A Soft Answer Turns Away Wrath

The following Musing is one section of chapter 1 of my book “Let’s Talk,” titled “Major Obstacles to Inclusive and Respectful Conversations, With the Essential First Step.”

Those Christians who believe that their Christian tribe has singular insight into all of God’s truth will have little incentive to combine strong commitment with an openness to respectfully engage in conversation with those who disagree with them. Richard Mouw points to the rarity of this combination among Christians in a fascinating (and disturbing) reflection on the many sermons he heard on the last two sentences in 1 Peter 3:15 during his boyhood days in a Christian Reformed Church in New Jersey.

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect (NIV).

Mouw observes that he heard many sermons on the first sentence, but he has no recollection of ever hearing a sermon on the second.

This radical example of the penchant of many Christians to hear and repeat biblical passages out of their context (within the same verse, mind you) points to the rarity of this combination of commitment and openness. Here is my own elaboration.

The first sentence from 1 Peter 3:15 suggests that Christians should be prepared to state their beliefs with clarity and conviction. That reflects strong commitment to one’s Christian beliefs. So far, so good! But the oft-neglected second sentence suggests how a Christian should state her strong convictions: with “gentleness and respect.” For me this exhortation to be gentle and respectful means that as you state your Christian beliefs with clarity and conviction, at the same time, you are also open to listening to and seriously considering the contrary beliefs of others and then talking respectfully about your agreements and disagreements.

Based on his extensive experience engaging in inter-faith dialogues with Catholics, Jews, and Mormons, Mouw has provided excellent advice for how to signal to your conversation partners your openness to listening and giving serious consideration to their contrary viewpoints as a first step in bridging any divides. He used to jump right into the fray, telling the other person in no uncertain terms why she is wrong, which only led to defensiveness. Now he starts by saying to the other person, “Help me to understand what it is you believe [about the issue at hand] and your reasons for believing that.”

Mouw found that this way of starting the conversation “softens the heart.” As the writer of Proverbs says, “A soft answer turns away wrath” (15:1).

Mouw is very wise when he stresses the importance of first listening well in order to adequately understand the contrary beliefs of others before seeking to sort through areas of agreement and disagreement. His exhortation wise because when the other person realizes that you are genuinely interested in understanding what she believes and why she holds to those beliefs, she will often reciprocate, leading to the quest for mutual understanding.

Listening well also leads to the trust that is a necessary foundation for eventually sorting through disagreements in the hope of finding some common ground. Or, if that doesn’t happen, trust at least enables ongoing conversation.

As my next Musing will reveal, my experience suggests that even if your conversation with a person holding to contrary beliefs doesn’t lead to much, or any, change in either of your beliefs, it can lead to a significant change in your view about the person who disagrees with you, which is a major accomplishment.



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