In my last post (How We Talk Should Be Different, June 22, 2020), I set out in general terms why it is important for the people of God to be apprenticed to the Word rather than to the world in our speech. With this second post, I get specific with five principles from the Proverbs.
First, listen long, and take others seriously. “To answer before listening—that is folly and shame” (Prov. 18:13). We should not expect others to take us seriously if we are not willing to take them seriously. It is important to understand what someone else is saying, not only because it enables us to answer what they are actually asking, but also because being quick to listen is a humble acknowledgement that none of us are God and could thus be wrong. By looking at things from an opposing perspective, we will be more able to see our own blind spots and to care for and learn from others. Being able to communicate that we understand, and thus have actually been listening, puts us in a better position to empathize with and respond redemptively to each other. A good practice is to ask someone, “I hear you saying this . . . Am I representing you fairly?”
Second, avoid falsely representing the other side. We often argue against “straw men” because they are far easier to tear down than a real position and thus enable us to paint another’s view as unreasonable. It can create fervor and a false confidence among those who already agree with us, but it engenders distrust and animosity in those we are trying to reach. The Golden Rule thus demands that we refuse to build or address straw men. Here again, the Proverbs guide us in our engagement: “A false witness will perish, but a careful listener will testify successfully” (21:28). In order to avoid building straw men, we must take time to carefully and sympathetically understand the other person or their position. This means that when certain words or phrases are used that you have concerns about, we must take the time to ask questions and do our best to get on the same page.
Third, resist assuming motives. The problem with assuming the motives of those who disagree with you and/or have had different experiences is we are not normally in the position to know them, so we can only speculate. Speculating that the other person has negative motives may certainly have the effect of demonizing their position in the eyes of others listening. But consider how you would feel if someone led off a discussion with a personal attack against you. Humans are incredibly complex and normally have multiple motives for their decisions. As Proverbs 16:2 reminds us, people’s “motives are weighed by the Lord.” Yet Proverbs 20:5 teaches, “The purposes of a person’s heart are deep waters, but one who has insight draws them out.” So rather than being quick to judge the motives of others, it is always best to seek greater understanding and avoid jumping to conclusions and serving as the ultimate judge of motives.
Fourth, when you can, find points of agreement to affirm. The world’s goals are often to shame or silence those we do not agree with on an issue, so it cares little for this point. But the goals of Christian dialogue are not shaming or silencing, but persuasion and heart change, which require finding points of agreement.
By finding “common ground” I do not mean that we are to search for some kind of neutral space or ask everyone to erase their history and experiences. We are embodied historical creatures, so no such “neutral space” exists. We all have had different experiences that shape the way we approach our life and the events we see in front of us. Beginning with points we agree on allows us to have a footing to challenge points we disagree with, while at the same time living out the wisdom of the proverb: “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov 15:1).
Fifth, resist focusing on the periphery. It is important to stay focused. Our tendency can be to respond to every single point we don’t agree with. Yet if we don’t pick and choose what we will address, our conversations can easily become fifteen-round sparring matches. Usually it is pride that fosters in us the need to hoist our every opinion over the person we are speaking with every time they say something—even something relatively minor—we disagree with. As Proverbs 13:10 warns us, “Where there is strife, there is pride.” If we are all Christians, our rule should be Scripture and the wisdom it brings. We should, therefore, give each other the benefit of the doubt that all are seeking to bring Scriptural wisdom to bear on our cultural engagement.