Choose Your Words Wisely
People who study body language tell us we can learn a lot from the posture of the people around us. For example, crossed arms and legs indicate resistance. Raised eyebrows signal discomfort. Furrowed brows convey doubt, disagreement, or uncertainty. Standing erect with shoulders back commands respect and encourages engagement.
No doubt about it. Posture communicates.
The Posture of Our Words
There is another kind of posture that communicates, too. I’m referring to the posture we take with our words. Think about the ways we communicate digitally. We schedule in-person meetings. We talk by phone. We visit in our communities and even over our fences. But much—maybe even the majority—of our communication today is carried out in writing through emails, text messages, and social media posts. When we communicate this way, people can’t see our faces, hear the inflection in our voices, or observe our physical posture.
That makes what we say with our words—and the way we say it—even more crucial. A seasoned editor once shared a crucial piece of advice with me, attributed to President William Howard Taft. “Don’t write so you can be understood, write so you can’t be misunderstood.” That’s good advice anytime, but I think it’s even more crucial to keep in mind as we use the written word to communicate our views on faith and the Christian life.
You’ve read the remarks, written by Christians to those who aren’t, or to those who disagree with one or more tenets of the traditional Christian faith. Some were written with grace and gentleness. Others were quite unkind. Arrogant. Condescending. Demeaning. Laced with ridicule and peppered with accusations. As I’ve written previously, truth exists, and it’s up to the individual to discern and embrace it. Hopefully, we’ll have help along the way, but it still comes down to personal responsibility. There is no room for compromise here. If something is true, then no amount of reasoning or arguing will change that. We don’t adjust the truth to make it more palatable. We don’t dismiss it to appease people. But as we’re seeking the truth and encouraging other people to do the same, what message are we conveying by the posture we take with our words? Here are a few things to consider.
Reasons and Seasons
Christianity, the church, and Christians themselves have always faced criticism. In fact, some of the critical issues being raised today are similar if not identical to issues that have been raised at other times in the church’s history. A wise man once said, “There is nothing new under the sun,” and that certainly applies here. So no Christian needs to feel shocked or dismayed when people question the legitimacy of Christianity or the value of the church. In fact, we should welcome those questions, as often as they come, because they represent opportunities to grow in our own understanding as we attempt to influence others in their understanding.
Some of the people who question the Christian faith or who appear hostile to it, do so based on reasons we know nothing about. (I discussed the importance of backstory in a previous blog, “Starting with Empathy”.) So it helps to listen, to ask for clarification, and to maintain an attitude of respect.
It’s also helpful to keep in mind that some people who write statements that are critical of the Christian faith are at the same time in a season of searching. They’re not asking or taking issue simply to disprove something, but rather to uncover something. To break through perceived barriers to the Christian faith in order to come to it.
Grace and Space
This is when we need to give people room and time to work through their doubts and ask their questions in safe environments. We don’t have to agree with them, but we can choose to walk with them. If I were wrestling with an issue and I genuinely wanted to find truth, I would want even those who think differently than I do to walk with me and support me as I work toward my goal. Perhaps one of the things that will most clearly validate the Christian faith in the eyes of searchers is the loving and gracious way Christians respond to their questions, fears, and criticisms.
In Our Own Circles
By the way, this principle also applies to people of faith who disagree with one another. We’ve all read social media posts written by Christians to Christians that would make even the most hardened person blush. At the risk of redundancy, we’re not talking here about compromising the truth. We’re simply talking about putting our love on display as we work out our disagreements and move toward the truth. When Christians call one another names, assign labels, and treat those who disagree with them as inferior or less intelligent, no one wins. Every time we behave this way, we miss an opportunity we’ll never regain to show a watching world how Christians love each other even when it’s hard.
So whether we’re directing our written words to skeptics who question the validity of the Christian faith, or to believers who question the application of it, we would do well to respond kindly, to offer to walk beside them in their doubt, and even when we strongly disagree, to provide the needed time and space to discern truth.