At the end of last week I noticed a tweet that had been posted by Ed Stetzer as he labored over a blog post for the following day:
“Working on a difficult blogpost for tmrw. Trying to speak truth & grace at the same time is not easy. I’m not sure I have it right yet.”
I love God’s timing, because that tweet articulated exactly what I was feeling that day.
As some of you may have seen, last week I wrote a post for Her.meneutics on cross-gender friendships and marriage. It was a post I had felt led to write for some time, but I had dragged my feet for months. Although the post mentions no one by name, it criticizes particular people and particular perspectives, and as a Christian I never engage in public critique casually. It is something I approach soberly and cautiously, not only because the internet is such a difficult place to communicate clearly, but because we are likely to hurt one another unnecessarily.
Over the last couple months God has been teaching me a lot about courage. He has helped me to understand that if my message never requires courage to speak, then I’m probably not saying very much. Of course that is not an invitation to trample on people’s feelings or make controversial statements in the name of “being brave,” but it certainly challenges me to ask the question, “Who do I fear? God, or other people?”
Sometimes fear of others prevents me from saying something difficult, and that’s when I need courage from God.
Last week was one of those weeks. I spent a lot of time crafting a post, I researched it, had multiple trusted (and knowledgeable) Christians edit and critique it, and then I sent it in to be published.
I pray that God accomplished what He wanted through that post. I pray that God used my words to challenge Christians in their thinking about cross-gender friendships. For those whose friendships are dictated by fear, and for those whose friendships are guided by a dangerous liberty, I hope it spoke to them both.
Now I share all of this with you, not only to give you a glimpse into my thought process for that particular piece, but also to share my thought process as a writer and teacher.
I believe that one of the most important tasks of a Christian teacher is that of being fair to those with whom we disagree. Being “fair and balanced” as the Fox News tagline goes, is an incredibly difficult goal. Like Ed noted in his tweet above, it is a skill that takes time to learn and discipline to achieve. And like Ed, I’m not sure I’m there yet.
The reason this practice is so important for Christians is that it is a matter of truthfulness. Are we representing reality truthfully to the world around us, or speaking in lazy hyperboles that tickle the ears of our sympathizers but do not promote understanding?
At stake here is both the integrity and credibility of our witness. When we fail to represent another fairly, we not only make ourselves into liars, but we undermine any chance at being heard by those who disagree with us. They know we aren’t interested in having a genuine conversation. They know we’re only interested in being right. And in the process, we perpetuate ignorance among our listeners.
That is why it is so important to guard your tongue. Watch what you say about others. Would they agree with your representation of them, or would they feel further alienated by your divisive rhetoric? Are you engaging in a type of language that promotes understanding among believers, or simply affirming people in their righteousness? Ar you opening doors for people to enter the church, or digging trenches to further isolate the people of God?
Of course, even our best attempts at fair representation will not always meet with positive results. Scripture tells us that the wisdom of God is foolishness to humanity, and we need look no farther than Christ to see what this means. Sometimes the truth, even when it is spoken in love, is a hard, counter-cultural word that offends.
Yet this reality does not wash our hands of working hard to love in a manner that feels loving to the world. For me, that means considering the following questions when I represent others in my writing:
1. What are they saying that I can agree with?
2. What are they saying that I need to hear, or that the church needs to hear?
3. What legitimate problem or blind spot in the church are they addressing?
Whenever I disagree with another Christian, I allow these questions to guide my discussion and I try to highlight some of those answers. In doing so, I have done a better job at representing others fairly, but I have also grown in my own faith in the process. It is so easy to make blanket condemnations about feminism or the emerging church without ever asking the question, “Why did these movements develop in the first place? Could they have been calling attention to a real problem in the Body of Christ?” Usually the answer to that second question is yes, but we’ll miss out on noticing our own weaknesses in our urgency to condemn others’.
As I have learned the discipline of speaking the truth in love, there are two people who I have looked to as examples. One I have already mentioned–Ed Stetzer. Ed is a Southern Baptist who manages to be in conversation with EVERYONE. I have worked with Ed in the past, and I was astonished by how widely people of different beliefs and fields respected him. I think his efforts to hear people and represent them fairly is one of the reasons he has such respect.
The other example I look to is Tim Keller. Keller has an uncanny ability to speak very difficult truths in a way that people can hear. He did this masterfully in The Reason for God. He is able to engage his culture lovingly, and I think he does this by genuinely trying to understand the people he reaches. He knows how to speak to them in their language, and they felt heard, understood, and cared for. You can’t put a price on that evangelistic tool.
I hope more Christians will do the hard work of representing others fairly, and I will continue to try and be an example of what this looks like. I know I will fail at times, but I truly believe that Christ calls us to no less. Especially since his message is on the line.