Communication is Key

Young Couple QuarrelingStudies have shown that if you have 4-6 pre-marital counseling sessions prior to marriage, you are 50% less likely to ultimately divorce. This is a remarkable statistic. Especially when you consider that those pre-marital sessions are conducted by someone like me. Why is pre-marital counseling so important and helpful in laying the groundwork for marital success? I would argue it is pretty simple to explain. The reason it helps so much is that we work on basic relational skills such as communication and conflict resolution.

Communication is vital to marital health. If you can communicate effectively, you can resolve conflict. If you can resolve conflict, you can work through whatever issues emerge in the midst of marital life: financial stress, sexual frustrations, difficult in-laws, mis-aligned schedules, problems with kids, etc.  If you can’t, you’re sunk. So we work on communication skills in pre-marital counseling sessions.

The chief of these communication skills are assertiveness and active listening.  Assertiveness is the ability to express what you are thinking or feeling – to put into words what’s on your mind and heart – to transmit a message to your spouse. The content of this message is important – it needs to be clear and understandable, specific and measurable. But the other end of the communication is also vital. Active listening describes listening for understanding (without interrupting, assuming you know what’s being said, etc.). If you have all three parts (a willing communicator, a coherent message, and an engaged listener), communication works. If you don’t, it doesn’t.

Basically any form of communication has three parts: The communicator, the content of what is communicated, and the recipient of the communication.  Different authors use different ways of referring to these three things:

• Transmitter – Message – Receiver
• Encoder – Code – Decoder
• Author – Text – Reader

Any communication will involve these three elements. This could be written communication (like the Constitution or the Bible), it could be a work of art, it could be a radio transmission, a conversation with your spouse, or graffiti scribbled on a subway wall. Whatever the mode of communication, there is a communicator, that which is communicated, and the communicatee (the recipient of the communication).

When we consider the Bible and its interpretation (hermeneutics), these three elements are all important. For any biblical text there is the Author (say…Paul), the text (say…Philippians), and the reader (say…you!). When we consider the Paul-Philippians-You triad of communication, where does meaning lie? Which element of the triad is most important when we consider understanding the meaning of the thing?  Believe it or not, there are those who have argued for each of the three!

1) The Text – at one time it was argued that the meaning is to be found in the text, in and of itself. The author is irrelevant. Who he was or what he intended is unimportant. We have a text and we have to make sense of that text in and of itself. But…texts don’t mean. Imagine if you walked into a museum and saw a painting. What does it mean? What is it saying? You might say that it is a Monet, and that as an impressionist he is interested in…. But you can’t say this. Monet is irrelevant. All you have is brushstrokes on canvas. This doesn’t work in art interpretation – nor will it do so in any other form of communication (including biblical hermeneutics).

2) The Reader – in our day the assumption is that meaning is to be derived by the reader. This is known as reader-response theory. What matters isn’t what the author intended, or what the text says, but what you do with the text. What matters isn’t what the text meant, but what the text means to me. This has given rise all manner of schools of interpretation: liberation theology, feminist theology, etc. In more extreme forms such as deconstructionism, we are told that no text can have any meaning other than the meaning that a reader chooses to receive. One wonders…why would anyone ever bother to read a book written by a deconstructionist? This is exactly what enables activist judges to justify nearly any action they deem appropriate. If the Constitution means whatever it means to me, then it means nothing at all (or anything I want it to mean!).

3) The Author – the traditional way of interpreting the Bible, and the model that Jesus himself followed, was to interpret the Bible in keeping with the Author’s intended meaning. If I want to know what Philippians means, then I need to try to understand what Paul was trying to say. This means I need to know as much as I can about Paul, about the Greco-Roman world in which he lived, about the Greek language he spoke and wrote in, about first century Judaism, about the city of Philippi, etc. Philippians doesn’t mean whatever I want it to mean, it means what Paul and the Holy Spirit intended it to mean. Only once I understand what the text meant can I take the next step – asking what the text means now to me. But this personal application grows out of the text’s original intended meaning. I can’t know what it means until I know what it meant. If Paul walked into your bible study would he say, “Yes, that is precisely what I meant”? If not, then you have the wrong interpretation. Interpretation is not a free for all. In the Constitution example, would Madison say to the Supreme Court, “Yes, that is exactly what we framers intended”? If not, then the court has it wrong.

If you want to effectively communicate with your spouse, you need to listen with care to what they are saying to seek to understand their meaning. If you want to understand what the Bible means, and how it applies to your life, you must likewise listen to what the biblical author was trying to communicate. You can’t know what it means unless you first understand what it meant.