When the ‘wrong’ words are right

This is not the blog post I planned to write.

The one I planned was short and snazzy. It had a catchy title, ‘Questions you should never ask.’ Or, even better: TEN THINGS YOU SHOULD STOP SAYING TO HURTING PEOPLE, RIGHT NOW!

A neat list of questions to make you quiver. The kind that, when asked of you, make you fold yourself into tiny triangles.

Missiles, like these:

Don’t you think it’s time to move on from your grief?

Why aren’t you guys having kids?

Did you mean to dye your hair that colour?

Ten Bad Questions – subtext: ‘Terrible Things that Unthinking People have said.’ Nice and simple.

But the more I thought about it, the harder it became. It turned out that before writing questions off as bad, I needed to ask myself a few more…

1. What’s the context?

A bad question in one situation can be a really good question in another. For example: Why aren’t you having kids? If a stranger shouts it across a crowded room, that’s embarrassing, inappropriate and wrong.  But asked sensitively and in the right setting,  the same question from a close friend might be entirely right. It may be uncomfortable at the time, but it may also open up a conversation that brings comfort and encouragement.

2. What’s my heart in hearing this?

Sometimes the problem with questions isn’t what’s said, but how I hear them. Maybe I take them the wrong way. Maybe I’m in a bad place to receive. Maybe I feel challenged or stung because I recognise an uncomfortable truth.

Maybe I’m not always the best judge of what I need to hear.

Just because a question feels bad, doesn’t always mean it is. Of course there are exceptions: abusive words that smell of sulphur and need to be cast away. But these don’t give me an excuse to write off every comment as ill-considered and insensitive. Many words said to us will be ill-considered and insensitive (and we should free to block and report online – or offline! – trolls). But it’s a mistake to assume that all unwelcome words are wrong, just because they don’t feel right.

Here’s another problem. I assume that friends should always speak charitably into my life. But maybe I need to apply these standards to myself — and listen charitably too. After all, if God can confront me with words I don’t want to hear, isn’t he allowed to use humans to do it? And even if they’re clumsy or misguided,  can I attend to the heart behind the words? Might God be saying something through them?

3. Does this help me move towards others with courage and love?

Let’s say I read an article entitled, 17 CONDOLENCES YOU SHOULD NEVER OFFER TO THE GRIEVING. It’s useful…but it also leaves me paralysed with fear.  What if I unthinkingly utter The Wrong Thing? I’m so scared of getting it wrong, that I don’t dare reach out to a bereaved friend. I’d rather play it safe than risk a bumpy conversation.

But there’s something to be said for clumsy words. Clumsy words meant with sincerity and love can be incredible — far better than awkward silences. And bumpy conversations are real ones; ones that often go through misunderstanding before they can clear it up.

Words of life are not scripted soundbites. They’re messy and tentative and sometimes intrusive, but this is life and it’s an essential part of how we know and are known. I make a point and you ask me to clarify. One question spawns another and it’s like we’re dancing; one step, two steps, three. Some miss the mark. But some strike home and change us forever. It’s uncomfortable and even frightening, but it’s living in relationship. We go away with the blessing of true human connection. And we arrive together at a destination we could never have reached alone.

Are there questions that we should never ask?  Maybe – and maybe not. Whatever the answer, let’s not assume that all bumpy conversations are bad. You might not say The Right Thing. But you’ll have said something – and that counts for a lot.


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4 thoughts on “When the ‘wrong’ words are right

  1. Thank you. I needed that because sometimes I don’t speak for fear of saying the wrong thing. It is also a reminder that when people do speak to not take it as hurt when that wasn’t their intent.

  2. This is such a thoughtful and thought-provoking piece – thanks for not simply piling into ‘lists’ (you’re absolutely right: they can provoke paralysing fear of ‘saying the wrong thing’) and for opting instead for deep-diving questions. Thank you.

  3. Richard, you are right. The modern habit of produced lists of “good” and “bad” things to say is wrong.


    “Sometimes the problem with questions isn’t what’s said, but how I hear them. Maybe I take them the wrong way. Maybe I’m in a bad place to receive. Maybe I feel challenged or stung because I recognise an uncomfortable truth.”

    This speaks to me. As one “separated unto God” I can understand that sometimes I can judge personally when I should judge righteously. We must judge what we hear, not according to our own personal issues, but according to the law of Christ.

    “I am the way, the truth, the Life.”

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