverbs warns often about this nemesis to a life of wisdom, pleading for long-fused restraint in the face of wrongs.

“Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses” (10:12).

“The vexation of a fool is known at once, but the prudent ignores an insult” (12:16).

“Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly” (14:29).

“A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to anger quiets contention” (15:18).

“It is an honor for a man to keep aloof from strife, but every fool will be quarreling” (20:3).

“A man of wrath stirs up strife, and one given to anger causes much transgression” (29:22).

The takeaway is obvious: the more you are given to outbursts of anger the greater your distance from genuine spiritual insight and discretion.

Bible text - YOUR SINS ARE FORGIVEN

The Answer Is Forgiveness

Overlooking offenses means regularly choosing magnanimous forgiveness in the face of wrongs without ever talking to an offender. I plead with others all the time: “Please do not be easily offended. Overlook sins in others–a lot!”

It takes love which covers a multitude of sins (1 Pet. 4:8). Ken Sande explains a crucial distinction about this glory and the ultimate inspiration for its power:

Overlooking is not a passive process in which you simply remain silent for the moment but file away the offense for later use against someone. That is actually a form of denial that can easily lead to brooding over the offense and building up internal bitterness and resentment that will eventually explode in anger. Instead, overlooking is an active process that is inspired by God’s mercy through the gospel. To truly overlook an offense means to deliberately decide not to talk about it, dwell on it, or let it grow into pent-up bitterness (83).

How do you know when not to overlook an offense? Stay tuned for my next post!

Question: What is a challenging offense for you to overlook and why? You can leave your comment below.

HAPPINESS IS BEING A PEACEMAKER

Why Jesus Stressed Peacemaking in Our Pursuit of Happiness

I majored in theater at Penn State back in the day.

My favorite show was “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown.” I played the lead role—the blockhead himself—Charlie Brown. Type casting no doubt!

The musical’s theme song, “Happiness” features a litany of things from pizza with sausage to climbing a tree that make for true happiness.

But Lucy and Linus join voices with the best lyric in the tune singing, “getting along.” Happiness is getting along.

It reminds me of a sermon Jesus preached about happiness. He proclaimed nine virtues which make for kingdom happiness called the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:2-12). Each begins with the word “blessed.”

The seventh focuses on the joy of getting along in relationships. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (5:9).

Happy, fortunate, enviable—all synonyms for “blessed”—are those who determine to get along with others whenever possible and help others do the same.

Conflict impacts everyone. No one escapes differences which can lead to relational breakdowns.

Danger Mines Sign

I get this. In only my second elder meeting at my new church recently, I stepped on a conflict landmine. A lack of sensitivity on my part about a painful conflict in their past history ended a way-to-short honeymoon. Sigh.

It happens to all of us–even guys who dare to write books on preserving unity! Oh the irony. What to do? I asked the Lord to help me gear up once again as a peacemaker. I suspect it won’t be the last time either.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus stresses that true happiness belongs to those who prioritize pursuing peace with others–no matter how often they must do so.

Other New Testament texts echo this. The apostle Paul pleads, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18). The writer to the Hebrews exhorts, “Strive for peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14).

Why is peacemaking a kingdom of God true happiness virtue? The answer comes in the rest of Matthew 5:9— “for they shall be called sons of God.”

Working hard at maintaining oneness and repairing brokenness—whether with family, friends, or adversaries–gets us the blessing of being called children of God. It gives evidence that we belong to the God of peace who sent the Prince of Peace with the message of the gospel of peace reconciling us to himself.

There is no greater happiness than that. Are you known as a peacemaker? Would others say that about you? If so, take it from Jesus. You are blessed!

For a quick checkup and loads of resources to help you pursue your joy as a peacemaker, click on Biblical Peacemaking at Ken Sande’s website www.rw360.

Question: What principle or insight has helped you experience happiness as a biblical peacemaker?

OUR UNENVIABLE FRATERNITY

Another Story of Unimaginable Loss Yet Sustained by Unshakable Hope

Sometimes an author simply must go off topic.

After watching this moving, seven-minute piece about my dear brother and friend, Ellis, I knew this week’s post was one of those times.

I was Ellis’ pastor when he lost his daughter at the tender age of eighteen so many years ago.

Ellis was my friend when I lost Joshua four years ago and Nancy three years ago.

I sought to be his friend again when he lost his bride just months ago. They would have celebrated 45 years of marriage today.

We do belong to an unenviable fraternity. We have often commented how our lives have run parallel courses.

But we share yet another reality that makes us members of a most enviable fraternity.

Both our lives remain built upon the solid rock, Jesus Christ, who never fails to sustain in life’s darkest hours (Matt. 7:24-27).

With Ellis’ permission, I invite you to watch this moving testimony.

Be encouraged to hope and continue your race no matter what the twists and turns along its course.

Question: What is one aspect of this story that strengthens your hope?

AN OPEN LETTER TO GRADUATES

A Plea to Set Your Sights on the Most Valuable Pursuit Imaginable

Dear Graduate:

Congratulations on your accomplishment! It is no small achievement to earn a diploma or degree at any level. I commend you for making the finish line. Well done!

Of course, graduation is also a starting line—we call the ceremony “commencement”—the beginning of the next season of your journey.

Scholarship money concept. Coins in jar with money stack step growing growth saving money investment

Whether you are headed for college or going directly into a career, I want to challenge you to consider the single most important pursuit imaginable for the rest of your life.

WISDOM 

God’s word calls wisdom “far better than jewels—all you may desire cannot compare with her” (Proverbs 8:11).

When I graduated high school, the principal challenged me to get straight A’s in college. Please don’t misunderstand. I’ve got nothing against academic excellence. But rarely in my life have I prayed, “Lord, make me smarter.”

But I have begged time and again, “Lord, make me wiser.” I want to challenge you to aim higher than knowledge. Determine to learn how to apply what you know to life’s often staggering choices in the best possible way. That’s wisdom!

“The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight” (Proverbs 4:7).

Here is my gift to you: six truths for getting wisdom from Proverbs—Scripture’s bank vault of wisdom. Each starts with the letters of the word itself.

Worship God Reverently
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (9:10). Nothing matters more than this. Put God first in your life by making your aim always to please Him.
Invite Input Enthusiastically

“Listen to advice and accept counsel, that you may gain wisdom in the future” (19:20). Don’t go it alone. Get yourself a mentor you respect to help guide you through life’s most significant decisions.

Shape Words Carefully

“Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble” (21:23). Trust me on this: people will judge how wise or foolish you seem by what comes out of your mouth. “Out of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). Control your tongue.

Distrust Self Vigilantly

“Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (4:23). A person’s worst enemy is their own heart (Jeremiah 17:9). Guard it from every threat—especially pride (11:2).

Overlook Sin Graciously

“Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense” (19:11). Don’t be easily offended by others. Choose love that covers a multitude of sins (10:12).

Make Disciples Intentionally

“Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another” (27:17). A disciple is a learner. Don’t just get a mentor; be a mentor. Help others grow. Give yourself away to others and I guarantee you’ll increase in wisdom.

Friend, this might seem overwhelming. It is. You and I need the help of the One who became wisdom for us (1 Corinthians 1:30) through His perfect life, death on the cross, and resurrection from the dead.

If you’d like to know more about him and the wisdom life he offers, watch this seven minute presentation called Two Ways to Live.

If you ever need help or counsel in any way, please don’t hesitate to contact me. It would be my great joy to offer whatever wisdom I can.

In His grip,

Curt Heffelfinger

5 THINGS I’VE LEARNED IN 9 MONTHS OF SEMI-RETIREMENT

Pausing to Look Back for Takeaways about How to Move Forward

I wracked my brain wondering what to post this week.

Thanks to friend and writing mentor Chad Allen, I knew exactly where to head.

His timely post about his new season of self-employment inspired me to reflect similarly on my transition.

Your new life

Last August 15 I walked out the door for the last time as lead pastor at Orlando Grace Church.

Here are five significant takeaways from the journey thus far.

One, God is faithful to provide (Phil. 4:19).

When I put a succession process into motion at OGC, it took some risk-taking faith. Like many pastors in their later years, I’m not positioned financially to retire. While I desire to keep working at my calling, the fact is I must do so to provide for my household. I marvel how not once since the OGC paycheck ended have I needed to raid the buffer fund!

Takeaway: keep on trusting that He is a rewarder of those who seek him (Heb. 11:6).

Two, conflict is everywhere to steward (Matt. 5:9).

This reality hasn’t surprised me at all. I expected to find strained relationships and broken friendships in rural Idaho just as they exist in metro Orlando. But the extent of these challenges in our valley has at times taken my breath away. There is a need here for peacemaking help.

Takeaway: stay on mission helping churches and their people do their best at preserving unity (Eph. 4:1-3).

Three, help is essential to succeed (Gen. 2:18).

Nobody thrives or survives in the pastorate full-time or part-time by flying solo. We need a ton of help. Jan excels in her role as this shepherd’s wife! I don’t even want to imagine trying to serve Trinity Church without her persevering prayer, relentless encouragement, and relational skills.

I’ve also found help from my fellow elders at Trinity as well as other area pastors by joining the local ministerial association. I know next to nothing about pastoring in a rural context. These servants have much to teach me and I’m eager to learn.

Takeaway: do a lot of listening to wise counselors (Jas. 1:19).

Four, relationships are costly to build (1 Pet. 4:8).

One local pastor reminded me recently of the adage “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Stepping into a new culture and church brings the challenge of investing in relationships to build trust and connection. That takes time, energy, even money because few things build relational intimacy like sharing a meal together.

Takeaway: take initiative regularly to practice hospitality with joy (1 Pet. 4:9).

Five, time is precious to redeem (Eph. 5:15-16).

According to my employment agreement with Trinity, I’ve got 20 hours each week to spend on pastoral ministry. Our elders insist that I stay around that target, though we all know some weeks will require more time.

They want me to enjoy this new season by not overworking. How sweet is that!? They’ve got me keeping a daily log of how I use my time. At the 90 day mark of service we will review the results to take stock of my stewardship.

Takeaway: prayerfully choose each day’s activities to make the most of every opportunity (Psalm 90:12).

Whatever your vocation–full-time, part-time, semi-retired or retired–I trust these reflections apply to your realm and might help as you move forward into your future!

Question: What in this article has been most helpful to you?