March 6, 2016

How to Talk to Dummies

Have you ever tried arguing with a wall?  I know that’s kind of a silly question, but humor me.  How would it work arguing with a wall?  Well, as long as you take the position that the wall should stand there holding up the roof and dividing one space from another, it’ll go pretty well.  You’ll win.  Piece of cake.  Now, if you were to take any other position than that things probably wouldn’t go so well for you.  Okay, if you were to bring a sledgehammer to the argument things would probably go in your direction by sheer matter of force, but beyond that, if you were to take up a position other than the wall was taking the two of you would simply not reach any sort of agreement or even a happy medium.

Let’s talk about people, though.  Have you ever tried arguing with a wall?  After three kids I have come to the conclusion that arguing with a two-year-old whose mind is made up is a little like arguing with a wall.  Especially when candy is involved.  Now I’m big enough that I can force things to go my way, particularly when I know I’m in the right in whatever our disagreement is about, but what does that get me?  He may not be headed down what I consider to be the wrong path anymore, but now he’s screaming at the top of his lungs and leaving a trail of slobber everywhere he goes so instead of the single issue of us being in disagreement on his desired course of action I now have several problems to deal with.

Perhaps you’ve experienced something similar.  You were in disagreement with someone on some issue and there was no real hope of finding a compromise position.  What’s more, you were both convinced you were right on the matter and that the other was not merely wrong, but foolishly, even dangerously so; that their getting this wrong could have devastating consequences and for more than just themselves.  What did you do then?  If you had sufficient leverage it may have been tempting to use force in that situation in order to…encourage…the other person to move in your direction, but what did that accomplish?  A grudging agreement perhaps, but certainly not a resolution.  It seems like there should be a better way to handle these kinds of situations.  As a matter of fact, there is, and I’d like to talk with you this morning about how to do it.

This morning we are in the second part of our new series, Hard to Love.  The whole idea for this series is that we all have people in our lives who are hard for us to love.  The reasons for this are many, but nonetheless, these folks are there.  What’s more, for most of us, the most relevant hard to love folks in our lives are not some group of nameless faces with whom we’ll probably never have to interact, but rather the people closest to us; the people we see and interact with on a daily basis who present to us a near constant challenge to modeling for them the kind of love God has for us.  Often in these situations we are sorely tempted to essentially shrug our shoulders and learn to live with the frustration.  We just embrace the futility.  The problem here is that we weren’t designed to live with that kind of futility for very long.  We all have futility wells built into us and once they get filled to the top, something in us snaps and we refuse to endure it any longer.  Some of you know exactly what I mean.  This is often the point at which a marriage that perhaps from the outside in has looked fine for years “suddenly” blows up.  Or maybe a friendship that has been a little rocky for some time but mostly in a kind of stasis mode “suddenly” reaches a crisis point and is dealt irreparable harm.  Perhaps a relationship with a child or a parent is “suddenly” broken beyond the opportunity to be restored by anything other than a truly herculean effort.  The irony here is that in none of these or other similar cases are the explosions as sudden as they appear.  No, it’s just that the fuse which has been slowly burning away—perhaps for decades— has finally reached the bomb.

The reality is that every single hard to love person in our lives represents a fuse like this.  The longer we ignore the things which are causing the fuse to burn, the closer it gets to the eventual explosion.  The thing is: explosions are always messy.  Sometimes they’re bad enough that rebuilding isn’t even possible.  The goal for this series is quite simply to help us avoid messes like this both in our relationships with people and with God.

We started things off last week by establishing a baseline from which we could approach everything else we’re going to talk about over the next few weeks.  We did this by taking a look at Jesus’ command for us to love our enemies.  We worked through the examples He gave and finally landed on the reason for it: God’s love for us.  We love our hard-to-loves because God does too.  It is in light of God’s incredible love for us that we do the hard work of loving the hard to love people in our lives.

Still, though, knowing that we are to do this and knowing how to do it are two different things.  Yes, I gave us some practical ways to love the hard-to-loves in our lives at the end of our time together last week—mind your manners, remember what love is, always treat other people with kindness and not simply in kind, remember who you are and who they are, and keep Jesus’ particular formulation of the Golden Rule well in mind—but that’s just a start.  What else do we need to know if we are going to take on a challenge as big as loving the hard to love people in our lives?  Thankfully we get a pretty big assist on this from the apostle Paul.

In his second letter to his protégé Timothy, Paul offers some wisdom on not simply how to love the hard-to-love people in our lives, but on how to become the kind of people who can do it.  That’s a bigger challenge.  But, let me offer a little disclaimer before we get into this.  This morning we are going to have a bit of an in-house conversation.  If you would not characterize yourself as a follower of Jesus this morning, you can sit back and relax because most of this doesn’t apply to you.  You can laugh at the silly kinds of things Jesus followers are expected to do and maybe bristle a bit at how arrogant we seem to be in having such confidence in the things we believe.  You might hear a thing or two that would be wise to incorporate into your life, but it’s totally up to you whether or not you try and tackle that.  For the Jesus followers in the room, though, this stuff isn’t optional.  This all carries the force of a command.  Some of these commands may be less burdensome than you might be thinking right now, but they are here for us to put into practice all the same.  You’ll find Paul’s words here starting at 2 Timothy 2:22.  Grab a copy of the Scriptures and check this out with me.

“So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.”  Now, on the surface, those commands are pretty plain.  A couple of phrases could use a bit of interpretation which we’ll get to in a second, but let’s look at the context for a minute to see if we can’t understand in a bit more detail just what Paul is trying to say here.

If we jump back to v. 4, we see this: “No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him.”  Now, I don’t have any military experience so some of you are going to have to check me on this, but as a general sense, it seems to me that if a soldier gets so entangled in some civilian affair that he’s not ready to jump when his commanding officer says the word things are not going to go well for him.  Along the same lines but using a different metaphor, v. 5 says this: “An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.”  If a soccer player tries to play according to the rules for rugby, she’s not going to win anything.  If a baseball player uses the rules for cricket as his guide he is going to lose.  I don’t think I’m exploding any heads with this.  What’s the point?

Let me make you wait just a minute more on that one.  Jump down to v. 20 and check this out: “Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable.  Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work.”  Do you see it yet?  This is a call to be of use to the master of the house or your commanding officer or your team more broadly.  As Christians, who is the master of our house?  Who is our commanding officer?  Who is our general manager?  Jesus.  If we are going to be of use to Him, we need to make sure we are living in such a way as to do it.  We need to stay out of things that distract us from our purpose.  We need to play according to the right set of rules.  We need to be clean and ready for the highest sort of use.

What Paul writes starting in v. 22 and that we looked at just a second ago is aimed at this purpose.  We need to be ready to be of use to Jesus so…here’s how we do it.  We flee youthful passions.  What are those?  How about this: Generally speaking, the younger a person is the more apt she is to get really excited about trivial things.  If you are a young person, I’m sorry to put that so directly, but there are things that get you going right now that in 20 years if you even still remember them will only serve to make you laugh at how silly they were.  That’s not the case for everything you’re passionate about by any stretch, and it’s not to say that not-so-young people don’t still occasionally get worked up over silly things, but young people tend to get more excited about such things more easily than others.  The kick is, when we get passionately caught up in something trivial—and it takes wisdom to recognize which things are which—we are necessarily not giving attention to the things which are significant.  If we are going to be of use to our commanding officer, we cannot afford to get tangled up in “civilian affairs” like that.  Note too that Paul doesn’t just say to put youthful passions behind us or to try and avoid them.  He tells us to flee them.  That kind of stuff will mess you up and set you on a path other than the path of Christ.  Run from that junk like it’s going to take your life…because it will.

Instead we are to pursue—that is, eagerly seek out with great diligence—righteousness (that is, a right relationship with God and with people), faith (right belief in God), love (you already know this one), and peace (a quiet confidence in God’s character and abilities that transcends our circumstances).  And, we should do this “along with those who call on the Lord,” meaning the community of faith, more commonly known as “the church.”  The subtle prodding here, by the way, is that we can’t be of much use to God if we aren’t connected with a church.  I don’t care whether it’s this church or another church…okay, well, I do care at least a little since I’m pretty partial to this one…but if you aren’t actively involved in a community of faith, you aren’t nearly of as much use to God as you would be otherwise and you won’t have the spiritual tools and character you need to love the hard-to-love people in your life as effectively as you would otherwise.  Finally, this all needs to be done from a pure heart.  No divided motivations and intentions are welcome here.  As Jesus Himself put it: No one can serve two masters.  When we follow Jesus, all our other allegiances are broken down and re-filtered through the lens of our chief devotion to Him.  Nothing less will do.

Now, as good and important as this all sounds, you may be wondering a bit what all of this has to do with the bigger picture of the series.  Great question.  Let’s have a hard conversation, though, before I answer that.  Sometimes when we have disagreements with other people they are over pretty trivial things.  I remember my sister and I getting into a huge fight when we were growing up over whether a certain plastic Easter egg had been in her basket or mine.  That’s right: we were fighting over a piece of molded plastic that at ten cents was overpriced.  Trivial.  On most of these issues there really isn’t a clear right or wrong…unless you’re talking about college basketball in which case Kansas does have the number one ranking and we are champions of the best conference in the country so though it may be trivial there really isn’t an argument over whether we’re the best team in the nation.  In any event, we need to be able to handle these kinds of disagreements well.  That takes wisdom to recognize their triviality, grace in abundance, and a healthy dose of humility (and since humility is fundamentally about being honest my argument in favor of Kansas stands…I’ll stop digging this hole eventually…especially given Paul’s command in v. 23 that we are to “have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies” which only serve to breed quarrels).

But sometimes we have disagreements over issues on which there is a clear right and wrong.  We may not agree which is which, but the answer is not trivial.  When we arrive at a place like this the person on the opposite side of the debate table often becomes hard to love for us.  Political disagreements often fall into this category.  Whether we believe a nation operates best under a free market system or a more socialist one, for example, is not a trivial matter.  We can and should make well-reasoned and civil arguments why one is better than the other, but let us not delude ourselves into thinking there is some middle ground between the two positions.  What’s more, the particular system a nation chooses unavoidably has significant moral, cultural, and spiritual consequences for the people of that nation.  This is why political conversations get so heated so quickly and why we often see our political opposites as hard to love.

Theological disagreements also fit into this category, are of an even greater significance than political disagreements, and are the focus of where Paul goes next.  You see, while we may not initially think of our theological opposites as hard to love as our political opposites, the reason for this is less that we work them out so much better as it is that we tend to avoid them altogether.  We avoid them because of our almost inherent awareness that once a theological division is made clear the person on the other side of the divide very often becomes impossibly hard to love.  Can you see where we’re going as the problem here?  If you would count yourself a follower of Jesus, there’s a good chance you have some people in your life who aren’t.  The theological divide between you and them is, to put it rather frankly, vast.  You cannot both be right—and trying to convince yourself they really do believe like you when you know in your heart they don’t just to avoid the emotional firestorm that being honest will unavoidably cause is ultimately both unhelpful and unloving.  It’s unhelpful because our theology influences our behavior and behavior is rather more difficult to avoid than nuanced discussions of the doctrine of God.  It’s unloving because if what you believe about eternal life is really true then to avoid an honest conversation for the sake of emotions is to leave them in a place of eternal death and why leave someone you love there (even if they are hard to love in the moment) if you can help it?

Let’s just be honest: folks who don’t share our beliefs are always hard to love.  And the closer we are to the person the truer this becomes, especially in cases when we are taking active steps to live out our beliefs if we haven’t been doing that lately or ever.  Because the more we aim to live out our beliefs the more apparent it will become that we don’t share similar beliefs which will mean we won’t share similar behaviors and make similar decisions about the things that matter most in life.  What do we do in this kind of place?

Well, for starters, we go back to v. 22.  We do the hard work on our own character to make sure we are the kind of people who can even have these kinds of hard conversations in a positive way.  If you’re not there, fix that issue first.  From there, though, we take to heart what Paul had to say to Timothy starting in v. 24.  Look at this with me: “And the Lord’s servant [that’s you] must not be quarrelsome…”  Don’t get into arguments just to get into arguments.  Don’t stay on the lookout for places of disagreement simply so they can be highlighted.  Have hard, honest conversations when necessary, but use wisdom to know when it’s time for that and when it’s not.  Instead we must be “kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting [our] opponents with gentleness.”

Now “kind to everyone” we pretty well understand even if we don’t always practice it.  The thing about being “able to teach” sounds a little scary until you understand that all it means is that you are able to explain what and why you believe to someone else which is kind of a basic duty as far as being a follower of Jesus goes.  If you don’t know how to do that let’s plan a time to get together and help you fix that.  Next Paul says this thing about us enduring evil which is just uncomfortable.  Aren’t we supposed to oppose evil?  To fight evil?  Well…yes.  But sometimes the wisest way to do that is to patiently endure it all the while living out the character of Christ.  That is, in fact, the approach Jesus took and that God the Father has always taken with us.  I mean, try sometime and wrap your brains around just how much evil God has patiently endured over the course of human history.  It’s staggering to even consider.  If your hard-to-love person does not share your faith, there is a very good chance he is going to do a whole bunch of things that you (rightly) consider evil.  You could blow him up for it, but what good is that going to do you?  You could try and force her to live the way you think she should live, but then instead of one problem you’ll have several on your hands.  If instead, though, you patiently endure the evil all the while demonstrating the righteousness of God in all faith, love, and peace, the likelihood of things eventually turning around, of them moving out of the category of hard-to-love, is much, much higher.  Still, though, there will be times when it becomes necessary to correct the behavior of a person like this.  Some evil can’t be tolerated for any amount of time because the risk of immediate, devastating consequences is simply too high.  In these cases we are to correct with gentleness.  We are to correct with an awareness of their strengths and weaknesses and not simply our strength.  There are times in our lives when a little force is necessary when dealing with a hard to love person.  More often, though, a gentle approach will yield better results.  Now, doing this means publicly committing ourselves to the idea that we think the other person’s behavior is wrong which in our culture will immediately garner us the charge of being intolerant, judgmental, and arrogant, but the reality is that everybody thinks they know how other people should live—the very fact they are getting upset with you for suggesting a different way to live means they don’t think you should do that which is a belief about how you should live—we’re just being honest about it.

Well then, will the result of all this work be that the person moves formally and fully from the category of hard-to-love to easy-to-love?  I know this isn’t what you wanted to hear, but not necessarily.  We can show people the grace of God all we want, but we can’t make them receive it.  God never forces anybody into His kingdom.  That being said, the likelihood of this person not only becoming easier to love, but doing so by embracing the truth so that the two of you find yourselves on the same side of the theological table is much greater by this approach than it will be by any other.  As Paul puts it: “God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.”  Or to put all of this in a little catchier a package: whenever you find you don’t agree, grace and truth will help you see.

Whenever you find you don’t agree, grace and truth will help you see.  It will help you see the other person as a fellow image-bearer of God.  She is of inestimable value because God values her and so even if you are hopelessly divided over even an essential, salvation-determining point of theology, you can still treat her with kindness and respect; you can still love her.  It will help you see the ways to show love to him such that even if he “does not obey the word, [he] may be won without a word by [your] conduct.”  It will help you see the ways to continue the conversation without losing the relationship.  It will help you see how to love this hard to love person.  Whenever you find you don’t agree, grace and truth will help you see.  If you want to see the people in your life who are hard to love because of your differences over matters of theology and belief, this is the approach that will get you there.  You may not resolve the disagreement; you may not get on the same page, but you will grow the relationship and as long as there’s a relationship there’s a chance for love to do its thing.  Whenever you find you don’t agree, grace and truth will help you see.  Go and love your hard-to-loves with grace and truth, and then come back next week as we take a look together at a powerful story which shows us what can happen when we do.