I can be a sarcastic and (somewhat) quick-witted man at times. Unfortunately, that has been a dangerous combination for me and has caused needless arguments between me and several Christians when we disagreement on political and theological issues.
I’ve stuck my foot in my mouth on several occasions online or in person when people take my overly sarcastic remarks the wrong way, or when I rely on my wit rather than wisdom when replying to people I disagree with online or in person. (Mainly online. I will continue to confess that constant, unfettered use social media – especially Twitter – is not conducive to meaningful debate on any issue of importance). It’s difficult to be slow to speak when I have the perfect retort I know will get me “likes” or “laugh reacts” on Facebook.
Tim’s sermon series through James has reminded me of a rule I’ve been trying to implement in how I talk with others online and off. I haven’t always been successful, but I think it has helped keep my foot as far away from my mouth in many tense conversations.
I listened to a fascinating book a few years ago by Alan Jacobs, Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program Professor at Baylor University. The book, “How to Think: A Survival Guide to a World at Odds”, details the way we think or, more accurately, the way we don’t. Early in the book he relays a eureka moment, which he offers as a model that all Christians should use during disagreements and arguments.
The “give it five minutes” rule, as Jacobs calls it, is simply stated: when you see someone presenting an argument you disagree with, give it five minutes to see how or why you disagree with it before you respond. Those five minutes usually give you enough time to listen to what the other person said, then allow your emotions to die down before you say something you wish you could take back. Christ said words matter (Matthew 12:36), so we should be intentional when we speak – especially in disagreement.
“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. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.”
I have the bad habit of formulating counter-arguments in my mind as I listen to or read the writing of a person with whom I disagree. I’ve noticed also the difficulty to be quick to hear when I’m thinking of how to respond while they’re talking. When I start thinking while they are speaking, I’m no longer listening to what they have to say. Watch any political debate and you’ll see this on display. It’s unlikely they considered each other’s arguments instead of responded with prepared jabs and retorts.
If I am quick to hear, it means I am treating each person – no matter how much I disagree with them on any given issue – as who they are: a bearer of the imago Dei. It shows I care more about them as a person than doing “win rhetoric,” attempting to “dismantle” their argument in war-like terms.
If I am slow to speak, it means I have carefully considered their argument(s) and can begin to respond in wisdom, not in raw emotion. If, after five minutes’ reflection I still disagree, I can present a reasoned response. It also means that, after they speak, I might agree with them. Or at least better understand them. Either way, I have given thought to what they said and responded wisely, which gives glory to God.”
If I am slow to anger, I will not respond in a way I will regret. A sarcastic quip toward another man or woman who is passionately presenting their argument does no one any good. I get annoyed when I hear that today. One person on the news is talking, and then the other interrupts with a snide remark. You can see them pause a moment after the retort, waiting for “their side” of the audience to applaud. Those type of emotional and sarcastic retorts do not build up. The anger of man will not produce the righteousness of God. That’s a guarantee.
If I do those three things: be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, I am putting away all filthiness and rampant wickedness when it comes to arguments. Instead of trading jabs with canned retorts, I am responding to arguments with measured thought, tempering my emotion with logic, reason, and an air of prayerfulness. As Christians, we are to act in this way even and especially when our opponent does not.
This rule is an abiding principle in the church, one which should not be thrown away in favor of rhetoric that promotes hateful words and provokes the quick-tempered. The good cook takes time to test the seasoning of his dish before serving it; our own speech, says James, deserves the same care—because we are serving it to others. And those others, every one of them, are made in the Image of God. Remember that before tearing that person down.
This, I think, is the better way.