Thursday, August 25, 2016

Strong Convictions; Soft Words

Learning when to seek to win an argument winsomely, and when to pass

In the world of social media, polarized politics, and a society that seems hell-bent on drawing lines between people, I find myself being smacked in the face (metaphorically) by all sorts of arguments and assertions by people of varying degrees of thoughtfulness, demanding that I pay attention to what they say, or arguing for a point with such woefully weak logic or Scriptural support that it almost makes my eyes or ears bleed. I see it on Facebook, hear it on the news, and read it in the paper (probably an electronic version). 

I understand the passion that people feel over the issues they make such pronouncements about. In fact, my own passions make me want to take up my pen, keyboard, or microphone, and answer with just as much passion. I can just imagine how my slashing, incisive counterarguments would leave the original writer repenting in dust and ashes. But, usually, I don't do it. In fact, more and more I am checking my impulse to show these people just how flawed, unbiblical, or just plain wrong their reasoning is. Often when asked directly for a comment, I will encourage the writer/speaker that such passion or concern about an issue is good, and perhaps she/he should examine certain conclusions or reasons on one particular aspect of what was said. I have found that if a person responds defensively to a small inquiry, challenge, or question, spending more time trying to engage will probably be one of those "giving pearls to pigs" activities that Jesus discouraged. That's not to say all my thinking is "pearl-ish" because it isn't. But engagement on an issue requires a willingness to listen, to allow one's ideas to be challenged, and to be willing to change if one is convinced by an appeal to higher authority (not me, but Scripture, or logic, or history, depending on the subject discussed).

However, I fear that some people may think that because I don't respond, especially with passion, when such things are posted and the authors know I must see it, let me offer these general disclaimers.

First, my failure to comment on your statements does not imply agreement or disagreement. I may have not even read them. And I may have read them and concluded that this is not a case where dialogue is being sought, but a diatribe being made. I have no interest in engaging in the social media equivalent of standing toe to toe yelling "oh yeah?"

And you can be pretty sure I'm not going to willfully be drawn in to a social media argument, especially one between commenters on one of my or another person's posts. I've sometimes written something and had a commenter go off on what he perceived was an error or mistake, and then someone else joins in attacking the comment, and pretty soon I have 185 comments, none of which are really about what I wrote. 

I would encourage us all to develop strong convictions--but convictions that are not an emotional response to a moment, but rather the thoughtful consideration of truth revealed in Scripture as it then applies to life. Yes, I must insist that convictions must be anchored in a biblical worldview and by the truth claims of the Bible. Those that are not will not carry weight with me, and they shouldn't with believers. That doesn't mean that any of us perfectly reflect all biblical truth in our thoughts or writings. But I work hard to do so, and I hope that those I would engage would do so as well, or be open to an apologetic as to why biblical truth can and should be heard.

If you know me, you know I have strong convictions and opinions. I am also willing to share them, but less and less in an accusatory or angry, argumentative venue (which social media has increasingly become). Yes, as a pastor I do have to warn, and sometimes with great energy and indignation against damnable heresies such as the prosperity gospel. Such soul endangering lies do not deserve courtesy. But sometimes people who hold such views do not know they are in error, and while I can condemn the heresy, I might first wish to speak more engagingly to that person and help them see that Scripture nowhere supports what they are thinking. 

I've shared one of the more puzzling parts of Proverbs with you before. In Proverbs 26:4 we read "Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself." In the very next verse, it says, "Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes."


How can I follow both of these wise pieces of advice? I do it by realizing that there are degrees or types of foolishness according to Scripture. There are those who say silly things because that is what they were taught and they don't know any better, or they have reacted to a situation based on their feelings or what their foolish peers have encouraged, but they haven't really examined their thinking. Many in cults and false religions are here. 

Then there are those who have a measure of intellectual ability but reject God's truth as revealed in creation and Scripture (think Romans 1-3), and assert what is false, and sometimes ridiculous, as true. For example, those who argue passionately that gender is a "construct" divorced from biological and physiological realities, is fluid, and is "choosable" are demonstrating a willful foolishness. 

I am happy to engage the former (a verse 5 kind of fool) in order to keep them from full embrace of error. My approach to the latter (a verse 4 kind of fool) will only come if I see an opening to try to break through error or to protect others from the error being espoused.

In either case, one further principle comes into play. It is that other proverb, "A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger" (Proverbs 15:1). I don't want to promote anger but understanding. And it is here that social media is so dangerous, because "soft" is as much a tone as it is word choice. How does someone hear my inflection or see a compassionate look as I write? This is why I will often invite a person into a personal conversation if they want to talk about something rather than an exchange of posts. Writing can certainly accomplish the task, but the discipline of writing well, and with an irenic spirit, is not one that Facebook encourages or models for us. 

So, don't be surprised if you don't see me engaging your latest #neverTrump or #neverHillary rants. I have strong opinions (hopefully formed and governed by Scripture) on gender identity and gender roles, but I'll probably not weigh in on your latest rants or reposts of the latest hot blogger on the subject. But I'll like the pictures of your children and grandkids, and your insights into your life as it unfolds.

Oh, and when you post something that begins, "I want to see how many of you will post this..." you can be sure I won't. I won't be cowed by social media shaming!