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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).