January 19, 2011 by C.J. Mahaney
Categories: Friendship | Fellowship
In conversations I often want to dispense with small talk—let’s just get to the point. But underneath this haste is an assumption that small talk or casual conversation is superficial and worthless.
No so, according to my friend David Powlison.
A while back I interviewed David about his ministry and writing, and at one point I asked him to explain the purpose of his book Speaking Truth in Love. As a way of summary, David made a point that I have returned to on many occasions since. David said:
When I use the word counseling I don't mean a Ph.D. in psychotherapy in an office. I mean the way the Bible talks about counseling, which is the effect of the tongue, and the effect of our lives on each other. We are changed by relating to each other when we relate wisely. And that may happen in an office. Every pastor is going to make appointments and there will be times that you sit down with someone, or you just say to a wise friend, “Can we get together?” You talk and counsel happens. Or it could be just the most casual kind of conversation.
In God's view there is never an inconsequential word that anybody ever says. Every word counts. We are not always aware of that. Jesus says you will be judged for every careless word you utter (Matthew 12:36). That means that when you climb into anything a person ever says you find profound things revealed about what they are about: what they are after, what their intentions are, what their worldview is. Even in small talk there is a revelation of the heart that God is searching out, and he weighs the intentionality of small talk.
Small talk: it is either a way for me to say, “I don't want to know you and I don't want you to know you and so I am going to keep it light and make it as quick as possible and see you later.” Or small talk is a way to say, “I care about you. I would like to get to know you.” We can talk about a football team or the weather and it is actually an expression of two human beings making that connection, but it is because we love each other or want to know each other.
Small talk is going to be judged by God for the kind of deep intentionality it is. In other words, small talk is counsel.
Then David introduced Ephesians 4:29: “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.” Thus, he says,
Let no word be spoken that is not nutritional, constructive, timely, appropriate, grace-giving. Every word. Never anything else. The Bible sets a very high bar. The way that we converse with each other is meant to be a means of grace so that we influence each other unto faith, unto joy, unto love, unto gratitude, unto honesty, and unto confession. All those things are meant to happen in daily life interactions.
David then referenced our dinner conversation earlier in the week, where we talked about the history of baseball (and of our mutual disdain for the New York Yankees!). He said,
We were not trying to avoid each other by talking about baseball. We are actually enjoying each other. It’s part of the pleasure of two men being friends that we had a ball talking about baseball for about 20 minutes and then we talked about lots of other things—yes, that were more substantial—but the baseball part of the talk was not inconsequential. It was part of our pleasure in being friends.
An excellent point! And David’s point is one that has changed my perspective of small talk and my practice of engaging in it.
You can listen to my full interview with David here.