Our society is inundated with conversations and opinions about politics, immigration, national security, the economy, abortion, race, environmental concerns and other issues. Occasionally, I’ll spend a few minutes on social media reading these discussions. What I end up observing are individuals trying to prove their point as most valid or, at worst, heaping insults upon each other. And this trend of berating and belittling one another doesn’t seem to be confined to the online realm. I’ve seen families and friends become divided over these topics when the talk, more often than not, turns volatile. So why is it so difficult for us to have simple conversation with those with opposite views?
The reasons can be as complex and unique as the individuals who engage in these arguments. But, one reason might be that many of us are overcome by our fears, and, in turn, our ability to have compassion for “the other” dramatically diminishes. The word “fear” may cause some misunderstanding, since it can have numerous meanings. There is the kind of fear that warns you something bad is about to happen, that some danger is impending on your life. Then there’s the kind of fear that puts you in suspense as you’re watching a scary movie. It’s momentary and not truly life-threatening. But I’m not talking about those kinds of fear.
The kind of fear I’m referring to is the kind attached to the word “reverence.” Psalm 2:11 tells us to, “Serve the LORD with fear.” The exhortation is to revere the Lord in our obedience to Him, as opposed to serving Him because we’re afraid. To fear or revere the Lord is good. Edward Welch says it best: “This fear of the Lord means reverent submission that leads to obedience, and it is interchangeable with ‘worship,’ ‘rely on,’ ‘trust,’ and ‘hope in.’”
We inadvertently make ourselves idols, closing our minds to the point where we refuse to listen to anyone but those who already agree with us.
But this kind of good fear can become twisted when it turns away from the Lord and toward someone or something else—an idol. Perhaps that idol is placing your hope in a person rather than the Lord, “fear of man.” The idol could also be trusting in your own understanding above the Lord’s. It is in this particular position of self-idolatry where the ability to converse with another in civil disagreement becomes difficult.
There is so much more that plays into the reasons why it is so difficult to listen to someone you disagree with. But fear, in particular, can hold us captive. Often it reveals what truly worries us. And what worries us can then reveal the idols of our hearts. Ultimately, it has the capacity to blind us to any other viewpoint but our own. We inadvertently make ourselves idols, closing our minds to the point where we refuse to listen to anyone but those who already agree with us.
As a result, we lose compassion for others and their viewpoint. The inevitable consequence of worshiping our own understanding is that we forget our calling as believers in Christ: to love our neighbors (Rom. 13:9). Instead, our thoughts and ideas become a breeding ground for selfish ambition. Hoping to dominate discussions through our “superior logic,” we enter into conversations with no consideration for “the other,” creating bitterness. And trying to belittle someone we disagree with only creates resentment in them. Though we may feel like we “won” the discussion, we didn’t because we did so by trampling upon another person.
The Call Over the Fear
The believer has a hope that surpasses all understanding (Phil. 4:7), a hope that lives beyond the here and now. This hope-filled position allows us to not be consumed by controversy, nor by the need for others to agree with us. Does this mean we disengage, choosing not to care about the issues of our day? Certainly not. It means we have the license to fully engage the issues without feeling the need to condemn those we disagree with. It also means we become free from the need to be defensive when someone disagrees with us. The God-fearing posture is not one of arrogance or carelessness, but of humility.
Our fear of the Lord actually opens our eyes to see things rightly (Prov. 1:7). This proper worship and love of God drives out the wrong fears and feeds our love for fellow image bearers (1 John 4:18-21). It supersedes our love of self and ultimately allows us to listen to and not just hear one another.
In thinking about how you can have a conversation about weighty topics, consider these things:
Reorient your unhelpful fear toward a good, right, fear of the Lord. Let it lead you to wisdom. Consider the wisdom that Paul speaks of in Romans 12:9-21. The apostle paints a picture of Christian living that contradicts the impulses of our sinful hearts. This includes the exhortation to “never be wise in our own eyes” and “to give thought to do what is honorable.” Paul also gives us a plea to let our love be genuine. This means we must ask the Lord to work in us so that we would love Him foremost, in order that we can love others before ourselves.
Get offline. Have a discussion with someone face to face and practice the discipline of listening. Refrain from speaking in order to open your mind to listen to someone. When we speak face to face with one another, it reminds us that behind the words is a person with a story that led them to see the world the way they do. This opens the door for compassion and allows for us to understand one another (notice that I didn’t say agree with one another). As much as social media keeps us connected to each other, it also can disconnect us from the reality that we are talking to people with souls.
Relieve yourself from the need to “win” the conversation. We cannot control how anyone chooses to think. We can only encourage and direct others to the peace that comes from submission to the Lord. Seek to encourage your neighbor instead of pointing out what you see as deficiencies.
Brothers and sisters, we can reclaim the conversation, not from the other person, but from our misplaced fear. We don’t have to let misguided, idolatrous fear drive our discussions with others. The goal isn’t to “win” the argument or bring the other person to “your side.” The goal is to engage in an open, respectful dialogue that may then lead us to actually learn something from one another and to a greater understanding and compassion toward one another. The Lord is sovereign, and the full restoration of mankind is coming. Rest easy.