It is no small thing to have a conversation with someone whose ideas you disagree with (or possibly find repugnant). It can be painful, confusing, and frustrating. We can enter difficult conversations with the most careful intentions, only to be dragged into a tit-for-tat, zero-sum battle of words that leaves everyone wounded and no one closer to the kind of insight that changes people.
What should Christians aim for when it comes to conversations like that?
It is not a foregone conclusion that just because you are a Christian, you will interact with people as Jesus did. Modern people are not short on conversational role models that are at odds with the teacher from Nazareth who gave his time to talking, teaching, listening, challenging, forgiving, and loving people out of their misbegotten thinking.
But maybe we should start with ourselves. Take a moment to evaluate your own conversational habits:
- If you hear certain politicized keywords in conversation and start mentally categorizing the person in front of you by their tribe, party, or label, something may be broken in your ability to listen with compassion and curiosity.
- If you savor the thrill of scrolling through your social media feed so that you can foster outrage at your ideological enemies, you may have apprenticed yourself to another master than the Prince of Peace.
- If you dodge real but challenging questions behind a smoke screen of stats, facts, and counterpoints, you may have lost the skill of humbly giving ground when it becomes clear you might have something to learn.
And those are not small losses.
If you find yourself in that position this Christmas, take a step back. Take a breath and remember that this isn’t only something you’re doing. It is also something our culture has done to you. We are both the victims and the perpetrators of our broken discourses.
But what has been done can also be undone.
If we are to pursue the pattern of a God who was incarnated into our broken world in order to set it to right, we are going to have to talk to people we disagree with (and maybe even learn from them). Yet, in our polarized, digitized, and politicized cultural moment, that is exactly the skill we are in danger of losing.
The ability to have unhurried, nuanced, generous conversations is not an optional add-on for the people of God. Too often, we pattern our speech after culture warriors: we use sound bites, slogans, and straw men to “win” our conversations, but these won’t do if we want to understand (and be understood by) those who are not already members of our particular tribe.
If we are to overcome the world’s ways of making ideological war, we are going to need more mental, emotional, and spiritual firepower — but not of the kind the world recognizes. If we are to master the taxing task of conversing with those with whom we disagree, we are going to need more patience, kindness, love, laughter, time, wisdom, grace, curiosity, and, above all, humility. The good news is that transforming humans into the kind of people who are characterized by those qualities is exactly what Christianity does to those who would follow the way of Jesus.
The question is: What hope and help can Christianity offer to our culture when the kinds of conversations we need to have have never seemed less likely? Quite a bit of help, as it turns out.
Everyone alive bears the image of God
All Christian relationships and communication should be built on the bedrock of the image of God. If we raise our conversational houses on that foundation, we will avoid all kinds of errors. The image of God reminds us that all persons have been imbued with dignity by God himself, so we will not subject them to indignity in our minds.
The image of God reminds us that God is committed to the well-being of our neighbors, so we must be likewise committed. The image of God reminds us that the person in front of us is a whole person, not the sum of their ideas and opinions.
The image of God is able to both humble and inspire us. It humbles us because God’s image is also both present and marred in ourselves. It inspires us because everyone — even that difficult person we are talking to — bears God’s likeness, is the object of his affection, and benefits at every moment from his care even if they give him no thanks.
No one has said this better than John Calvin. To paraphrase him:
“The Lord wants us to do good to all people without exception, though most people, if judged by their own merits, are unworthy of it. But Scripture tells us that we are not to look to what people themselves deserve, but to attend to the image of God in them, to which we owe all honor and love… Whenever anyone comes to you in need of help, you have no grounds for denying it to him. Say he is a stranger — the Lord has given him a mark that ought to be familiar to you. Say he is lowly and of no consequence — the Lord points him out as one on whom rests the glory of his own image. Say that you owe him nothing — the Lord has substituted that person in his own place, that you might give to him the great obligations that you owe to Christ. Say that he is unworthy of your smallest effort on his account, but the image of God he bears is worthy of your life and all your effort. If he merits no good and has provoked you by injury and mischief, still there is no reason why you should not embrace him in all possible love… In this way only we attain to what is not only difficult but altogether against human nature: to love those who hate us, to render good for evil, blessing for cursing. We are not to reflect on the wickedness of men, but to look to the image of God in them, which covers and removes their faults and by its beauty and dignity allures us to love and embrace them.”
Ask Questions With Humility
Don’t forget that you are also a fool.
You also have treasured distortions of the good in your own life. You have blind spots and strongholds of falsehood that you guard and protect. All of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, not only in our behavior but also in our thinking. All of us will be subjected to the lifelong process of refining our ideas and removing the dross from our convictions.
Are you certain that process isn’t continuing right now with the person you are talking to?
Do not forget Jesus’ sobering words for those who would be judges: “With the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?”
I take this to mean that even when we see our brother’s or sister’s sin clearly, we should be more grieved by, more focused on, and more repentant over our own.
The missionary and minister Francis Schaeffer spent his days talking with people from all walks of life who came to his home in Switzerland. He used to say that if he had an hour to speak with someone, he would spend 55 minutes listening and asking questions so that he could say something of actual value in the last five.
So when you find yourself in a conversation with someone you disagree with:
- Why not spend more time listening and less time correcting and accusing?
- Why not gather your curiosity and channel it into genuine questions?
- When you feel an answer or rebuttal burning inside you, why not prohibit yourself from interrupting in order to gainsay the person you are talking to?
- Why not listen carefully, repeat their argument, and then ask if you have understood it correctly? If you haven’t, ask them to say it again until you can say their own point back to them better than they said it. If you did that, what would happen to the part of their brain that is gearing up for a battle of misunderstandings?
If this became your pattern of listening, what would happen the next time you had something to say?
Challenge With Patience
Christian conversation is not all about listening and questions, however, because having an opinion is not the same thing as knowing the truth. Therefore, our conversation must involve challenge. That said, we should take off our shoes before we go tromping around in the minds, lives, and attitudes of our fellow image-bearers. We are walking on holy ground.
But we must not forget that God’s truth, though it surpasses us, is not infinitely malleable. It is not a ball of clay that will take any shape we mold it into. At times, if we want to be people of the truth, we will have to stand for the truth in our lives and in our conversations, come what may.
God’s truth is rich, complex, and full of mystery, so we should always challenge with humility and as much strength and gentleness as we have the maturity to muster.
When you have something important to say, don’t just blast your conversation partner with a cannon full of “truth” and see what happens. Jesus told his people to be “harmless as doves and wise as serpents.” What does it mean to challenge with wisdom and strength but without fear and violence?
- What if you built bridges from truths people already loved to truths they do not love yet?
- What would it take for you to discern which hills to die on and which crazy comments to completely let slide?
- What if you saw your role as sewing conversational seeds without harvesting them all at once?
- Would it be enough for you to simply drop questions into the minds of your conversation partners without launching a follow-up barrage of answers?
Remember That God Changes People, Not You
We should remember — especially in our most difficult and trying conversations — that the Holy Spirit is the one who is the Great Counselor who leads people into all truth. God works in people’s lives both in brief, intense moments of insight (perhaps as a result of some impactful conversation) and in long, slow revelations that take decades to come to fruition. Any single conversation might be just one part of God’s ongoing work of redemption in a person’s life. Or it might not.
After all, we know that any conversation takes place in the context of God’s larger care for people. God, who made and loves our conversation partner, is ultimately responsible for clearing away the error from their thinking and the sin from their lives, not us. We are invited to play a role in speaking and demonstrating the truth in our words and actions — no small part of that being to simply do no harm to our fellow humans for whom Christ died.
C.S. Lewis’s words of comfort in Perelandra are a balm to anyone who feels they have erred in a conversation: “Be comforted, small one, in your smallness. He lays no merit on you. Receive and be glad. Have no fear, lest your shoulders be bearing this world. Look! it is beneath your head and carries you.”
Christians should be able to trust God enough to believe — even if your words don’t produce the results you hoped for — that God was at work before the conversation started and abides with the person long after it is over. The fate of the person with whom you are speaking doesn’t rest on your shoulders, but the God who took the burden of the whole broken world on his scarred back carries you both. Receive and be glad.