Tag Archives: argument

How an XKCD Cartoon Reminds Me: It’s Not About Me

If you happen to know someone from New Jersey or perhaps you’re from New Jersey, you may be lucky enough to know about sarcasm. Yesterday I watched a brief interview of a columnist that I used to follow on Twitter that sent my sarcasm meter spiking to dangerous levels of snark.

It was definitely a “time out” moment where I wished I lived somewhere with some steps I could sit on to pout and kick my feet.

saladThe topic of the interview isn’t too important for my purposes here, but I’ll give you a taste of it for some context. The slant of the “news” show was the assault of the food police on the school lunches of our poor children. This time chicken nuggets are the target, and this columnist actually said something like, “My kids are going to say, ‘Eww gross, we don’t want to eat vegetables, we like chicken nuggets.’”

I’m a big fan of local food and vegetables who ate his fair share of chicken nuggets, and believe me, kids who are influenced by food industry marketing should not be allowed to tell us that heavily processed chicken bits are a better lunch than naturally growing vegetables. And even if her kids don’t like cheese tortellini with spinach, that’s no excuse for opposing a healthy menu.

I mean, is childhood obesity something that Michelle Obama made up so that the government can control dinner time?

OK, so there’s the sarcasm kicking in. I’m really passionate about food. I’ve watched how cutting back on meat (without eliminating it) has changed the way my body responds to certain foods. I used to eat steak regularly, but now I usually get ill after eating too much of it, while vegetables make me feel great.

However, this post isn’t about steak or vegetables or even those devilishly tasty chicken nuggets. This post is about what we do when we encounter someone who challenges our beliefs online and leaves us feeling angry and possibly threatened.

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Where to Place Our Confidence: The Trap of Defensiveness

There are times when I don’t like who I become: fearful, angry, and defensive. Defensiveness usually tips me off that something isn’t right.

Sometimes I’ve been wronged, and I feel defensive. At the moment when I feel defensive, I have to decide how to respond. That’s when I have to choose between working toward redemption or retaliation.

Other times I haven’t been wronged personally, but I fear the impact of what someone else believes, teaches, or practices. Whether or not my fears or evaluations are correct, the moment I feel defensive, I begin to think of ways to protect what I believe and value from a perceived threat—typically another person or movement.

The moment I become defensive about beliefs, practices, or values, I’m no longer in a position where I can love another person, seeing him/her from God’s perspective. I’m rooted in my perspective, and I become convinced that the existence of another perspective could upend everything I hold dear.

Usually defensiveness is rooted in misperceptions and overreactions. However, even if my defensiveness is warranted, I need to decide whether I’m going to reach out in redemptive ways or strike in order to protect myself.

When my Christian faith was all about finding the right answers and holding onto the truth rather than holding onto a person, I was defensive all of the time. Everyone who differed from me was a threat who called into question the beliefs that my faith was built upon.

When my Christian faith and salvation rested on having the right answers and holding onto the truth, defensiveness made sense.

Allegiance to truth or a particular perspective demands defensiveness in order to preserve it from criticism.

It’s no secret that Christianity stands and falls on one foundation: Jesus Christ. We can all agree on that, but if our foundation is found in a person and in his revelation through the Spirit, scripture, and Christian community, where does that leave us with truth?

That is where Christians tend to differ.

From where I sit, I’ve learned to see truth, or what we believe, as something important, but not something I’m supposed to necessarily defend. No matter what someone teaches, Jesus is still Lord. He defines the truth, he alone knows all of the truth, and there’s nothing that I can do to enhance that.

I see my role as that of a messenger who needs to pass along a message, not a warrior who has to protect something. Even when I meet a Christian who is missing a key part of the Christian faith, I’m a messenger who should affirm what is right and gently correct what is wrong with the ultimate goal of helping others know and experience Jesus as fully as possible.

If someone is committed to Jesus and holds to beliefs that I consider wrong, I gain nothing and they gain nothing when I become defensive. I may be able to encourage that person to see things differently, but if I feel the need to defend the truth or attack someone, the larger problem is my insecurity, my desire to control, and the possibility that I’m resting more on having the right answers instead of the right savior.

Loyalty to God and One Another: On Heresy

Have you ever noticed that Christians sometimes disagree? You have? Oh, man, what a shocker, right?

A recent kerfuffle amongst Christians, the chosen vs. the choosers you could say if you wanted to be imprecise, has me thinking about our priorities, the impact of our disagreements, and some ways we can take positive steps forward. In fact, for all of the hand-wringing and such, I’m a bit hopeful.


Defining the Situation

We need to get a brief handle on a few guidelines here for disagreements. There are disagreements among Christians over beliefs of different traditions and there are times when Christians disagree because one side is a heretic.

Our greatest mistake seems to be making a disagreement over beliefs within the faith into a heresy smack-down, with one side playing the part of the inquisition, turning Lewis’ great house of Christianity into a studio apartment—an apartment that John Calvin has crammed with his stuff in this particular case. I’ve also seen studio apartments for Catholics, Baptists, Arminians, etc. We all do this from time to time.

We have a pastor and blogger who disagree in this case. Is this a disagreement over universalism or different conceptions of hell and salvation that send us out of the Reformed library and into a drawing room of another denomination? We probably don’t know enough to say anything for sure at this point.

However, here are a few thoughts on how to handle our disagreements with one another regardless of whether this pastor is a universalist.

Our Loyalty

Christians are loyal to a person and our beliefs (or doctrines) help us understand that person. The emphasis is essential here. We are loyal to a relational deity who wants us to love and obey him.

If we get the love and obey part, we’ll figure out that God wants us to relate to one another with the same charity, seeking out the best for others. We hold to our beliefs because they are important, but we don’t defend our beliefs as a matter of first importance.

The response of the blogger to the pastor here smells of prioritizing beliefs over the person. Was an accusatory blog post the best way to restore the pastor if he really was in error? I don’t know the blogger’s motives, but if he really thought a fellow brother was in error, the Bible tells us how to proceed. His actions match those of someone far more concerned with defending a doctrine than restoring an individual—that is, if that pastor needs to be restored from something.

Hint: A combative blog post that generates lots of traffic and comments wouldn’t leave me feeling, “Wow, that guy really wants me to be restored from my heresy! How nice of him. Look at all of the traffic his criticism of my beliefs generated. I guess I should agree with him.” Just saying.

The Significance

If we are loyal to our beliefs ahead of our relationship with God, we may view other Christian perspectives as threats. If we encounter a view that borders on heresy, we risk making things worse because we’re seeking to protect doctrines instead of people.

We aren’t here to defend the Gospel.

We’re here to let God change how we live and speak through the Gospel.

The Gospel is here to lead us to God and we need to live it with clarity and truth. However, if someone steps away from a faithful, biblical proclamation of the Gospel, we should be rushing to help the person, not to attack his/her beliefs.

The Goal: Restoration, not Isolation

When we disagree and fear that a fellow Christian may be teaching false doctrines, I think there are two possible ways forward. On the one hand, we should certainly engage the beliefs of that person and discuss them fairly with all of the information. I have no qualms with someone fairly critiquing my take on Jesus if I have made an error.

However, I would also hope that no one would attack me personally right off the bat, isolating me from the body of Christ. You see, we can isolate others, creating chasms where we say, “Our side has the truth, your side has the error. Come over to our side if you want to be a true Christian.”

A public attack like this only pushes us further away from one another. If someone really is in error, then attacking the person may only tempt him/her to dig in and fight back.

Isolation does not lead to restoration.

There may be times that we’ll have to isolate someone, but that is only a last resort, not an opening salvo. We begin with an appeal out of love for the other person, and only cut that person off if there is no other resort.

Defending a doctrine ahead of a person saves us from all of the trouble that love requires.

Does the Response Make Things Worse?

I’m actually more concerned about how we respond to this kerfuffle, than I am that we had a kerfuffle in the first place. I have a lot of reformed friends, and I know a lot of folks who are probably suspicious of this pastor.

Hey, his videos drive me nuts. I don’t agree with all that he teaches—that is, if I can get a handle on anything in his videos. I’m usually sitting there thinking to myself, “Common observation, touching story, emotional projection, probing question, suggestive answer. Common observation, touching story, emotional projection, probing question, probing question, suggestive answer.”

There clearly are more effective ways to be a heretic in my opinion, but I digress…

If this pastor really is a universalist, then I’d certainly think a minor kerfuffle is warranted—as in, someone should reach out to him personally out of love. However, I don’t want us to create divisions where they are unnecessary.

The first shots have been fired, but we don’t need to fire back. We also don’t need to wring our hands too much. There are lots of Christians who are rolling their eyes right now. The trick is to avoid attacking back. We’ll only make things worse.

The body of Christ can drown in its own self-righteousness just as well as it can in its squabbles. We can be combative in how we point out the combativeness of others.

What I Can’t Say

I almost tweeted something like this today: Fictional story: Christians charitable when disagreeing over what only God knows.

I couldn’t do it.

I knew it wasn’t true, and that made my day.

I know quite a few Christians who are very humble and kind, even when we disagree.

I have hundreds of Christian friends who are open-minded, who would hear someone out before reacting, and who would charitably work toward restoration of someone in error. Many of these friends dig Reformed theology.

Charitable Christians are not fictional. We are legion. We just don’t attract the same attention because we aren’t lightning rods for negativity and controversy that drive human interest stories on blogs and news sites. 

Rather than lament that a pastor asked some vague questions and a blogger made some harsh critiques before reading the whole story, let’s celebrate the fact that such an approach is not acceptable to many believers. There are folks who disagree with the pastor and/or the blogger, and these folks are praying for God’s best for them—praying that we are all restored to unity in Spirit and in truth.

What Forever Changed My Approach to Discussions

I frequently leave comments on a few blogs that show up in my Twitter feed. Over the course of time I noticed one guy kept leaving combative comments. Sometimes he criticized the blogger, while other times he criticized others who had left comments.

One day I’d had enough. It was time to put him in his place.

Having spent a good chunk of my life in South Jersey, I have a pretty good grasp of sarcasm. He seemed like a good candidate for a little bit of it.

I don’t know what stopped me. I hope it was the Holy Spirit. “What are you hoping to accomplish?” passed through my mind.

My reply to myself was something like, “I want this guy to lighten up and leave civil comments.”

I countered myself swiftly, “Then sarcasm won’t help, will it?”

That clinched it for me. I have since choked back many a sarcastic comment because I’ve had to realize that my goals and my words don’t always line up. I want someone to lighten up and show grace to others, but I don’t want to show grace to them and reach out in peace.

It’s like wanting to lose weight while eating cheesecakes for dinner every night. And by the way, if someone told me that could work, I’d totally be game for that.

Sometimes our kind replies will be thrown back in our face, but on that occasion and on many others, I’ve had some great conversations on blogs by responding with kindness: understanding where that person is coming from and then gently pressing my point.

Ironically, there is no record of my greatest victories here. I can’t look at the list of sarcastic comments that I didn’t leave. In fact, the only record of my self control will be in heaven. If I’m not doing all of this for the heavenly record in the first place, then why am I doing all of this blogging stuff?

Steps to Constructive Discussions: Our Goals Matter

A little while ago I had a meeting with a pastor from a country in Africa. As a Christian from another continent, he is able to offer some critique of the American flavor of Christianity. We agreed on quite a lot. However, going into the conversation, he had no idea how I would respond to his approach to ministry, his views on the Holy Spirit, or how to handle certain hot topics.

I was struck by the way he proceeded in the conversation. He was quite humble about his views, sharing them as the best he can figure out right now. As he shared his own views, he created room for me to disagree.

However, if I chose to disagree, he didn’t make that a deal breaker in our conversation, and subsequently, our relationship. He had no interest in winning the conversation or evaluating me. He was just trying to figure out whether we were on the same page or not before ministering together.

He reminded me that Christians can have civil and fruitful discussions about sensitive topics if we approach them properly. I’ve been trying to put into practice a few pages from his play book since then:

The Goals of Discussion

We can aim to learn, express a perspective, and even persuade others. As we enter into discussion, it helps to keep our goals in mind and then pursuing a course that makes the most sense.

If we fail to understand why we’re posting something to our blogs or bringing up a subject among a group of colleagues or friends, some misguided goals may take over. Discussions fall apart when we aim to judge another person or to win.

Handling Dissent

Yesterday I mentioned that we should enter into discussions expecting perspectives other than our own to show up. If someone presents his view as the only option, then he’s not actually creating a discussion. A word like monologue would be more appropriate.

The dismissal of dissent is a sign of weakness. In fact, part of my growth as a Christian has occurred by discussing worst case scenario options for my faith and learning about the perspectives of those who have left the faith. If my faith can’t handle their tough questions, then what do I actually have? The avoidance of dissent and tough questions reveals some serious problems.

If we can enter discussions with a view to learning from others and humbly expressing our views, then we really can learn a lot and even grow in the process. However, I often overlook my own assumptions. It’s only until I’ve presented my own views as the gospel that I have a rude awakening that I haven’t been prepared to hear a view other than my own.

Constructive Goals

If someone holds a perspective that may be destructive for individuals and/or groups, our responses can change everything. In fact, our responses at critical moments may reveal our true motivations for entering into discussions.

I’ve entered into too many discussions and left too many comments just to appear clever or insightful. Most of the times that discussions devolve into insults and mocking, the participants are so focused on making themselves look good that they forget there’s another human being on the receiving end of their jabs. Our own survival rules out the possibility that anyone else may need our help.

Walking Away

Sometimes we can’t accomplish anything constructive because our conversation partners are unwilling to consider any view outside of their own. Sometimes we are hit by a barrage of insults.

While the ethics of Jesus say we shouldn’t punch back, as in turning the other cheek. There’s no reason why we can’t step away. We don’t have to keep turning our cheeks over and over again.

On my own blog and on the blogs of others, I sometimes find that I shouldn’t leave comments because I notice that I’m getting a little too worked up. In fact, if a subject annoys me or leaves me upset, that’s probably a discussion to avoid. I don’t see how I can add anything to the mix that will help anyone. It’s far more important that I deal with the source of my frustration by surrendering it to God and letting him change my heart.

There is a lot of talk and conversation out there. If I deprive the world of my perspective on a blog post or in a discussion among friends, I’m sure the world will keep spinning.

That is something that I don’t always believe.

The Call to Love All: What to Do When Someone Dares to Disagree with You

I can still remember the moment when I realized that there are people who believe things that are quite different from my own views and who are not delusional idiots. It was kind of unsettling.

Our seventh grade teacher had divided our class into three camps in order to debate the 1996 presidential election. I think I was in the Bob Dole camp and my close friend was on the side of Ross Perot. He argued quite persuasively for Perot, while the girl I had a crush on argued in favor of Clinton and his pro-choice policies.

My head began to spin. How should I respond when someone dares to disagree with me? Didn’t they know that I was correct?

Know Where you Stand.

Yesterday I wrote about confronting our own insecurities and making sure we are standing on a firm foundation. For Christians this means that Jesus Christ himself is our one and only foundation. Everything we do and believe is built upon the person of Jesus.

We then begin to figure out what we believe in relation to him and evaluate its value based on whether it draws us closer or further from him—whether we are able to love God and one another better. I think it’s important to spend some time sorting through matters of Christian faith and practice in dialogue with fellow Christians and those who preceded us.

However, a sense of security about your beliefs does not necessarily need to lead to antagonism with others.

Seek to Understand

There is a false sense among some of us that certainty leads to combativeness and conflict. I can, in fact, be completely secure in my faith and beliefs about Jesus and still seek to understand other perspectives in redemptive conversations.

If we truly are secure in our beliefs, we actually have no reason to fight others. What do we personally stand to gain?

It is far more important to begin our interaction with other beliefs by seeking to understand them. How can we critique what we do not understand? I have seen this happen on both the right and the left, especially when we create broad characterizations of a group and stick those labels onto individuals who may well have more nuanced beliefs.

Conservative Christians are not necessarily judgmental or oppressive. Liberal Christians are not necessarily captive to relativism or anti-American. When we encounter beliefs different from our own, we need to move beyond caricatures created by those outside of complex groups.

Seek a Redemptive Outcome

We have nothing to gain by attacking someone with a different perspective and neither does that person. In fact, most of our fights and arguments are rooted in our pride. Most of the combative blog posts, tweets, and conversations that I witness on the right and left come from a desire to appear clever or smart.

Attacking or mocking another perspective is never a redemptive act. Attacks are usually acts of self-justification that bring no benefit to the body of Christ.

If we have taken the time to hear someone with another perspective, we have subjected ourselves to a conversation that may be unpleasant, but we have now gained two things. First of all, we can offer critique and counterpoints that will actually be relevant according to what that person actually believes. Secondly, we will earn the right to be heard since we listened first.

If we are secure in what we believe, we have not necessarily lost anything by listening to someone. And if we truly believe that person is somehow in danger based on his/her perspective, the most loving thing we can do is earn the right to be heard and to share our views in the most gentle manner possible.

Our goal in our conversations is the mutual building up of one another. We want healthier Christians who can seek God better. Seeking redemptive outcomes instead of publicly or personally blasting another perspective is not going soft. This is a choice between what is effective and what is not.

Attacks, whether public or private, do not work. They don’t build anyone up. They don’t illuminate anything. They just make us more prideful and angry, while further convincing those of an opposing viewpoint that they shouldn’t listen to us.

Redemptive conversations that seek the benefit of another person recognize the value of that person regardless of his/her perspective and put us in the best position to help someone take a positive step.

In addition, we just may find that someone with a different viewpoint has something to teach us. In fact, if we don’t believe that’s possible, then we have no business trying to engage in a conversation in the first place.