It’s funny that we still call the media we use “social.” Every time I pick up my phone to look at my timeline, I am bombarded with foreboding war-time pronouncements. The battle lines are drawn, and the soldiers picked their weapons. Words are the weapons for this war, and the battle is fierce. Loud shouts about systemic racism, sexual freedom, politics, and disease are the main content of our timelines. The vitriolic nature of “social” media has caused many to completely withdraw from social media, never saying a word about difficult topics. Others have bought in completely to the weaponization of social media and hold nothing back against their enemies or their friends. Are either of these responses the Christian response? If not, how should Christians interact with posts such as these?
Followers of Jesus are called to communicate about hard topics differently than the world around us, namely because our Leader is the Lamb that was slain. Jesus is the one who stood silent as a lamb before its shearers (Isaiah 53:7). Jesus knew that His silence before rulers would ultimately bring about His kingdom here on earth (Matthew 26:63-65). Jesus suffered death and humiliation on the cross in order to bring us to God (1 Peter 2:18). Jesus clearly stated that His kingdom was “not of this world,” otherwise his servants would have been fighting to prevent Him from being given over to the Jews (John 18:36). Jesus’ other-worldly conversation teaches Christians the benefits of silence and careful conversation.
In an effort to imitate Christ, there are three priorities that every Christian should have when listening to and engaging with our neighbors in dialogue and debate. These priorities are encapsulated in James’ command to be “quick to hear, slow to speak, [and] slow to anger” (James 1:19).
First, one must be quick to hear. Being quick to hear is equivalent to humility, as humility in Scripture is willingly submitting yourself underneath the mighty hand of God (1 Peter 5:6). It is the happy reception of the truth that comes from the mouth of God (Deuteronomy 8:3; cf. Mathew 4:4), recognizing that His words alone are perfect and life-giving (Psalm 19:7). The Christian believes that the Scriptures speak clearly and decisively on certain topics, and so we confidently believe Scripture’s teaching on these topics. Because the Christian has Scripture’s clear teachings, we can listen to other perspectives calmly, recognizing that no person’s beliefs can nullify the truth of God’s word. Christians only know the truth because of what God has revealed to them; as a result, Christians ought to be the most willing to exercise quietness and listen with respect to what others have to contribute to conversations without ever fearing that God’s truth is invalidated. Furthermore, humility recognizes that our perceptions and interpretations are not inerrant. Scripture itself is inerrant, which means that our interpretation of Scripture can actually be assisted by listening to other perspectives while Scripture itself always stands strong.
Second, one must be slow to speak. James commands his readers to obey his three commands because the “anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20). God is one who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 145:8). When we explode on others in anger or allow our tongues to roll off accusations too quickly, we denigrate the name of God. Outsiders to Christianity get the picture that God is uncontrolled and hot-headed rather than gracious and merciful if we respond in hasty anger during a conversation. When that person takes a swipe at your position on a comment thread, take a deep breath and respond with kindness rather than anger. Slowness gives you an opportunity to truly engage with the other person’s position and respond with grace.
Third, one must be slow to anger. Christians understand better than anyone that all humans are made in the image of God. One way we respect God’s image-bearers is by recognizing that every person has dignity, which means that we should honor God by listening to them! Even if a person is wrong in their understanding of a topic, they usually get there by false reasoning, not by no reasoning at all. When God wants someone to confess the truth about Himself, He asks them questions to force them to self-evaluate (Genesis 3:9; 4:9). When we ask our opponents, “Why do you believe that?”, we get to the heart of a conversation rather than battling back and forth about words. An assumption about another person’s position is the first sign of presumption. As a result, we need to be quick to ask questions to clarify and understand before going on the offensive.
The next time that you want to engage with someone on social media or in person about a controversial topic, consider why and how you want to go about the conversation. The purpose of engaging our neighbors is not to show that we are right, but to love them and to lead them to submit to the word of God. Next, slowly type out your response and read it out loud to yourself. Make sure that you are being gracious in your speech and displaying the compassion of Christ. Finally, ask them follow up questions! You’ll be surprised how much further a conversation will go when you respect a person as made in the image of God.
Remember that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, and thus the way we engage with conversations looks different from the world. Jesus triumphed over the evil one by dying on the cross (Colossians 2:15). This does not mean that we refrain from actively persuading others of the truth of the gospel, but it does mean that we should always make our speech gracious (Colossians 4:6). We do not overcome this world by force, but by actively declaring and displaying the gospel with graciousness. This includes kindly engaging with our neighbors on social media and elsewhere with humility, graciousness, and question-asking.