A good conversation tends to narrow the gap between positions; a bad conversation tends to widen it. Given that Christians are called to be peacemakers, we ought to aspire to good and godly conversation. Towards that end, I offer the following 7 suggestions.
Don’t misrepresent what the other person is saying
In a bad conversation, people are listening intently for any poorly chosen phrases that can be turned into a devastating counter-attack. Phrases will be taken out of context, or even subtly clipped and distorted to produce maximum negative effect.
Let’s not do that.
Let’s deal in the substance of an argument and let’s be willing to let loose phrases or poorly chosen terms fly to the wind.
A good conversation is about understanding what a person means not reacting to every word that is actually said. In the most effective conversations, we respond to the best version of the ideas being presented.
The objective in a good conversation is to truly understand what the other person is trying to say. Asking good questions can help you get there. Jesus was fantastic at this. In Luke 2:46 we read:
After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. (Luke 2:46 ESV)
People who are impressed by how firm Jesus could be with the Pharisees often seem less impacted by this particular aspect of his approach. Jesus didn’t correct people he didn’t understand. He didn’t rebuke positions he hadn’t studied. He didn’t fire indiscriminately into the crowd. He spent a great deal of time trying to understand what people were saying and teaching and towards that end he asked incisive and probing questions.
The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man? (Matthew 21:25 ESV)
“What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” (Matthew 22:42 ESV)
“Whose likeness and inscription is this?” (Matthew 22:20 ESV)
“What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” (Luke 10:26 ESV)
Those are some really good questions and asking them – or others like them – will lead to a much more engaging and profitable conversation.
To learn more about asking better questions see here.
A great deal of energy can be lost in a conversation when people react to an incorrect understanding of what the other person has attempted to say. People use words and phrases in a variety of ways. For example some people use the word “religion” to refer to nominalism, ritualism and works righteousness. Those people tend to talk about “the end of religion” and they tend to speak about how Jesus was opposed to “religion”. Other people use the word religion in the historical sense, as in “how people respond to the grace of God”. Those people would say that there is good religion and bad religion. They would point to James 1:26-27 as an example of both.
In a good conversation people will take the time to discover how terms and phrases are being used. They won’t pretend not to understand so as to score points on social media. They will ask the simple question: “What do you mean when you use that phrase?” – and they will deal honestly and straightforwardly with the answer they receive.
You can tell when someone is really listening to you and when they are merely sifting through what you are saying in search of ammunition for their next round of scathing attack.
Real conversation is possible only when people are willing to truly listen to one another.
Real conversation is only useful when both parties concede that their grasp on truth and reality is limited by their own pride, narrowness and self-concern.
We see through a glass darkly.
All of us.
We are fallen creatures with finite minds and we see the world through a lens that has been warped and distorted by sin. The Bible says:
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9 ESV)
If you don’t know that then you won’t be capable of authentic listening. A real listener knows that sometimes truth has to come from the outside. A real listener knows that sometimes they have lied to themselves and need to be corrected. A real listener knows that community is a gift from God and they eagerly embrace it.
Good conversation is only possible in an environment of kindness and mercy. If we are harsh and condemnatory; if we pounce upon errors or misstatements as a predator upon prey, then we will shortly become a community of creed reciters and regurgitators.
We must make room in our various communities for exploratory conversation.
If a person cannot ask a question without fear of being outed as a heretic or a false teacher or a wolf in sheep’s clothing then what hope do we have of making real and beneficial progress?
Of course, if a person crosses an established confessional line and refuses to listen to correction then stronger measures will eventually be required.
But a tentative step is not a determined stride.
An honest question is not a stake in the ground.
A personal blog is not a published treatise.
Let’s not shoot everyone who places their hand upon a sacred cow.
Let’s believe that the truth will always hold it’s own.
Assume good intentions
Good conversations often turn sour when we assume that the other person intends to take their position to the worst of its possible extremes.
“You are saying this to open the door for that.”
“You are saying this because you eventually intend to say that.”
Sometimes “this” really does lead to “that” but you can’t have a conversation if you are assuming the worst about the other person’s intentions.
Sometimes “this” wasn’t supposed to lead to “that” – even if it actually did. Perhaps a good conversation could have kept “this” from becoming “that”, but sadly, such conversations often do not occur.
Let’s do better.
Let’s argue each idea on its own individual merits. Let’s talk about implications and potential outcomes, but let’s be very careful about assuming motives. We cannot see into another person’s heart and when we act as if we can we only serve to stifle effective conversation.
Always assume that the other person is in pursuit of the truth – just as you are. Always assume that they are willing to be corrected if the evidence demands it – just as you are. Always assume that they are loving Jesus, respecting the text and wanting to see lost people get saved – just as you are.
If they prove you wrong, so be it. But always begin by assuming good intentions.
Repeat as necessary
Too many conversations die before they ever really get started. People talk past one another, label one another, defame one another and disown one another.
And the devil laughs into his sleeve.
We can do better. We can listen longer and we can engage one another more constructively.
Let’s be slower to write each other off. Let’s put terms like “heretic” and “false teacher” into some kind of nuclear brief case. Let’s have some process and some safeguards in place before we bring those terms out into the public square.
Let’s keep talking.
Let’s have good and godly conversation again as an expression of our love for one another and as part of our witness to the world.
Pastor Paul Carter
To listen to Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast on the TGC Canada website see here. You can also find it on iTunes.