We Christians today find ourselves at a very contested intersection with science and ethics. The amount of conflict is partly because in a post-Christian society there is no longer any shared ‘moral grammar’ about the common good. Our world has not just drifted from but also actively rejected many of the beliefs and virtues that largely derived from the Christian world view of previous centuries.
Brad Gregory is a Roman Catholic Professor of Modern History from the University of Notre Dame in the USA. He writes that secular discussion is dominated by an “increasingly wide range of ways in which individuals self-determine the good for themselves within liberalism’s politically protected formal ethics of rights… As a result, public life today… is increasingly riven by angry, uncivil rivals with incompatible views about what is good, true, and right.”1
Too often what we hope will be a constructive discussion on Christianity ends up in a disastrous argument! How can we be more constructive in our conversations with others, and yet still courageously work towards proclaiming, explaining and defending the gospel of Jesus Christ? Surely the place to start is by loving and listening.
On the night Jesus was betrayed, he knelt and washed his disciples’ feet—the dirtiest job reserved for the lowest servant.
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)
A Middle Eastern man recently baptized at our church told me he had Christian neighbours in his home country. They could not say much about the gospel, but he knew they were different by the way they treated others. It was this that first sparked his interest in the gospel.
It’s that simple. Nothing else will commend the good news about Jesus as genuinely good news better than his followers loving others, loving their neighbours, loving their enemies, and especially, here, loving one another.
This means swallowing our pride. It means doing dirty jobs. It means going the extra mile when you’ve already done your fair share and all you want to do is put your feet up. It means not retaliating when things are not right. It means hospitality (which is more than a handshake or a friendly conversation over morning tea). It means opening your home, again and again. It means being known, like Jesus, as the friend of sinners, the friend of the immoral.
Wouldn’t it be good if the atheists and other irreligious people we know said this of us? “I don’t agree with their beliefs, but I really like hanging out with them. And I know they like hanging out with me. And I’m amazed how well they look after each other.”
Living and loving like this, like Jesus did, means a life of continual repentance for me, because left to myself I fall short so often. But we have forgiveness in the cross of Christ, and we have the gift of his Holy Spirit, whose first fruit in us is love.
One of the first ways to show love when there are differences is by listening.
Whether it’s differences of culture or of opinion, we need to listen if we want to understand. If we want to communicate something to someone else, we need to understand them. Listening is one of the most loving gifts you can give.
On this topic we could turn to almost any chapter of Proverbs, but let’s turn our attention to chapter 18. The first part of being a good listener is shutting up:
A fool takes no pleasure in understanding,
but only in expressing his opinion. (Prov 18:2)
By contrast, the last verse of the previous chapter says:
Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise;
when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent. (Prov 17:28)
Stop thinking your opinions are so important, shut up, and listen for a while.
Even people we disagree with often have good things to say, with considerable depth behind their words. So Proverbs says, “The words of a man’s mouth are deep waters” (18:4), and “An intelligent heart acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge” (18:15).
Certainly most people I know want to be taken seriously. “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame” (18:13). If we want others to respect us enough to listen to us, we must respect them enough to listen to them.
Recently, I debated with a Christian man about gambling. He defended small-stakes poker play at local clubs as a positive recreation with minimal risk of harm. I disagreed. But part way through the discussion, I realized we were just going backwards and forwards. So I stopped, paraphrased what I thought he was trying to say without any critique (at that point) from me, and I asked: “Have I understood you properly?” Our conversation could then continue with lowered frustration levels.
A brother offended is more unyielding than a strong city,
and quarrelling is like the bars of a castle. (Prov 18:19)
Listening can be a key to unlocking those barred gates.
In loving people and listening to them, we may also want to ask some questions of what they’ve been saying. Questions asked in a relaxed and friendly tone are an invitation to thoughtful dialogue. They certainly show interest in the other person’s views. In fact, asking a question can also stop you jumping straight into ‘preaching mode’ without really considering what the other person has said.
Questions can sometimes make you realize there’s another side to the story:
The one who states his case first seems right,
until the other comes and examines him. (Prov 18:17)
Some people can push their point of view with tremendous power, with rhetorical flourishes, with impressive-sounding assertions. They sound so persuasive and confident that you start to become sure they must be right after all. Proverbs, however, says a good question enables people to see another side.
Certainly Jesus used questions a lot. Here’s just a handful of examples from Mark’s Gospel:
“Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven’, or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’?” (2:9)
And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast.” (2:19)
And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the
Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save
life or to kill?” But they were silent. (3:4)
And he called them to him and said to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan?” (3:23)
I could easily multiply examples. Some of these questions are rhetorical, and others are questions to which Jesus really wants to hear an honest answer, but all of these questions are designed to make the listeners think.
Questions can allow you to gather information. They can help you to understand the other person and stop jumping to conclusions. A question can reverse the burden of proof—that is, you can ask the other person to give reasons for their own views. Or your question might attempt to lead the conversation in a specific direction, to help expose a flawed argument or explain your own view.
For example, think about what you might do when someone says that all religions are basically the same and teach the same ethic of love. On one hand, you could immediately mount your own evidence for a counter-argument. Alternatively, you could ask some questions:
- How much have you studied other religions in order to compare the details?
- Why would the similarities be more important than the differences?
- What do you make of the contradictions between the major religions?
- What do you think Jesus’ attitude was on this question? Did he think all religions were basically equal?
Questioning someone’s answers can open up an interesting conversation!
Of course, we don’t just want to question others. We want to answer their questions too.
…but in your hearts honour Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you… (1 Pet 3:15)
This verse commands every Christian to be ready to share the reason for their hope—the gospel of Jesus: how his death saves from sin, how his resurrection secures eternal life, how he gives grace to the humble, and so on.
So are you prepared? Can you explain the gospel in simple terms? Could you do it in 60 seconds? Could you summarize the message in a few key points? If not, let me suggest you ask one of your pastors to help you get prepared. Matthias Media also has some very helpful resources and training courses. Two Ways to Live is famous for this reason. But even if you are the really tongue-tied type, at the least you could have a copy of Christianity: A Pocket Guide in your purse or wallet, ready to give away.
As a young Christian I was always struck by John Chapman’s questions to ask yourself when considering how to reply to people’s tough questions, but it’s been years since I’ve heard anyone mention them. Since I still think they provide an excellent guide for thinking through how to answer questions, I’ll rehearse the first three here (you can read more in his excellent book on basic evangelism, Know and Tell the Gospel).
1. Does it glorify God?
We worship God in spirit and truth, so our answers must be truthful. This means no exaggeration in your testimony, no bluffing about the strength of the evidence when you’re not really quite so sure. It means admitting that you don’t know the answer to a question (if you don’t)—and, of course, offering to get back to the person with some more information if you can.
Glorifying God also means our answers must be loving. Our answers should not be designed to show how clever we are, and they should almost never embarrass someone else (I say almost never, because of Proverbs 26:5!). Chappo says you might like to introduce your answers by saying, “Have you ever considered that…”, and leaving some room to move. Alternatively, perhaps start by admitting you’re not an expert but that someone else has pointed out such and such, which you found persuasive. We’re aiming to make the other person’s listening experience as easy as possible by means of our own humility in answering.
2. Does it lead to the gospel?
Chappo’s second criterion for selecting answers is to ask, “Will this answer lead to the gospel or will it tend to divert the discussion away from the central claims about Christ?”
For example, consider a common question: “How do you know God exists?” You could argue from the evidence of design in creation, or you could talk about where morality comes from, and whether it exists apart from God. Those answers are true, and honour God. It’s quite likely, however, that answers such as these will get bogged down in questions of science versus religion, or debates about moral relativism and subjective opinions. Another option is to point to the historical evidence for Jesus. This at least gets you into a discussion of the New Testament and its reliability, and possibly takes you into what Jesus claimed to be and do. You can even ask the person whether they’ve read the New Testament to examine the evidence for themselves—this leads even more directly to the gospel.
3. Does it answer the question behind the question?
A third criterion to consider is whether your response answers the question behind the question (if it exists!). Now, we should do people the courtesy of taking their questions at face value. Sometimes, of course, they have no hidden agenda, but there are times when they may have a deeper personal concern behind their more general theoretical question.
Admittedly we are not mind-readers, but, if possible, try to select an answer that addresses a hidden question that might lie behind the articulated question. For example, “Why does God permit suffering?” might be a purely philosophical question from a bright young undergraduate who thinks it’s a tough debating hand grenade to throw your way; or it might hide the fact that they’ve been through some terrible times themselves. A polished, solid, theoretical answer in this latter case can leave you feeling more than a bit insensitive when they reveal their personal tragedy.
With gentleness and respect
In conclusion, notice how we are to answer questions: “with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet 3:15). In contrast, I know how naturally debate and sarcasm comes to me. I need to keep repenting.
Never forget that it’s the Holy Spirit who changes people—not us. Humanly speaking, it’s gentleness and respect that make the difference (not being witty, or clever, or well-informed, or quick to speak). In fact, the context for Peter’s injunction in 3:15 is Christian compassion and humility in verses 8-9:
Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.
- B Gregory, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2012, p. 378. ↩