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Entering the Digital Colosseum with the Meekness of Wisdom
A call to reclaim wise listening in a culture struggling to disagree well
I remember listening to a conversation between two authors at one of the most popular Christian blogs. They were discussing the need to detox after long periods of moderating their social media content. The comments and rhetoric were so toxic, people literally had to step away just to recover from their poisonous effects. On the other hand, there can be such a draw to see the carnage on these threads—to see who got the best one-liner in, the most ironic meme, who is on the right or wrong side of the issue, and so on. If we’re honest, sometimes we’re there for the show, popcorn in hand.
While it may seem innocent on the surface, I think that our appetite for and indulgence in this kind of divisive conversation shows us at least two things. First, our motives and reasoning are bent toward selfish ambition. We get some kind of pleasure out of seeing people attack each other in the digital colosseum. And, the fact that our debates are only getting worse also shows that this kind of engagement could be having a transformative effect on us and our culture. We enter into this rhetoric as if there won’t be any contamination. Yet its influence can be absorbed into our way of thinking without us even realizing it.
In disagreement, we struggle to listen to other people in a genuine way. Even talking face to face, we often use other people’s speaking time as a chance to strategize our next plan of attack. We have already made up our mind, after all. So what’s the use in hearing the other side? Things also move so fast that we seem to have determined that there’s no time to reason things out. Think of how often you hear repeated slogans or nicknames used to dismiss people and their ideas. Or, hear paraphrases of what “so and so” thinks about the issue. These are shortcuts, but they don’t take us where we need to go.
A Different Path
Now, I’m not suggesting that this issue is a new one, but it is something that has been injected with modern growth hormones. The question is, what do we do about it? Is there any ancient wisdom that could help us chart a new (old) path?
When I think of wisdom, I think first of the book of Proverbs. The teacher writes, "If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame” (Prov 18:13 ESV). It’s worth pausing on that idea, “If one gives an answer before he hears. . . .” This is so descriptive of what we’re seeing. One antidote to the problem is to “hear.” But not in a technical way. It’s to hear in an attentive way—a way that precedes our answer. To hear in a way that informs our answer. We should understand what people are saying or asking of us. This could mean that our best reply is to seek more clarity, to ask questions.
I love how Francis Schaeffer modeled this. Jerram Barrs writes the following:
". . .he would devote himself to listening for hours to the struggles and questions of those who came to his home. He would say: 'If I have only an hour with someone, I will spend the first fifty-five minutes asking questions and finding out what is troubling their heart and mind, and then in the last five minutes I will share something of the truth.’” (source)
We tend to do the contrary by listening rashly and dismissively. It’s the very opposite of the wise advice in James 1:19, “. . .be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” James is another fountain of wisdom in this regard, especially chapter 3 where he speaks about the power of the tongue (the organ of speech). Consider the end of this chapter:
Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. . . . But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. (Jas 3:13–18)
As Christians, how should we be described, even if we disagree with one another? As a people of good conduct, marked by the meekness of wisdom. We’re not to look like the masters of sarcasm. We’re not the ones who “DESTROY,” “SHRED,” or “SLAM” our opponent, as the sensational video titles would have us believe. We’re called to be meek—people who have our strength under control. We’re also not called to be weak-minded or gullible. We’re called to be people who are open to reason—not emotionally charged or tribalistic in our thinking.
A New Destination
One beauty of hearing people out is that we often find that we don’t disagree as much as we originally thought. When we address our “opponent” in their humanity by first listening, we won’t filter what they say through silly caricatures. And if we still disagree, we’ll better understand why. In that new understanding, armed with the meekness of wisdom which is “peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere,” we’ll be able to faithfully disagree, maybe for the first time.
That’s a much better starting point than the typical “us versus them” in the digital colosseum. And it will get us to a much better destination as well.
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