It happens to the best of us: our turf gets a little bit encroached upon (the turf we know everything about), and we head into battle mode faster than the US into Iraq. If we do not prove ourselves correct, and the other person incorrect, we have not done our jobs.
I ask because I see this flaw in my personal design. It gets in the way of my relationships – both current, and ones I wish to make; it takes over common sense; but what's worse, it flies in the face of the self-control Christ is slowly growing in me. Others get hurt, even if I've been the one initially hurt, and God is certainly not glorified.
What's the deal?
Part of it is personality: I have a tendency to see things in black/white terms, right/wrong, up/down, yes/no, or us/them terms. Is there a place for right and wrong, up and down? I believe so. But as I grow more deeply in my walk with Christ, I do not believe a reactionary black/white action is reflective of His character or transformative work in myself or the community around me.
But I MUST be right! The world is not in my control if I'm NOT right! It's so embarrassing to be WRONG!
Yes, it is certainly a humbling experience to be pointed out as incorrect, or wrong. In fact, it can be humiliating. Yet I believe these are experiences God uses to shape us, and to help us see things from His perspective, as well as the perspective of the other person or group. On the flip side, if we know we're correct, it can be a source of dangerous pride watching the other person squirm in their incorrect state of mind. When we finally prove our correct-ness, we triumph!
Are we any closer to knowing the person we just ripped apart?
The fleeting desire to be right suddenly goes down the drain along with the light of life in the eyes of the other person. Double ouch. Our doctrine may have prevailed over the other person's doctrine, but we just injured another's spirit in the process.
Part of the issue, I believe, has been/is the teaching of many conservative church groups (whatever denomination or level of fundamentalism you ascribe yourself to). We are trained — literally hard-wired — to make our arguments, especially in the areas of theology, religion, evangelism, and morality. Make no mistake: there is room for healthy debate! That's not what I'm talking about here. Apologetics have been reduced, like much of the Gospel, to trouncing the opposition, because heaven forbid the opposition get more souls than we do.
Much of this dogma comes from the passage in 1 Peter 3. Verse 15b-17 says: "Always be ready to give an answer when someone asks you about your hope. 16Give a kind and respectful answer and keep your conscience clear. This way you will make people ashamed for saying bad things about your good conduct as a follower of Christ. 17You are better off to obey God and suffer for doing right than to suffer for doing wrong." (CEV)
I don't know about you, but I was taught in many-a-Sunday School, sermon, VBS, or Bible Study that this explicity meant having a hardcore, "proven" evangelical answer based on the best of theologians who know their Hebrew and Greek. There was lip service given to giving kind & respectful answers, but more focus on how our answers would bring shame to those sinners. We kindly point out how everyone else is wrong. After all, pointing out sin and the grace of the cross is the best form of love a believer can offer, is it not?
Yet we are shamed into believing that be unable to give Biblically accurate answers is a sign of weakness in our lives, and the potential damnation of the person across from us rests on our shoulders. After all, that person could die by being hit by a bus right after talking to us.
Talk about pressure.
So with this constant hyper-vigilance, is it any wonder that many of us recovering fundys are discovering that our training was more combative, rather than relational? When we are in a perpetual state of "SHOW THEM WE'RE RIGHT", conversations suddenly become one-way; or they turn into fruitless debates; or they simply show our worst sides for the world to see. Even if we believe we are being kind, the perception is that we're really being quite condescending and self-righteous.
If believers are going to engage the world in ways Christ would (and did), we need to be willing to be transformed from our sword-words aimed at decimating the person before us. Here are a few things I, and a few friends, are commited to learning for the rest of our lives as we seek to know the person with us, rather than prove our correct-ness to them. Trust me, we're all learning at a snail's pace. But perhaps these things need to be learned slowly…:
1) Ask open-ended questions (I noticed you spoke of —. Could you tell me what you meant by that?… or That was something I wasn't aware of. Could you tell me a bit more about that?… etc.) This will not only show the other person that we deeply care about them, but we will find ourselves opening up to the other person too. Reciprocity is key.
2) Listen. Deeply. And NOT with the intent of prepping our ammo for when it's our turn to talk. This means laying ourselves down entirely, truly desiring to hear the other person out because God loves them perfectly, as we are called to. Listening with ulterior motives, or as a means to share our version of the gospel will be sniffed out quickly, and exposed as the false pretense it is.
3) If comments are in written form, re-read them. Then re-read them again. Ask more open-ended questions. Do our own background research about concepts we might not agree with, but have to admit we don't quite understand or know much about. Again, the research is with the motivation of knowing the person, and not building up ammo to shoot them down.
4) Be wrong. We will be. When we are, admit it. When we are not and accused falsely, accept the accusation with genuine grace, and find other ways to continue the relationship.
5) Decide consciously that there is no massive need to prove ourselves correct, and the other person incorrect. Examine closely our desperate need to be right. Question: "We might be right here, but is there a bigger picture?"… there is ALWAYS more to the story above and below the surface.
6) Exhale. No really… take a breath. Popping out pre-written messages of memorized Scripture, or interpretive conclusions based on those Scriptures does little to build up the other person. Furthermore, it does little to build our own relationships with God. Breathe a little, and allow oxygen to permeate our thoughts, the Spirit to guide our thinking more deeply. Our conversations will be more passionate, more understanding, more reciprocal, and more Christ-like.
7) Examine what we believe and why. Many of the doctrines I was taught from childhood Bible camp through to Bible college are ones I am taking into severe question right now. Are they ALL WRONG? No. I don't believe so, but without deep reflection with God and the willingness to confess "I was wrong", I am preaching an empty and condemning gospel. Remember: there is ALWAYS more to the story.
8) Relational and revolutionary seek the long term, whereas reactionary seeks only the short term. God's kingdom is certainly focused on the here and now, as well as the eternal. They are not mutually exclusive! Seeing only how we can prove ourselves correct moment to moment, especially proof-texting or regurgitating poor theology creates a myopic vision within us. It even makes us sick.
9) Choose deliberately to see each person, and each community as a person/group God created, loves and has already moved in. We are not the be all, end all of God. We don't have that power. When we see people differently, our need to prove ourselves right all of the time dimishes.
10) It's okay to say: "I don't know."
Christians aren't called to be debaters full of rhetoric. We are called to be ambassadors — and ambassadors not only know as much as they can about who they represent (Christ), but also the people they are representing to (outsiders, nomads, prodigals, exiles). So this means laying down our intrinsic kneejerk responses, and choosing a calmer, humbler path. Yes, it is as difficult as it sounds and more.
However, in a world that increasingly despises Christians not because of Christ (hey! they LOVE him!), but because of US, we need to take serious stock of how we relate to one another, and to the world. Seeing the long term kingdom efforts, though, it is well worth the difficult journey.