A few days ago, I received a message on Facebook from an acquaintance of mine. He had sent the message to a bunch of people. In my opinion, it was quite a politically inflammatory message. Accompanying the statement was the challenge, “If you don’t share this message on Facebook, you aren’t a true America.” This person was not looking to start a serious conversation about some topic of importance. He was drawing a line in the sand. He was building a wall between “Us” and “Them.” He was attempting to impose his views on other people. He was telling people that if they dared to disagree with him, he would no longer consider them to be acceptable members of American society.
Have we lost our ability in America to have an honest and open conversation with people who disagree with us about important things? It doesn’t happen much on social media. It doesn’t happen much on cable news channels. It certainly doesn’t happen on political talk radio. Most of the talk in those places involves applauding those who agree with us and insulting those who disagree with us. That isn’t conversation. That isn’t give and take, where each party listens to the other and is potentially persuaded to see things differently. Conversation of that sort is becoming very rare indeed in today’s America.
In our polarized America, many Christians have decided that polarization is just fine with them. Many Christians have decided that shouting at people who disagree with them is just fine. But the fact is Christian witness can’t work in that way. You cannot bear witness to Jesus by shouting at people or by building walls between “Us” and “Them.” Christian witness requires a context in which people are listening to each other, in which people respect each other even if they do not agree with each other. If Christians cannot foster that kind of environment, then we will never really be able to bear witness for Jesus.
Christian witness can only really take place in the context of an open, respectful, two-way conversation. Now, while that kind of conversation is sadly becoming rare in America today, Christians have some unique and powerful tools for creating that kind of conversation. Here’s a list of some of those tools.
In the context of conversation, humility allows me to enter a conversation and not need to be the most important person involved. “In humility consider others as more important than yourselves.” [Philippians 2:3 CSB] Humility enables us to suck the competitiveness out of a conversation. When I humbly treat the other person as the most important person present, it subtly tells the other person that I’m not trying to “win” this conversation, and so it makes it easier for them to decide that they don’t need to try to beat me in our conversation. It’s not foolproof, but if both people can stop trying to “win” a conversation, it becomes more likely that both will relax and start listening to each other.
If I want the other person to hear what I’m saying to them, it’s usually necessary for me first to show them that I am listening to them, that I am trying to hear and understand them and their point of view. “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” [James 1:19 NIV] Humility will help us to be slow to speak. We won’t feel the need to push ourselves on the other person. We can give them the opportunity to tell us what’s on their mind. One of the best ways to show a person that you are listening is to ask them questions about what they think and why they think that way. I don’t’ mean trick questions or questions that are designed to trap the other person. I mean honest questions aimed at helping us understand their point of view. You may find that you genuinely do disagree with the other person, but you can’t know that unless you have first made an honest and genuine effort to truly understand their point of view. Listen before you react or respond.
My dictionary defines “forbearance” as the ability or choice to refrain from taking offense when one is provoked. It is, I suppose, a form of patience. The apostle Paul urges the Ephesians to bear with others in their failings. “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” [Ephesians 4:2 NIV] In this, Paul is agreeing with what James said in the verse I quoted above. He is calling on us to be slow to get angry. Forbearance, patience, bearing with others, being slow to get angry, slow to take offense – this is a virtue that seems to be in precious short supply in America today. If Christians try to live this character trait out today, we will have to learn it from Jesus. When taunted by his adversaries while he hung on the cross, he forgave. Dare we do less? A gentle response to ugly words is the right path for the people of the Cross. Very often this is the way to open the door to an genuine conversation. People expect a harsh response to harsh words. Often when people receive a patient reply to their aggressiveness, they are surprised. Barriers can start to come down. Genuine conversation may become possible.
As we saw above, the ability to be patient and to bear with others is actually rooted in love. Genuine love that has not strings or conditions is at the heart of the gospel. If you want to touch someone with the gospel, you have to start by loving them. Jesus is our model in this. “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” [John 13:34 NIV] Jesus calls us to follow his example. “Love others the same way that I’ve loved you.” Jesus put no limits on his love for us. He won’t allow us to put any limits on our love for others. Jesus won’t allow us to limit our love only to those of our own clan, tribe, or party. Jesus calls us to love our brother and sister and also our neighbor and also the stranger in the street and also even our enemy and those who offend us (see Matthew 5:43-48). “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.” [Romans 12:14 NIV] If we enter all conversations with this attitude of love, of blessing without regard to deserving, we will find that more door will be opened for us into people’s lives. This kind of love can transform the world.
What does American need from Christians today? America needs this from us. America needs for us to show a new way of talking to each other. This is love that changes the world.
Now I give you this classic pastoral charge:
Go into the world in peace; have courage; hold onto what is good; return no one evil for evil; strengthen the fainthearted; support the weak; help the suffering; honor all people; love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Go and show the world who our Savior is.
©2019 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved.