This is Part 2 of a two-part series; you can view Part 1 here.
As the second part in this post on four protections to create a safe relational space for small groups, here I focus on the fourth condition. This fourth condition has four pieces to it for limiting communication that tends to shut people down. The goal is to be able to accept others as they are, with their true sharing of their real mess in daily life as a Christian. Often we can get in our own way and so fail to love them in this way because we are so busy with the speck of sawdust in their eye. In a sentence, this four-part fourth condition is the log in our eyes that prevents meeting with others.
Groups need four specific restrictions that typically kill sharing (unwittingly). These can be difficult to practice, and people may need a gentle reminder when they transgress (e.g., “That sounds like advice to me”). The acronym of no JABS holds these four restrictions in a memorable way that also tells what they do to someone sharing –they are jabs to a vulnerable heart (Prov 12:18). JABS are also problems because despite our good intentions and the appearance of beneficial contribution, they obscure the truth. When they are used, JABS signal everyone to be on guard that the knives are out (despite the smiles and laughter), so take care what you share. The result is many normal, superficial Christian meetings where authentic, personal meeting fails to occur. JABS to be excluded are Judging, Advising, Blaming, and Shaming.
Judging is a favorite activity of every human being. It is normal for us to categorize the world and sort things around us. Unfortunately, judging when applied to people is rationalism amiss. Frequent warnings in the Bible against judging others show our tendency to criticize, censure, and label people (including ourselves). Judging makes us feel smart and good, if not also helpful, as if by our categorical statement we have somehow improved another’s perception of their plight or accomplishment (as in positive judgments showing approval). Judgments express the distortion of rationalism, shown by beginning with, “I think…” They are subjective perceptions posing as objective facts.
Most people see the obvious damage of negative judgments that label people as stupid, ugly, selfish, or careless. While judgments may be partially true, they purport to tell the whole truth about the person, and so feel as false as they are. No one is completely selfish, stupid, or careless, even if they exhibited the trait in one instance or a series of events. The negative judgments damage because they become labels that people feel obligated to live down to, as if we must fulfill them because they are true. The judgment threatens to become my identity.
Just as damaging are positive judgments. “You are so generous,” “she is the most caring person I know,” “they are smart, funny, pretty, hard-working,” and etc. are the categorical labels we paste onto people like happy name tags. Normally, we want to encourage others and acknowledge good things we observe. Unfortunately, our labels can quickly be a pedestal that people feel obligated to fulfill, in the same way that negative judgments function. Once someone has been judged as funny or smart, they unconsciously filter what they say so as to fit that label in subsequent sharing. The judgment threatens to become an identity I must perform to be acceptable and gather more positive strokes.
Judging of any kind and sharing honestly do not mix. If you want the sharing, then the judging will have to be excluded. The Holy Spirit is adept at correction for Christians, so we can leave that function to him. Some people have leveraged the “do not judge” statements in the Bible to evade any correction for their clear misdeeds. Misuse does not mean we then disregard the ban or qualify it so narrowly that we then go back to judging as a habit.
Instead of judgments, in groups it can be helpful to share observations that identify as subjective, “I see something here….” “It seems to me that…” We might even ask permission to share an observation, something we notice about what another has shared. Sometimes, we unwittingly reveal themes or blind spots and the feedback from others can help us see our condition more clearly. By contrast to judgments, observations are offered tentatively in a take-it-or-leave-it mood.
Advising is more obvious for the effects of shutting down people wanting to share themselves. We recognize advice by the start, “You should…” Sometimes people share a problem and want to be counseled, in which case the suggestions offered are not burdensome and do not put the receiver down. When others advise us (unsolicited), they may feel superior at our expense, since they are “helping” us by their wisdom. Maybe we do need the help, but often we do not want to solve our problem at the moment—we want to be known and connect through vulnerable sharing. The restraint necessary to bridle our tongues when we know the solution to another’s problem can be difficult, especially for pastor and teacher types in the church who are commonly asked for counsel by others. As an alternative to dumping our unsolicited advice, we might ask for permission to share a suggestion. The other person may decline it, but normally will grant permission. The effect of being asked permission allows us to dismiss the advice without feeling put-down. The overall result of restricting unsolicited advising is that people will be at liberty to share troubles without concern for how others might dump solutions on them.
Blaming is clearly an action that puts people at a distance and shuts them down from saying anything when the risk is that they will be criticized for their situation. While adults might not be in danger of blaming each other, many seem to feel free to blame younger people, whether in the church or at home. We wonder why our teens are shut-down after we have “done our job” as parents to show young people the cause and effect connection between their dumb actions and the unhappy results. What might have been a teachable moment for the developing young adult to draw some important conclusions for herself can be ruined by a blaming statement that shuts her down from admitting that she sees any problem whatsoever. Why do we blame others? Why do we blame ourselves? What good comes from this sort of attack to find fault? Whatever we might find to commend doing the blaming of others, in a small group the act of blaming anyone warns everyone that you had better watch out.
Finally, shaming is a similarly destructive method of making relationship unsafe. While we might rationalize using shame as a way to motivate people to avoid bad things and pursue good (as with blame), the effect on people is to do whatever they must to avoid being shamed. We shame others when we talk about their faults to others, so shaming can occur regarding someone not present, with the result that people present see that such shaming could happen to them also—watch out! Similar to blame and judgment, shaming goes further to ridicule someone for their misdeed. While much less a temptation for people to do to others, shaming still occurs in conversations and small groups for ostensibly good purpose of forming solidarity or motivating people to the good. As with blame and judgment, if shaming is necessary, then God might be the better one to deliver the blow.
To restate, the protections to support meaningful relational fellowship among Christians are confidentiality, commitment, focus on sharing, and practicing no JABS. Do we really want to be known and to know others? Are we willing to give up some familiar ways of communicating (such as judging and advising) for the sake of feeling safe together? One benefit of practicing no JABS is that eventually we may give up judging others in our hearts as well. With this clutter out of the way, we may be free to love and be loved with one another, to accept others as Jesus has accepted us.