What is holy conversation?

What do you apprehend to be more valuable than good sense, good nature, and good manners? All these are contained, and that in the highest degree, in what I mean by Christianity. Good sense (so called) is but a poor, dim shadow of what Christians call faith. Good nature is only a faint, distant resemblance of Christian charity. And good manners, if of the most finished kind that nature, assisted by art, can attain to, is but a dead picture of that holiness of conversation which is the image of God visibly expressed.

— John Wesley, “An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion”

In a seminary class, we’ve been reading a book about non-violent communication. I’m sure that is why the quote above caught me eye. Wesley refers to holiness of conversation as the image of God visibly expressed. All our talk with and to each other should reflect God’s image.

As reasonable as this sounds, though, I do wonder what it means exactly. If I take Scripture as an example, I do not have to go far to find examples of communication that are not warm and fuzzy. The Marshall Rosenberg book linked above describes non-violent communication as avoiding all evaluation and judgment. It says that when we make a request we should not demand compliance.

Clearly, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit did not attend a workshop on Rosenberg’s principles. The apostle Paul and the prophets missed the seminar.

So, I wonder what Wesley meant by holy conversation. What does it mean to say the image of God is made visible in our talk with each other?

9 thoughts on “What is holy conversation?

  1. An excellent question, John.

    It seems to me that the practice of non-violent communication is indeed a practice with good sense and good manners behind it. And so learning this is indeed to learn the art to which Mr Wesley referred.

    Keep in mind, too, that the 18th century word “conversation” is not limited to verbal communication. It might be better captured by another word, though in some state of disuse: “comportment.” How one addresses persons from any “station” (recalling that 18th century England was a “class” or “station” culture through and through), not only in terms of words, but in terms of tone and even in terms of gesture and posture, down to how and for whom a door may be opened– all of this would have been included in “conversation.” This is why Mr Wesley related this to “manners.”

    Did Mr Wesley believe or teach that God’s “conversation” toward us or through the image of God in us toward others was that of the “proper English gentleman?” No. He did not. While he was not entirely anti-nomian about such matters, to be sure, neither does he anywhere insist on them. What I see him urging upon the Methodists was the cultivation of the holiest of tempers, love, with all other holy tempers. The image of God fully restored in us is perfect love. So perhaps he might say the question becomes not simply how one “properly addresses” one’s “inferiors” or “superiors,” but rather how one allows the love of God to shine through in every encounter with every person of whatever station.

    1. Thank you, Taylor for sharing your thoughts on this. They seem right on the mark to me, for what that is worth.

  2. Amen! I am still following your posts. The Lord has kept me very busy this last season. I am now the Director of Lay Servant Ministries in our District. When you least expect it He decides to bless your work and multiply it. Christian Charity (Love) is all encompasing. Sometimes you do not realize who is hearing what you say or how you act, but you are impressing someone all the time. What would you say at the end if you were asked the question, “Why did you say that” from the throne?

    1. Millie, blessings on your ministry leadership! Your comment reminds me of the Scriptural counsel to let our speech be seasoned with salt.

  3. My idea has always been that by the end of your life or even before, that what I hope to become is the total reflection of Christ. As each person grows, the reflection will differ with every aspect of their life. As I just found out today, I am human and never will be God. Yet when I try being God, I am actually becoming like satan. So in all, our conversation (total life) depends upon who is my God and nothing else really matters.

    1. I hope your learning about your humanity was not a cause of great trial or difficulty for you. If it was, I pray you have found strength in Christ through the rough places.

  4. Most of the time when I hear “holy conversation,” it is used as a euphemism for “be nice” or “don’t rock the boat.” This is especially common at Annual Conference when something needs to be passed with minimal fuss – a budget say, or a controversial statement. Too often, it’s used to deflect serious discussion.

  5. From doctrinal sermon #8—“They who “walk after the Spirit,” are also led by him into all holiness of conversation. Their “speech is always in grace, seasoned with salt :” with the love and fear of God. “No corrupt communication comes out of their mouth, but only that which is good ;” that which is “to the use of edifying ;” which is “meet to minister grace to the hearers.”

    From the list of Instituted Means of Grace in the Large Minutes– “Are we convinced, how important and how difficult it is to order our conversation right? Is it always in grace? Seasoned with salt ? meet to minister grace to the hearers? Do we not converse too long at a time? Is not an hour at a time commonly enough?”

    1. Thanks! I always like a good quote from Wesley’s own works.

      I’ve always wondered exactly what the phrase “seasoned with salt” means in this context.

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