We live in fractious times. There seems to be no end to the scornful and snarky memes, disrespectful dialogue, and ad hominem attacks that are thrown about in rants that concern everything from politics to… theology? Yes, sadly, even followers of Christ struggle with this particular form of ugly vanity.
Several years ago Tony Woodlief, a blogger for World Magazine, shared a quote from George MacDonald that echoes much biblical truth. MacDonald said:
“When I am successful in any argument, my one dread is of humiliating my opponent. When a man reasons for victory and not for the truth in the other soul, he is sure of just one ally – the devil. The defeat of the intellect is not the object in fighting with the sword of the Spirit, but rather the acceptance of the heart.”
This would be easy to do if all parties in an argument or debate equally dreaded humiliating their opponent. But that is not the case. In fact, it seems that in public discourse, the goal is rather to humiliate one’s opponent than to persuade them of what one believes to be true. And the public roars with approval like so many Romans in the Coliseum when our ideological champion draws blood from his opposite. This is how public and private, political and even theological discourse is often shaped in this world gone mad.
MacDonald offers us a poetic prayer that may be of use and comfort when we find ourselves in a debate in which there exist no civil or moral restraints. In his devotional book, Diary of an Old Soul, his entry for February 18 is worth committing to memory:
“Keep me from wrath, let it seem ever so right:
My wrath will never work thy righteousness.
Up, up the hill, to the whiter than snow-whine,
Help me to climb, and dwell in pardon’s light.
I must be pure as thou, or ever less
Than thy design of me – therefore incline
My heart to take men’s wrongs as thou tak’st mine.”
Take some time and consider this godly reflection in light of James 1:19-21; Colossians 3:1-17; and Matthew 18:21-35. You will have many opportunities over these next months to enter some amazingly trenchant debates – on top of everything else life offers it is an election year! We live in a society that argues to win and doesn’t bother to count the bodies afterwards. Make it your business to seek to preserve and strengthen relationships and trust by how you argue. Those with whom you disagree should at the very least respect you for the manner in which you argued. Argue well in public – and especially in your homes!