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"Civil Discourse: How to Disagree & Remain on the Path to Righteousness"
Please Lord, Help Me to Be Better
Deep down, we all seem to know we’re not good enough. No matter how much we try, how much we reinvent ourselves, how many accolades we get, we still often feel like we aren’t what we’re supposed to be. Over time we end up ignoring this feeling, or distracting ourselves with various addictions, or overachieving in certain areas of life to try and compensate, but rarely do we ask the right questions or make the appropriate corrections.
Psalm 15 can be an epiphany for us. It opens with a seemingly simple question—“YHWH, who may dwell in your sanctuary, who may live on your holy mountain?” This may not be a question we typically ask, or even a question we understand, but to the ancients this was important. It deals with who gets to be in God’s presence. In our day, we might answer this by saying it matters what one believes, but to the ancients, what one believes is demonstrated by how one behaves. Thus the rest of the psalm is about how one speaks (vv. 2-3), whom one honors (v. 4), how one treats oaths (v. 4) and money (v. 5). In short, the one who wants to dwell with God needs to behave in ways that reflect God’s character here on earth.
Our earthly sojourn has always been about living amongst people with vast differences—people who have different faiths, different values, different perceptions of right and wrong, different lifestyle choices. How do we interact with or speak to or navigate life amongst these differences? How can we have civil discourse and disagree without falling off the path to righteousness or devolving into the unacceptable behaviors the psalmist warns against? How can we keep being transformed into those people who get to dwell with God while also maintaining our concern and mercy for others?
Perhaps the first step is to acknowledge that we need help—we don’t want to regress in our spiritual maturity, we don’t simply want to stay the same, we want to be made more and more into the likeness of Jesus. Then, once we admit what we want and where we fall short, we can go to the only one who can help us—the one who stamped his own image on us in creation and wants us to reflect his character in our daily lives.
If this is your hope and desire, then join me in our common prayer: “Please Lord, help me to be better.”
A Long, Hard Look in the Mirror
Wherever two or more humans exist, there is always disagreement. We are different, therefore we see things differently, therefore we have conflict. But conflict is not bad in and of itself, it allows us opportunities to see things differently and perhaps grow in our understanding. Conflict can become bad however when it devolves into dehumanizing behavior. According to Psalm 15, those who get to dwell in the Lord’s sanctuary and live on his holy hill are those “whose walk is blameless” and who do “what is righteous” (vv. 1-2). So how do we disagree appropriately so as to remain on the path to righteousness?
One of the things we learn from the New Testament letter of James is that we are part of the problem. Quarrels and fights come from our coveting (4:1-3)—we want the wrong things because we have become “friends with the world” and that causes us to be at odds with God and with people (4:4). If we want to correct this, especially before our quarrels and conflicts get out of hand, we need to heed James’s instruction: “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up” (4:10).
Humility is the key to prevent us from hardening our hearts and escalating conflict. It reminds us that we are part of the problem, therefore we need to reflect on our own motives before we say or do something that doesn’t reflect the character of God. What is it that we think is the source of the conflict? Are we listening to better understand the other side or are we just voicing our own side? Are we open to a mutual resolution or do we feel like we simply need to “win?”
There are only five basic ways to resolve conflict: both sides win and get exactly what they want, both sides compromise and partially get what they want, one side loses so the other side can win, one side wins and forces the other side to lose, or both sides lose and neither gets what they want. Each of these conflict styles and outcomes have pros and cons, and each can be appropriate at the right time, the question for us is which resolution is the best to seek in each given situation. That requires wisdom, listening, and humility.
So, before we start disagreeing with someone else, especially if we want to keep our discourse civil, we need to start with a long, hard look in the mirror.
Words Are Building Blocks, Not Wrecking Balls
Language is one of the most incredible, complex, and beautiful gifts God has given to humanity. More than any other creature on the face of the planet, we can communicate and express ourselves to a highly specific degree. But even though this ability carries tremendous possibility, it also, like all abilities in our fallen world, can be abused and misused. As James says in his New Testament letter, “Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be” (James 3:10).
So what are words and communication supposed to be for? How can we use our language more appropriately? How do we disagree with people without contributing to divisiveness or polarization? For this, we turn to the letter to the Ephesians.
In this letter, the apostle states that there should be a noticeable difference between those who follow Jesus and those who do not. Those who do not follow Jesus “are darkened in their understanding” (4:18), have “lost all sensitivity” (4:19), and “indulge in every kind of impurity” (4:19). But those who follow Jesus “were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires, to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (4:22-24). This includes our speech. The apostle says each of us “must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor” (4:25), and to “not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (4:29).
It would seem then that God created language and bestowed it upon humanity to be a blessing. And, even though we have corrupted it for so long and gotten used to misusing it, in Christ we are able (and expected) to correct that behavior. Perhaps a good place to start would be by recognizing what the primary function of language actually is. If we see it as a wrecking ball, we will primarily use it to wound and tear others down. But if we see it as building blocks, we can start to use it to build others up, build relationships, and build inroads across divides and disagreements.
May God give us the grace, both in person and on social media, to use our words constructively to seek blessing and shalom for all.
We All Stand Alone at the Judgment Seat
In today’s global connectedness we not only disagree with one another, we become unfiltered, belligerent, and inhumane. For whatever reason, it seems like we instantly pass judgment on people. And, in one sense, we’re supposed to pass judgment—after all that’s probably why we’re disagreeing in the first place, we’ve judged someone to be wrong about something. In another sense though, we shouldn’t overstep our bounds of judging and make assumptions about a person’s character, about their motives, or about their overall worth. So how can we disagree—in the culture, on social media, even in the church—without devaluing the image of God in others?
In the letter to the Romans, the apostle discusses those with weaker and stronger faith. Apparently there were disagreements in the early church over what a faithful Christ-follower could eat or what days they treated as holy. In regard to this, the apostle instructs them to not pass judgment “on disputable matters” (14:1). Further, he compares our relationship with God as a servant to his Master, therefore when we judge another we are encroaching on the Master’s role (14:4). Instead, we are to live our lives for the Lord and do everything for him (14:7-8). This then would include what we do in “disputable matters”—we should be fully convinced of what we’re doing (14:5) but not judge others if they are convinced otherwise (14:10). If we’re going to judge, we should primarily focus on judging ourselves because each of us must give account of ourselves before God at the final judgment (14:10-12).
This connects us back to an earlier point in our discussion on civil discourse—we are to disagree from a posture of humility. If we can start there, we can approach the conversation as opportunity to learn instead of a necessity to win. We must resist the temptation to seek immediate closure, to be the authority, or to assume the worst about the other. Instead, we should acknowledge that we all are on a journey of spiritual growth and self-understanding.
Believe it or not, we don’t get to help God determine who was right or wrong in this life. In the end, we all stand alone at the judgment seat of Christ.
Clinging to What Is Good as if Your Life Depended on It
It can be possible, especially if we approach it correctly, to disagree with someone articulately, intelligently, and even passionately, while still respecting the other’s humanity and integrity in the process. This does not necessarily mean, however, the other person will return the favor. We must not deceive ourselves about our spiritual reality: we are all sinners who are susceptible to dark influences, and there is a cosmic enemy who prowls around like a roaring lion seeking those whom he may devour (1 Pet 5:8). This affects our society, our workplaces, our homes, and even our churches. Sometimes people even seek to do us harm. So how do we disagree with those who are actual enemies?
According to the apostle’s letter to the Romans, not much is different when we disagree with anyone, regardless of the circumstances. There are two main relational currencies we use in this world, either of which we can “pay out” to those we deal with: the first currency expresses itself through love, blessing, and goodness; the second through hate, cursing, evil, and revenge. For the church, “love must be sincere” (12:9), we must “cling to what is good,” we must “bless those who persecute” us and “do not curse” (12:14), we must “not repay anyone evil for evil” (12:17), we must “not take revenge” (12:19), and, finally, we must “overcome evil with good” (12:21). Perhaps the most powerful thing he says is, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (12:18). In other words, it may not be possible, but you are responsible for your own actions, and your actions should strive, with all people and in all situations, to establish God’s shalom.
So then, by way of overall review, we have the right and necessity to disagree with anyone, but that disagreement should not be dehumanizing or lead to long-term unrest. Because we all fail at this and don’t always live up to the standards God calls us to, we should pray preemptively that God would help us to be better. Then, when we get into disagreements with others and things begin to escalate, we should take a humble posture and acknowledge that we could be the ones who are wrong. We also should acknowledge that we could be changed through the disagreement, which should modify our goal from trying win to learning about the issue and the opposing side which we likely don’t understand. Finally, when (or if) it becomes time for us to talk, we need to pick our words carefully so we build others up instead of tearing them down. Regardless of whether the other person treats us graciously or harshly, we have no right to return evil for evil, but are called by God to overcome evil with good. Whatever the world holds for us then, we need to cling to what is good as if our lives depended on it, because God is good and we are his followers.
So let us seek peace and, where it’s not possible, disagree righteously, so we may dwell with the eternal God on his holy hill.
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