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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Let Us Reason Together, Part 2: Scaling High Walls in Debate

"You can keep talking if you want, but I won't be listening!"
"Well, fine, if that's the way you want it!"
Next to kindness, listening (or not listening) is one of the biggest issues when it comes to a successful, civilized discussion. I think it's safe to say that most people do not appreciate stonewalling when they are trying to discuss a matter with others, particularly if the topic is a sensitive one, like religion. If neither party is listening, what is the point of talking?

Listening is necessary. After all, listening is not the same thing as agreeing...although it can sometimes lead to a truce.

Last time, we talked in-depth about the importance of kindness in any discussion or argument.  Here is the link to Let Us Reason Together, Part 1: Christian Debate and Kindness.  Today, we're going to talk about three major listening-related impediments to an effective debate, and how Christians can overcome these obstacles. If you've got more to add, I'd love to hear from you in the discussion section on this article. Now, let's get started!

Tough Questions

Scaling High Walls. Photo credit here.
The number one impediment in any discussion is the difficult question.  I mean, your side of the argument is going well, and then suddenly the other person arrests your progress by raising a question so daunting, you can't seem to begin to answer it.  Many people avoid discussing really important matters of faith or lifestyle with others, even their fellow Christians, out of sheer dread of this stone wall.

Honestly, though, a question is actually a good sign, even if it's an angry question. It means that the other person was listening to what you've been saying, and obviously, it is an excellent chance to get your point across.

So how do you go about answering a tough, out-of-the-blue question? The first thing to remember is the Biblical advice, "A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger," (Proverbs 15:1 NIV).  It doesn't matter how frustrated you are, or how much your voices have been raised up to this point. When someone asks you a good question, answer gently. Do not shout back an insult. Do not question the other person's right to pose the question, just because it is frustrating you.  Gentleness is disarming because it is totally unexpected, and completely foreign to such discussions. This is why Christians are instructed to be gentle at just such times, because this is a reflection of God's character, once again.

Now the Bible advises us to "be prepared, in season and out of season" (2 Timothy 4: 2 NIV), especially about theological issues, which means we should know what the Bible has to say about the subject in advance (see also 2 Timothy 2: 15). Sometimes, however, we come upon a question and don't know how to answer it, because it calls upon knowledge that we just don't have.

The Bible instructs Christians at this point to seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  He will give us the right words at the right moment (Matthew 10: 19-20), because He already knows how this conversation will end and what needs to be said.  He is interested in getting at the truth, even more than we or our audience may be, because truth is an essential part of the nature of God. Christians should be willing to let their cause be lost, whatever it might be, if it cannot be proven to be true, because if they are fighting for a lie, they are on the wrong side (see John 14: 6).

I would also like to add that it is perfectly okay to say "I don't know," or "I need to look that up and get back to you on that," even if there may never be another chance to answer the question.  It is better to admit you don't know than to say something wrong and discredit everything else you have said.

Red Herrings

Closely related to the brick wall of the difficult question is the moment when the subject suddenly veers off into something seemingly unrelated.  This is especially difficult if you don't know where to go from there.  Some Christians have called these conversations "divine appointments," and advised their fellow Christians to just go with the flow of conversation. Perhaps this other person (or you) needs to learn about this new topic more than the one you had originally planned.

I was not able to find a perfect example of this in Scripture, but I do recall the story of Philip meeting the Ethiopian official on the road to Gaza, south of Jerusalem (Acts 8: 26-39). What started as two strangers randomly meeting at the side of the road and striking up a conversation, ended with a conversion and baptism.  The key is that Philip stopped to let the man establish the topic (a passage from Isaiah he was puzzling over) and went from that starting point to talk about his life mission, which was to share the news of Jesus Christ.

So what can we take from that story to use in every serious conversation we have? Let the other person establish the topic, and go from there, as a demonstration of the Lord's servant heart and Christian courtesy.

What about those times when the other person just changes the subject because they don't like where the conversation is going? You know what I'm talking about: hecklers.  The Bible simply tells us not to argue with someone for the sake of arguing, or to put it more eloquently, "Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him" (Proverbs 26: 4 NIV). Just be careful not to walk away from honest questions.  It will take the Holy Spirit's guidance to know the difference.

Old Wounds

The third real impediment to civilized Christian discussion is old baggage, in the form of wrongs that have been said in the past.  These  have a way of making a conversation heated quickly and without much warning.

Asking forgiveness, and being forgiven, is the basic way to get through this blockade, but that sounds easier than it is. The Bible instructs us to settle the matter as quickly as we can (Matthew 5: 25), and gives us a good guideline with the advice, "do not let the sun go down while you are still angry" (Ephesians 4: 26b NIV). Since we can't stop the sun from going down, we have to release that anger to the Lord. We can't wait until that other person says they are sorry or even changes their ways. We have to forgive before forgiveness is asked, and that takes the special help of the Holy Spirit (see also Colossians 3: 12-14).

There is another kind of baggage, though. That is old wounds from other people in other situations that didn't involve us at the time they took place. Though we cannot undo what has been done, and our apologies about that situation are not as good as an apology from the one who caused the wound, we as Christians can still bring healing to the situation. We should treat this person (whether an unbeliever or a believer) as we have been told to treat everyone, that is, doing what Christ would do. Treat the wounded as our betters, with great patience and kindness, so they can know the love of God, which wasn't shown to them in the past. God's power, and not anything we can say, can heal this wound.


The underlying solution to any conversational roadblock in a Christian discussion is the power of the Lord.  We need to pray and let the Bible and the Holy Spirit guide us before and during any kind of an intense discussion. The Lord looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16: 7), and He knows what the heart needs. He knows when the heart needs answers to tough questions, or when a person needs help with something that wasn't on the agenda. He knows when we need to apologize, or when we need to be kind to someone who isn't used to receiving kindness from others.

Ultimately, discussion and debate, from a Christian perspective, isn't about winning or accomplishing something we've planned. It's about hearing, sharing, and expounding upon the truth and the love of Christ with each other, and with the world, on God's schedule.  God removes walls and barriers, not us. As the Bible says, "'Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty," (Zechariah 4: 6 NIV). Nothing is accomplished without God's guidance.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Let Us Reason Together Part 1: Christian Debate and Kindness

"I disagree with you for the following reasons: (1) I think you're less-intelligent than me, and (2) I've had this opinion for a long time, I really like it, and am not thinking about changing it.  If you continue to press the point or present me with further uncomfortable facts, I will be forced to vocally question your sanity and insult your way of life."

How would you feel if someone used this line of debate technique on you?  What would you think if the topic under discussion was "Why you should believe in Jesus" and the person speaking was a self-proclaimed defender of the faith?

 Today, I want to begin to talk about debating our opinions (and our faith) in a manner befitting Christians.  When we defend our faith (or any opinion, for that matter), we are presenting a view of Christ to the world, which means our words can have eternal consequences.  We can wound or heal; we can shut the door of Heaven or open it wide to a searching person.  Because of this, we should really, really (can I emphasize this enough?) guard our words and our demeanor carefully.

The Root of Kindness...

The groundwork for any discussion should be a rule of kindness. I'm not talking about some official rulebook for order in a meeting; I'm talking about a personal decision to be kind, no matter what happens, and no matter what the other person says or does. That's impossible, you say?

The Bible says that kindness is one of the "fruits of the spirit," (Galatians 5: 22-23), that is, it is an expression of the power and presence of God in a Christian's life.  Now, those who do not personally acknowledge God as Lord of their life can be kind at times--we hear it on the news and should give them credit and praise for it--but there is a difference between Christian and non-Christian kindness.

Jesus called attention to the difference when He described what would be called a "normal reaction" and then stated what God expects people to do instead:
"You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. 
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?" (Matthew 5: 38-47 NIV)
Kindness is Unmerited Favor. Image: Eddie Two Hawks
In a nutshell, non-Christians give people back to others what they have earned and deserved, but Christians should give undeserved grace and favor in return for cruelty, disrespect, and unkindness.  Jesus doesn't just flatly demand this change in behavior; He backed it by modeling it personally. In fact, in Matthew 5: 48 (the sentence that comes immediately after the passage above) Jesus said, "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."  That is, be complete, mature, and fully-developed in your behavior, living up to the higher and more honorable standard God has modeled for you. What did God the Father do to model this perfection? He sent His son to rescue an undeserving people (See also Micah 6: 3-8).

So, we can establish that the origins of true kindness are from God and manifestations of His own character, and that they are something contrary and completely foreign to normal thinking outside of those who follow God. How about those who practice unmerited kindness but don't want anything to do with God?  The Bible describes this scenario, too, with a phrase: "having a form of godliness but denying its power (2 Timothy 3: 5 NIV), that is, these people conform outwardly to a model God established, but in their hearts, they reject the power behind that pattern and thus the power of that pattern, dooming themselves with their own hypocrisy (see also Matthew 25: 31-46 NIV).

Applying Kindness to a Debate

Since kindness comes from God and was first modeled by Him, it should be applied with a sense of its sacredness, that is, with an awareness of what it represents. If you are proud of your relationship with God, kindness should be liberally applied to others, but if you are embarrassed about God, you should be stingy with kindness.

Yes, I am being facetious to make a point.

If you are having problems being as kind as Christ, then you should at least go by your own personal human reference point, using the rule Jesus suggested: "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets," (Matthew 7:12 NIV). This is really a gateway into understanding God's kindness toward us, by causing us to give some serious thought about a key question: What do we want others to do to us?

So, at the beginning of debate, before even opening our mouth, we are directed to think first about that question.  We have to do it again and again, as necessary, before each exchange in the conversation.  We have to keep it in mind before we take action. We have to think about it after the blow lands but before our cheek stops smarting.  Because God has made us with thinking, reasoning minds, we are expected--no, required--to think, and because not all of us are old, studied, or gifted with cleverness, we were given a question even a child could answer. What do we want others to do to us?

This habit has a peculiar significance for Christians, because when we act according to its direction, we are as much as saying, "Not my will be expressed here, but Yours, Jesus," and "Not my honor be defended here, but Yours, Jesus."  If we can get into the habit of remembering and honoring this rule every day, but particularly during an argument, we are welcoming Jesus in to bless and sanctify our speech, and to direct us to say what is beyond our human power to say. Only Jesus has the power to tame the tongue; it is beyond human will power to control its poison (see James 3: 7-12 NIV).

In short, during debate of any sort, invite Jesus in and He will teach you kindness, and His presence in the conversation will bring reward for both you and your debate opponent.

Does Kindness Mean Backing Down or Standing Your Ground?

The Bible doesn't say or even imply that Christians are always right or that God will always support every idea a Christian has or feels. This means that sometimes Christians have to back down in a debate, even when they don't feel persuaded by the other person and still feel that they are right. I have struggled with this and I've seen others struggle with it even more than I ever have, because it's really hard to lose, particularly if you have a strong, winning personality type.

But, I won't go into that right now.

The fact is, in some cases, it is kinder and more godly to back down from an argument before it even begins, while in other cases, it is better to pursue the point.  The good thing is that the Bible gives us guidance about that, too!

In the case of choosing when to back down, 2 Timothy 2: 23-24 (NIV) says, "Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful." Here you see kindness shown as the foundation for choosing not to argue, rather than the foundation for argument, because the subject of the argument is not important enough for debate.

When is it important enough to keep arguing? Only when the subject hinges on a matter of absolute truth and obedience toward God, not something "foolish and stupid," that is, something that doesn't have eternal significance.  For instance, when Goliath challenged the strength and the king, and thus the God, of the nation of Israel, David had to go out onto the battlefield to fight him (1 Samuel 17). Later, when Ahab and the prophets of Baal proposed that their god was more powerful than Elijah's God, he had to debate with them, by agreeing to build an altar and letting the entire stakes (the choice of whether the nation would follow Baal or God) rest on the outcome of the debate (1 Kings 18: 16: 39).

It is interesting to point out that in the case of these sanctioned debates, the very nature of truth and the power of God was in question, and in the end, it was God and not a person who defended the point. He only worked through an individual's obedience and bravery to make His opinion known. 

Summary: Kindness in Debate

Looking back over this discussion so far, there is a clear thread running through all my points.  Kindness comes from God; it does not come from man.  Kindness is ultimately implemented by God through obedience to His will as we choose our words and actions carefully. Finally, kindness chooses our battles, and as a manifestation of the power of God, kindness fights our battles on matters of eternal spiritual significance, because Christ, as a matter of kindness, "is not willing that any of these little ones should perish" (Matthew 18: 14 NIV), but that "whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life" (John 3: 16 NIV).

Monday, July 15, 2013

The End is the Beginning

Still Singing!
As a writer, I rarely find a time when words begin to fail me, but it seems like that has been the case for me lately, especially when I try to write on this blog. I am in a thoughtful mood again today, trying to find some way to put my feelings onto paper (well, a screen, anyway).

At the start of this year, I wrote about how I felt God telling me that 2013 was going to be a year of "ending things."  I've seen that coming true ever since then, sometimes in good ways and sometimes in bad ones. Moving forward is a good thing, but sometimes change comes through bittersweet endings, and I've seen a few this year.  The loss of my dog was one, and the tornado that tore through my hometown was another.  A friend of mine is moving away tomorrow, and with that, I see an era or a chapter closing, at least in what I consider my old familiar pattern of life.

It's not all bittersweet, though. Over just the past few weeks, I've been able to move forward on my writing career goals after what seems like years of delays. I've also gained some clarity through all of these changes that will help me organize the rest of my work and life. Besides that, God has been reconnecting me with old friends and adding new ones to my life.

Look on change from an eagle's point of view...
He is opening doors for me, and although I don't fully know what to expect out of the rest of this year, I still feel that God is going to be with me, and that He is behind these changes.

If you, like me, are going through some whirlwind changes right now and are perhaps feeling a little weary in the midst of them, be reminded that God is in control, and that you can trust Him. Throughout Scripture we read how the prophets under God's direction predicted the end of things, but never do we read of an end without talk of a new chapter to follow...and that is always a grand and beautiful thing!

When something is taken, God restores, and when the end comes, God has made Heaven to follow.

Here is a passage that has come up in conversation a number of times over the past few weeks. It has encouraged me, and I think it will encourage you.
Do you not know?  Have you not heard?  The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.  He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.  He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.  Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.  They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint. (Isaiah 40: 28-31 NIV)