It seems that there is an increasing amount of contention in the world today, fueled by an instant public forum provided by the internet and social media. We can now "discuss" our grievances with the entire world by pressing the "Publish" button, and we're able to do so without the pesky interference of seeing the people with whom we disagree.
The instantaneous ability to impersonally express any and every opinion only increases our need to really consider who's on the other side of the screen, and how we can love them well.
Because, shockingly, a disagreement is not a loophole in the commandment to "love your neighbor". One the flip side, an agreeable facade is also not a biblical expectation of love. In order to love someone you don't have to pretend to agree with them or avoid issues of disagreement like a snotty-nosed toddler.
It is possible, and even necessary, to learn to disagree in a loving way. If we're going to live authentically and honestly, disagreements are going to happen.
Disagreements aren't a problem.
Disagreements are a symptom of sharing life and getting to know another human being, which is an important part of what it means to be made in the image of God.
Disagreements handled without love are a problem.
If we are trying to prove someone else wrong, seeking to make much of ourselves, or if we are fueled by anger or self-righteousness, our mishandling is indicative of a major sin: refusal to love God more than anything or anyone else (like ourselves or our reputation) or refusal to love our neighbors the way we want to be loved.
Allow me to volunteer the fact that I don't have this down yet. I've come a long way in the last four years or so, but I'm not where I'd like to be. Many of the lessons I present below are lessons that I'm still working on, or realize the need for due to my own personal failures, maybe even in the last month or so.
That being said, here are a few ways to season your language with grace, even in the midst of conflict.
- Stay away from excessively strong language or absolute language. There's really no reason to say "all" or "everyone" or "every time". For one thing, there's literally no way that you could possibly prove such a grandiose statement. All anyone has to do is find a single exception to prove your statement false, short-changing the value of the discussion. Not only are such statements grossly inaccurate (there's almost always an exception), but they also amp up the intensity of the conversation needlessly.
The words "heresy", "evil", or "crazy" have a similar impact. Even when I believe that someone's way of thinking is, in all actuality, heretical, it prevents open dialog to call it such. Only people who agree with you are likely to join the conversation once such a term comes flying out. It also lowers the bar from "truth" to "not heresy". We're no longer discussing what is true, but we're now reduced to a conversation about what is even slightly acceptable. We can do better than that.
- Don't view a conversation as a competition. There's no such thing as a loser in a conversation. In an argument, on the other hand, both parties typically end up losing something. Seriously, why do you care so much if someone believes something with which you disagree? Why on earth should I be ticked off that you and I disagree on a certain issue?
If your motive is love and you genuinely believe that a person's false belief is putting them in physical, emotional, or spiritual danger, anger toward that person isn't an appropriate response. Who has ever been berated into safety?
The goal of a discussion is to get to know the other person better and understand where they're coming from, as well as to express your own view and help the other person understand your take.
Honestly, this one is my biggest struggle. I love a good debate, LOVE IT! My husband refuses to debate me, even when he's right, because I'm more skilled at the actual debate. But a debate is rarely a wise choice in a personal relationship, unless you're both freaks like I am and relish the debate. They are very rarely a good idea on social media. Actually, I can't think of a single situation when it would be wise to engage in a full debate on social media.
- Be very careful about assigning malicious intent. This is the biggest failure that I see in many Christian blogs dealing with social issues. There is a very big difference between being incorrect and being malicious. Once you cross this line, there's no going back. Once you say that a parent is abusive or a pastor is intentionally misleading his sheep away from the Gospel or a politician is corrupt, you've set yourself up as an accuser and enemy to the person you have attacked.
You can no longer engage in any sort of meaningful discussion with them or with anyone who might agree with them. You can no longer discuss issues or facts. You've made it personal, and it's going to be very easy to come out looking like a bad guy, even if you're right about the issue itself.
- Stick to the issues without making it personal. In some ways, this is a way to re-word the previous point, but it has other implications as well. If I really love an author or speaker, and you point out something wrong with one of their teachings, even in a very loving way, my initial reaction is to be defensive. I saw this in a Babylon Bee (a Christian satirical website similar to The Onion) post about a certain women's speaker's use of soaring language. It was comical and somewhat accurate, but her followers took it very seriously and personally. They went on the attack to defend their favorite poet.
Slow down! Just because you disagree with something someone says, that doesn't mean that they're attacking anyone. Just because you're offended, that doesn't necessarily mean that what was said was offensive. Take a deep breath and consider the actual statement being made.
- Be honest in the right forum. If you're offended, say so. Hash it out one-on-one. Don't handle it in the comment session. There's no need to pretend that someone's statement didn't have an impact when it did. You may discover, as I have, that you jumped to an unintended conclusion. If you need to say something of a personal nature, say it in a personal way. Don't just carry around anger and bitterness. Bring it into the light so it can be dealt with. If the other person refuses to discuss things civilly, that's on them, not you. But if you walk around with hurt, believing that they know what they did without speaking up, that's on you.
- Remember that people are real, live, breathing human beings with hearts and families. Even if a person is in the public eye, that doesn't give you the right to rip into them as if they're merely a symbol. That person may represent certain theology or ideas held by a group of people, but they're still incredibly valuable to our Father. Treat them as such. Treat them the way that you would want to be treated if you were in their situation. "I would never be in that situation!" Well, pretend that you woke up tomorrow morning in his or her shoes. How would you want someone to speak to you and about you? Now, do that.
They may be horribly wrong about an issue, but that doesn't give you the right to act unlovingly. People are more than a compilation of beliefs and ideas. We must consider the heart when we choose what to say and how to say it.
- Consider your own motivation. I touched on this in the introduction, but it is so very, very important. For a long time, I stayed out of conversations that I thought could be divisive out of fear that I would offend someone. I have come to understand that engaging in meaningful conversation about important issues is an important part of living in community and being a part of society. I've also learned to handle my fear with love by simply handling offenses as they come up.
You may be silent for the wrong reasons, or you may speak up for the wrong reasons. Consider your own heart carefully when choosing whether or not to join in a conversation. You may have the exact words that someone else needs to hear, or you may just add to the insanity.
On social media, it is very difficult to know the impact of what we post. Many people are silently watching and following along. Although we won't know the effect of our words, we can know our reason for adding them to the discussion.
Even if the only thing that our words accomplish is to prove that it is possible to love someone with whom we disagree, that's a pretty monumental accomplishment, and we should strive toward it.