The divinely inspired words in this Bible passage, and Luther's comments on them, provide us with a mini-seminar on how to effectively communicate with those we would like to correct or change with our words. These are God's own principles, and therefore are always right to follow, whether or not they achieve the desired result. But they often will be effective, when God's plan allows--definitely more so than the alternative. Read the words of Paul in Galatians 4:12-20, and see if you can pick out the principles even before we discuss them...
"Brothers, I entreat you, become as I am, for I also have become as you are. You did me no wrong. You know it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first, and though my condition was a trial to you, you did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus. What then has become of your blessedness? For I testify to you that, if possible, you would have gouged out your eyes and given them to me. Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth? They make much of you, but for no good purpose. They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them. It is always good to be made much of for a good purpose, and not only when I am present with you, my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you! I wish I could be present with you now and change my tone, for I am perplexed about you."
Based on Paul's inspired example, and with Luther's comments to help us understand it, here are some principles for convincing those who disagree with us...
Express care and concern for them (v. 12a)
Paul says, "Brothers, I entreat you, become as I am, for I also have become as you are." As Luther writes,
Anxious lest he should do more harm than good, he is careful to let them see that his criticism proceeds from affection and a true apostolic concern for their welfare. He is eager to mitigate his sharp words with gentle sentiments in order to win them again....In beseeching the Galatians to be as he is, Paul expresses the hope that they might hold the same affection for him that he holds for them.
We request the same consideration for ourselves. Our way of writing is incisive and straightforward. But there is no bitterness in our heart. We seek the honor of Christ and the welfare of men. We do not hate the Pope as to wish him ill. We do not desire the death of our false brethren. We desire that they may turn from their evil ways to Christ and be saved with us. A teacher chastises the pupil to reform him. The rod hurts, but correction is necessary. A father punishes his son because he loves his son. If he did not love the lad he would not punish him but let him have his own way in everything until he comes to harm. Paul beseeches the Galatians to look upon his correction as a sign that he really cared for them.
Though our opponents may not believe us, it can never hurt to express love for them, and it may indeed help. How hard would it be for us to simply say, while we are disagreeing, "I'm not trying to hurt you, I'm trying to help you" or "I'm saying this for your good"? Of course we would actually need to mean that truly from our hearts, which is true of all these principles... I'll get to that issue at the end of the post. But for now, here's another one...
Tell them you're not personally offended (v. 12b)
When we disagree with others, one of the most common assumptions they're going to make is that we are prejudiced against them because we've been hurt or angered somehow. So they won't even begin to consider what we have to say. So if we are hurt and angry, we should first deal with that before God, and when we are not, we should communicate about it. Luther sums up Paul's approach very well:
"I am not angry with you," says Paul. "Why should I be angry with you, since you have done me no injury at all?" To this the Galatians reply: "Why, then, do you say that we are perverted, that we have forsaken the true doctrine, that we are foolish, bewitched, etc., if you are not angry? We must have offended you somehow." Paul answers: "You Galatians have not injured me. You have injured yourselves. I chide you not because I wish you ill. I have no reason to wish you ill. God is my witness, you have done me no wrong. On the contrary, you have been very good to me. The reason I write to you is because I love you." The bitter potion must be sweetened with honey and sugar to make it palatable. When parents have punished their children they give them apples, pears, and other good things to show them that they mean well.
Remind them of something good about your relationship (vv. 13-15)
Paul thanks the Galatians for receiving him initially, even though he had an apparently repulsive "bodily ailment." Luther thinks this is a general reference to all the suffering and persecution the apostle endured, but I agree with some other commentators who say it was likely an eye problem that marred his visage considerably--because just a couple verses later he says that if possible they would have given him their own eyes. But regardless of the exact nature of his ailment, Paul's point is that there was something good about their relationship in the past. People are more likely to listen to those with whom they have shared some common positive experience, so we should remind them about that when we disagree.
Tell them you're not the enemy, and enlist them against a common foe (vv. 16-17)
Paul says, "Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth? They [his opponents] make much of you, but for no good purpose. They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them." This is especially important among Christians, who should be on the same team fighting against our common enemy Satan, who is constantly seeking to destroy our souls. Luther writes,
"Do you Galatians know why the false apostles are so zealous about you? They expect you to reciprocate. And that would leave me out. If their zeal were right they would not mind your loving me. But they hate my doctrine and want to stamp it out. In order to bring this to pass they go about to alienate your hearts from me and to make me obnoxious to you." In this way Paul brings the false apostles into suspicion. He questions their motives. He maintains that their zeal is mere pretense to deceive the Galatians. Our Savior Christ also warned us, saying: "Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing." (Matt. 7:15.)
Paul raised questions about the motives of those who opposed him, and we can do that too (without crossing the line into sinful judgments of their hearts). "Why do you think they like you so much?" we could ask. "Would they still be your friends if you started disagreeing with them?" Or, "Don't think those who praise you necessarily have your best interests at heart." Proverbs 29:5 says, "A man who flatters his neighbor is spreading a net for his steps."
Talk to them in a parental tone, rather than a judgmental one (vv. 18-19)
Paul says, "It is always good to be made much of for a good purpose, and not only when I am present with you, my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!"
Would you talk to your young children the way you talk to your opponents? Well, if your opponents are really wrong, then in that situation they are ignorant like children, and likely have been deceived by others. So have some fatherly or motherly compassion on them. As 2 Timothy 2:25 says, "The Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will."
Talk to them in person if possible, rather than in writing (v. 20)
Paul says, "I wish I could be present with you now and change my tone, for I am perplexed about you." His words, and the following from Luther, are relevant with a capital "R" in our day of emails, Facebook, and the Twitterverse...
A common saying has it that a letter is a dead messenger. Something is lacking in all writing. You can never be sure how the written page will affect the reader, because his mood, his circumstances, his affections are so changeable. It is different with the spoken word. If it is harsh and ill-timed it can always be remodeled. No wonder the Apostle expresses the wish that he could speak to the Galatians in person. He could change his voice according to their attitude. If he saw that they were repentant he could soften the tone of his voice. If he saw that they were stubborn he could speak to them more earnestly. This way he did not know how to deal with them by letter. If his Epistle is too severe it will do more damage than good. If it is too gentle, it will not correct conditions. But if he could be with them in person he could change his voice as the occasion demanded.
Finally, make sure your heart is right before you disagree with someone. All these principles are dependent upon us actually having love in our hearts for others, and the only way we can get that love is from God. Romans 5:5 says that "God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us." And Jesus taught that he who has been forgiven much loves much. So I would like to end this post with a challenge (for our President and for all of us) to pray these words from David in Psalm 51:9-13:
Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.