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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.