We live in this world like a child walking into a room where a clever person is speaking. The child did not hear the beginning of the speech, and leaves before the end; and there are certain things which he hears but does not understand. In the same way, the great speech of God started many, many centuries before we started learning, and it will continue for many centuries after we turn to dust. We hear only part of it, and we do not understand the biggest part of what we hear, but nevertheless, a bit vaguely, we understand something great, something important.
– Leo Tolstoy1
The search for the right language and means of communicating truth is a vital task, but I’m skeptical of those who speak about deeply complex and controversial issues with whimsical ease and occasional condemnation toward those who might hold alternative viewpoints. Five different, well-educated, and sincere individuals might present their views on a particular issue, but each subjugating the other’s viewpoint with an “it’s so obvious” tone. Doesn’t that tension indicate that it is not so obvious?
It is important to have sound doctrine and good theology, but it is also crucial to communicate such things with love and humility. If Jesus was primarily concerned with flawless doctrine and pristine theology, he sure did a poor job of laying that out for us. Instead of directly spelling out issues, he spoke in parables. Instead of responding to direct questions, he told stories—or asked a secondary question in return. He spoke specifically about certain behaviors and actions but didn’t even mention others. (Ironically, the church has switched these around to make the issues Jesus hardly spoke about monumental ones, while practically ignoring the ones he spoked directly about.)
Tolstoy’s imagery of a child walking into a room where someone intelligent has been speaking is a great description of how we sort of come into and leave this world. We can do our best to make out what is being said, but we’re just not around long enough to really grasp everything in its entirety. Even if we think we have, we’d be be wise to speak of what we think we know with great humility, companioned with much listening toward those who have also been hearing parts of this greater story—both those who are younger and older than us.
Everything is complicated but language drives and tempts us to label—and labeling causes us to limit. Labels carry with them a host of distinct limitations, assumptions, and feelings which are unique to the individual recipient who hears or uses them. We are all complicated concoctions of stories, histories, and experiences who’s roots extend beyond any label or title that attempts to confine us. The flavor of a finely crated beer, wine, or cup of coffee goes all the way back to the original grains, hops, grapes, or coffee beans that were used to bring them them to life. The climate, brewing time, growing and harvesting methods, type of crop, and packaging techniques affect the final taste—yet consider how much more complicated we are as humans. Our stories, experiences, temperaments, parents, teachers, pastors, school experiences, friendships, wounds, heart-aches, mistakes, successes (and so much more) all contribute to who we are. Simply applying a label to someone who expresses a bent toward a particular theological or societal view doesn’t do justice to the complex make-up that brought them to that viewpoint.
The challenge I present to you and myself is to find ways to communicate truth in the world but to do so lovingly and with great effort toward valuing those who might think or feel otherwise. Behind nearly every argument or debate is a person who wants to feel that their viewpoint is valid and thoughtful—that they are valid and thoughtful. Sometimes people feel they need to come across as unwaveringly confident in order to convince and influence others, but such an approach boarders on arrogance and arrogance is a pervasive form of modern violence. Arrogance drives people apart, wounds them, and polarizes them. It never heals, restores, or unifies. Consider this passage from Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic Ph.D. book on confidence:
Thankfully, though, arrogant people usually end up doing worse, whereas gentle, generous, and modest people end up doing better. So whenever you see someone successful acting in an arrogant way, ask yourself if that person is truly competent, or if he is disguising his incompetence with his confidence. Sometimes, arrogance can be the obvious disguise for a person’s incompetence, and even mask his insecurities—why else would he need to bring others down in order to big himself up?1
But confidence and humility don’t need to be at odds with one another. Many wise people throughout history have learned to speak confidently yet with humility and compassion. These are the people who have brought healing and restoration to individuals and to nations. Confidence doesn’t necessitate competence or truth. In the same way, humility and gentleness don’t warrant lack of competence or mistruth.
So I challenge us all to be honest, vulnerable, and transparent about what we know, what we don’t know, and what we have doubts about. If you do so with humility and gentleness; you will be more human, more likable, and closer to finding the truth than by subscribing to your own opinions and positions as though they were the unadulturated truth.
Few people will ever change their opinion based off of a self-righteous rant, an insensitive comment, or passive aggressive remarks. Such forms of communication only serve to further divide those who disagree; and to feed the hungry wolves of the tribe who revel in the disgrace of their “opponents.” People may never change their opinion on something regardless of your approach, but the one thing we have control over is the way in which we discourse with those around us. An empathetic conversation can bring mutual understanding and respect despite one’s differences. Even if those differences remain, we can learn to humbly live in that tension and rally around what we hold in common instead of what we disagree upon.
Photo credit: Lance Baker [Loc.] Serra Retreat, Malibu, CA