Listening For Agreement

Tim Keller is one of the contemporary pastors/writers I really respect.  I don’t think I elevate him to any lofty position he shouldn’t have (I strongly believe that only Christ should be elevated and everyone else ought to be kept on the ground), I do appreciate and look to the wisdom he shares.  I think he has a lot of it.

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And that, in turn, cause me a great deal of surprise when I saw how many people were fighting with him on Twitter.  Keller posts a lot on Twitter.  I don’t know if the things he posts are quotes from his writings or new ideas.  I don’t know if there is a unifying theme he is trying to achieve with his tweets or if he is just tossing out random notions.  But I know that almost every time I have checked, someone is disagreeing with him about something.   I try not to read comments; I learned pretty quickly that the comment section of any article, post, or tweet is likely to be a cesspool that will bring unhappiness into my life.  But I can’t help myself sometimes.  There are many times when I want to see how others are responding to Keller’s words, and there are just as many times when I see that they are responding badly, that they are disagreeing with what he said, fighting with what he said, even castigating him for what he said.

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Again, I don’t elevate Keller.  He is a man, and as Galatians 2 shows us, even good men make mistakes and/or fall into errors.  He is not infallible (I doubt he would claim he is) and he not above disagreement.  So it is not the disagreement that bothers me so much.  It is the fact that so many Christians (not the atheists, whom we would expect to cross swords with him, but the Christians, the disciples, the genuine followers of Christ) disagree with him.  And it is not just that the Christians disagree with him but that they disagree with him (and fight with him, and castigate him, etc.) in an illegitimate way.  It is often the case that they disagree not with what he says but with their own concocted bizarre twisting of what he meant, with some far-flung application of his words which was never what he intended to communicate.

What these Christians are not doing is what I call “listening for agreement”, by which I mean listening for what you agree with/is good not for what you disagree with/is bad.  I’m not sure where I got that phrase “listening for agreement”, but I’m fairly confident I got the idea from Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

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I may have read this book in my latter years of Bible college, or I may have read it when a teacher at the high school close to my first church gave it to me.  In either case, I read it.  In it, I learned that one of the seven habits is “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”.

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This, I believe, is what the Christians who are fighting with Keller (or any similar Christian teacher in any similar situation) are not doing.  They are not trying to understand what Keller is saying and how he expects it to be applied.  They are allowing themselves to misunderstand or, worse, concocting some possible misunderstanding.  That is ineffective, a Covey suggests.  That is counterproductive.  That is a missing of truths and a ruining of fellowship and a muddying of the waters and a dozen other undesirable things.

And it is also unbiblical.  I can imagine many of the same people who will fight with what Keller says on any given subject will fight me here, and a particular avenue for such a fight is to point out that Covey is not God and The 7 Habits is not Scripture.  True enough.  Seek first to understand is not a biblical phrase, nor is listening for agreement.  But here are a few that are biblical:

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There are several others as well.  The Bible repeatedly tells us to listen and to not argue.  When we refuse to do that even in the cyber realm, when we ignore (unintentionally or otherwise) the good thing a fellow believer is trying to share and twist it into a bad thing and then argue ad nauseum about it, we are doing exactly what the Bible tells us not to do.

I’m not trying to defend Tim Keller, my friends.  I don’t think he really needs my help on this one or any other.  I’m not trying to defend any Christian teacher.  I’m trying to defend Christian unity and effectiveness.  I’m trying to find the way for God’s Kingdom to come and His will to be done.  I know that way does not involve psuedo or ego conflicts (which is what a lot of these online arguments are; they are not genuine or “simple” conflicts; they are misunderstandings at best and personality or jealousy at worst).

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Even Jesus couldn’t stop people from distorting His words and His applications into something He never intended.  No contemporary Christian teacher is going to be able to stop people from doing so, either.  The only thing which can stop this is the people themselves.  And we Christian people should be willing and able to do just that.  We should be able to be quick to listen and slow to anger (or maybe “righteous indignation”).  We should seek first to understand (even giving the benefit of the doubt when it is necessary to interpretation).  We should listen for agreement, not for disagreement.

Letting Yourself Lose

True story that happened just five minutes ago:

My office phone rings.  I answer it.  The guy on the other end (whom I don’t know and whose number was listed simply as “Private Caller”) asked me if I could “answer a Bible question”.

“I’ll give it a try!” I said in my normal goofy way.

This guy then proceeded to read Genesis 1:27, stressing that the pronoun used for the Creator is he (that is, singular).  The guy then quickly fell into an angry diatribe about The Trinity.  His question became an assault as he demanded to know if I believed in The Trinity  and why and how I could consider myself a Christian if I did believe in The Trinity.

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In the few instances I actually got to talk, I tried to explain that The Trinity (a word admittedly not found in the Bible) is our best attempt to convey the whole teaching of the Bible and that he was pushing pronouns far beyond the degree to which they were supposed to be pushed.  He did not agree.  In fact, he didn’t give me much chance to explain.  Instead, every statement I made brought several rapid accusations from him.  I then tried to tell him that I had been asked to answer a question, not have an argument.  Finally, I hung up.

And I hated to do that.  I tried to avoid doing that, in fact, because I knew if I did that he would claim some sort of victory.  “That guy couldn’t answer any of my questions,” I can imagine him saying (after, of course, reframing the story to remove his aggressive interruptions and unwillingness to listen).  “He just ran away from me.”

That bothers me.  I’ve got a strong sense of justice.  I hate what is wrong being called right (even if that wrong is mine).  I didn’t want to give this person the chance to do that, and couldn’t stand the fact that I had given him  the chance to do that.

Yet that’s what my faith often calls me to do.  It may sound strange (especially if, like me, you come from a church/bible college background which presents debate as a spiritual practice), but it is true.  The fact of the matter is that God doesn’t want us to argue and sometimes calls us to lose arguments.  He tells us to throw in the towel when further fighting is ineffective and counterproductive and becoming ungodly.

My favorite example of this is in Jeremiah 28:

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Jeremiah did not continue to trade blows with Hananiah.  Rather, when he saw that Hananiah was just diatribing rather than dialoguing, he just walked away.  He came back a little later to drop a personal word from the Lord on Hananiah, but he walked away from that first encounter.  He did not continue to debate the false prophet in front of the crowds.

Jesus famously teaches something similar:

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He did not instruct us to trade blows with those who reject us (and reject Him through rejecting us).  He instructed us instead to “shake the dust off our feet” and move on.

On top of that, Paul tells Timothy:

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Despite what I was taught in my home church and in Bible college, an argumentative spirit is not a Christ-like spirit.  Debate is not a righteous spiritual discipline.  It is the opposite, in fact.  It is clearly not what God wants.  It produces the opposite of what God wants.  Arguments lead to several ungodly behaviors: anger, insinuation, insult, etc.  It is so easy to fall into those things.  I worry, in fact, that what I wrote above about my encounter with this guy skirts the border of those things.  That’s why God doesn’t want us to argue.  That’s why when it comes to arguments, even “spiritual” or theological or doctrinal arguments:

What does a “Lord’s servant” like me do in this strange game?  Well, he has to lose.  That’s what Jeremiah did.  That’s what Jesus did on many occasions as well (such as in Luke 9 when He simply walked away from the village that rejected Him).  That’s what Paul often did, too.  And I guess that’s what I did.  I couldn’t walk away from this guy literally, but I did hang up on him.  I hung up on him as nicely as I could.  I didn’t want to hang up on him since even that can be seen as aggressive, but that was about the best I could do in the situation, and I did it the best I could do it.  I let myself lose, in other words.  And that was the right thing to do.  I might not like it, but that was the right thing to do.