Does it ever feel like you can’t talk about anything without others being offended? Have you posted something on social media you thought would be innocuous but instead received tons of negative comments? Welcome to 2022, where everyone is right and everyone is wrong. There is no middle ground anymore, especially with this current young adult generation.
This isn’t the first time in history when humans have disagreed and been rife with polarizing arguments. It’s certainly not the first time differing opinions have given rise to political—or actual—war. This has happened repeatedly throughout history; we are not unique. The peculiar part is the way the internet puts everyone’s opinions, fears, angers, political preferences, loves, and hates before us 24/7. For all the access we have to a broad spectrum of ideas and opinions, social media has exacerbated close-mindedness, keeping us in echo chambers where we are primarily exposed to the opinions of those who agree with us. Push back and disagreement, even in the gentlest of manners, are seen as a personal attack. It’s an eggshell world.
College students haven’t grown up in an environment that values respectful disagreement and constructive dialogue as positive tools to shape and strengthen one’s perspective. Even the college campus, once a forum for critical thinking and the exchange of ideas, increasingly pressures students to tow party lines and fit into narrow black-and-white boxes.
In this cultural context, how do we handle divisive topics with the students we are seeking to reach? As we are discipling them to think critically and biblically about the world they live in, how do we navigate controversial topics? We certainly can’t neglect or avoid them.
As a campus missionary, I’ve had to learn to do this in a way that brings truth and grace to the ones I’m speaking with. James 1:19 provides the best guide:
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.
The most effective way to live out James 1:19 is in person. Whenever possible (and it usually is), refrain from having heavy conversations through social media, particularly in comment sections. People don’t see people on these platforms, and often, no one is budging. Suggest having conversations in person (even if you don’t think it’s a controversial subject—one man’s given is another man’s controversy). In-person, or at least on video, helps you see them as a person and hear their intentions. This generation is used to hiding behind screens. Inviting them to converse in person says, “I value you, I want to hear your perspective, and I’m willing to take the time to do so face-to-face.”"Inviting someone to converse in person says, "I value you, I want to hear your perspective, and I'm willing to take the time to do so face-to-face." Christina Boatright: @christinab017_ #collegiatedisciplemaker Navigating… Click To Tweet
As you converse, here are 6 steps to navigate controversial subjects in an eggshell world with grace and truth.
Be quick to listen
Instead of mentally preparing your argument, be quick to listen to what the other person is saying. They could have valid points worth listening to and addressing. They could just be living in ignorance, not understanding what they are saying or why. Be willing to hear their perspective and see their side of the issue, even if you still disagree. You might even discover you’re wrong, at least in part! Listening shows respect to the other person. It allows you to process what they are saying so you can have an informed conversation.
Be slow to speak
The other side of being quick to listen is being slow to speak. Make sure they’re done speaking before you start. Speak slowly and take deep breaths. Think carefully about what you are about to say and how you are saying it. Do your best to be gentle, honest, and gracious. Colossians 4:6 says “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” This takes patience and self-control, but it’s worth it.
Be quick to ask
It’s tempting to pursue a line of questions to make a point or expose weak points in their argument. This puts them on the defense and prevents you from understanding them well. Asking meaningful questions helps you seek clarity, replace assumptions with information, and gain perspective into where they are coming from and why. Resist the urge to try to trip people up in their thinking. Ask thoughtful questions with the intent to understand. The answers to those questions might reveal it isn’t a conversation worth having, or they might show you new things about the person that gives you a different perspective on them.
Be slow to react
Psalm 15:1 says “A gentle answer turns away wrath but a harsh word stirs up anger.” This is probably the most difficult part. Anger is a feeling, and feelings are morally neutral. How we react to those feelings is when sin enters. Responding in a reactive way can escalate the feelings of anger—and the propensity to sin—for both of you. Being passionate about something is not the same as being angry; there is a way to speak passionately and compassionately at the same time. Be aware of how your passion comes across, and be willing to lovingly shut the conversation down when it is no longer productive. There’s nothing wrong with suggesting you table the conversation until you have both had a chance to calm down or process the conversation.
Be quick to repent
If at any point the conversation becomes un-Christlike in any way, take a break. Name-calling, arguing, attacking, interrupting, belittling, and making hateful comments will never be what God wants you to do. Stop to pray either silently or with the other person. Refocus your heart on what matters. Repent and ask forgiveness if you spoke ungraciously, interrupted, became defensive, or otherwise failed to reflect Christ well. Even if you did not mean to offend, be willing to apologize if they feel hurt.
Be slow to defend
Different perspectives don’t make you enemies. This isn’t a game to be won. As my former campus minister, Joe Banderman, told me when I wanted to win an argument, “Would you rather be right or would you rather be righteous?” Don’t sacrifice who you are in Christ to the throne of being right. The blood of Jesus makes you unchangeably righteous; you don’t need to prove yourself by being right. Resist the urge to clothe yourself in defensive armor and instead clothe yourself in the humility of Christ.
Be quick to be humble
All of this hinges on humility. Humility is seeing yourself accurately, not less than or more than the human you are. You may be mistaken; you may be wrong in your argument or even your beliefs. Be willing to admit when you’re wrong. Invite correction, constructive criticism, and exhortation. Being quick to listen, ask, and repent and slow to speak, react, and defend are rooted in the realization that both of you are just people in need of Jesus. Their perspective may not be complete, but neither is yours.
Prioritize gospel transformation
As followers of Jesus, we should do everything we can to point to the light that is Christ. As you converse with people about controversial subjects and seek to help shape the perspectives of those you are ministering to, keep that at the forefront. Your first priority should always be gospel transformation, not behavior modification or ideological alignment. Make your goal to show them the transformative power of the gospel, not to get them to behave or think as you see fit.
Only God forgives sins and transforms the heart. If what you are saying is true and grounded in Scripture, then let the gospel be the driving force in the conversations not to change their behavior but their heart. The most important thing when they walk away from the conversation is not what they think about the issue (or about you) but what they think about Jesus. What good is it if they change their perspective on an issue but never surrender to the saving lordship of Jesus Christ?
I’ll leave you with the words of 2 Timothy 2:24-26,The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.”