A question on dealing with 'hostile' questions...

Date: July 20/2003

I got this question from a researcher overseas:

Dear Glenn

This will probably follow a similar pattern to a thousand e-mails you have received before and I apologize for deterring you from more important work.

I am truly amazed (and blessed that God directed to me towards a deeper understanding of theological issues through your site) at how you cope. I have been "surfing" different sites to gain some insight to the contemporary issues relating to Christianity and frequently find a majority contain some very hostile people.

Even on your site the pushback comments (www.christian-thinktank.com/gr5part6.html) are repleat with hostile intent. I would really like to know how how you see, overcome, deal with these attacks. My "run away" or "retreat within" approaches stem I think from my lack of knowledge and trying to avoid argumentative situations; the first of which I hope to overcome in time.


I responded:

I think the main element is how one 'sees' such attacks.

My first response is the normal carnal one: I quickly assume the moral high ground, start to write them off as 'minds hostile to God due to darkness and willful ignorance' [and other such like 'convenient' and 'energy-saving' theological jargon...(sardonic grin)], and I move toward a "superior, dismissive" stance--!!

Sometimes, though, instead of THAT carnal response, I simply feel 'fatigue'--at knowing how deep an argument it would develop into (if it is done right), and how often I have had to cover the same ground over the years...a fairly selfish response.

About 1-2 seconds into the process, however, my 'better, Spirit-created habit' kicks in--it chides me for superficiality of judgment ("he that answers a matter before he hears it, to him it is folly and shame"--Proverbs) and 'warns' me about being judged by the same 'dismissive standard' I just used on the attacker...this helps set a MUCH MORE positive/cautious attitude in my head.

At this point it is now very easy for me to take a proper stance (since I wish to be 'judged' by such a reasonable and benefit-of-the-doubt stance):

1. I reflect on the number of times over the decades that I might have SIMILARLY 'raged' at the Lord, for something I didn't understand (especially in the early years), and later, about things I DID understand—but "disagreed with Him" about (chuckle). [This helps me assume a greater patience and gentleness toward the objector--as my Lord was with me in those times, and yet will be again in the future, no doubt.]

2. I reflect on the fact that a "violent" (as in 'vigorous') response is sometimes only a measure of 'passion' and 'ideology', and not reflective in itself of something negative or even false--Would that we had more people passionate about their beliefs nowadays. I think of some of the OT/Tanack prophets. [This helps me find a good, positive, and noble aspect to just about any position--if it is passionately held and/or argued.]

3. I reflect on the reality that their negative response might EASILY be a 'warranted one' IF THEIR UNDERSTANDING (read 'unknowing caricature') IS/WAS CORRECT. In other words, if the point they are arguing against is REALLY THE CASE, then their response of moral outrage might indeed be LEGITIMATE and NOBLE. [In other words, they are rejecting a 'false position' or false view of our Lord, and this false view is something that ALL SHOULD ESCHEW.] E.g., so many people reject a "Jesus" that SHOULD BE rejected--it's NOT the real one, but a gross misrepresentation in media, tradition, and cultural viewpoints. This is goodness, not badness. [This suggests, of course, the initial 'way to approach' the objection: probe for where the 'rub is', examine to what extent it is a false representation of our Lord and His beautiful heart, and then demonstrate the difference between the biblical position and the one rightly-rejected by the hostile attacker.]

4. I reflect on the truth that God often uses these difficulties, doubts, and crisis to move us along on our spiritual journey, and that this could be a God-sent opportunity for the attacker to break down his/her stereotypes and to see new perspectives on reality, which might not have been forthcoming from a more traditional Christian subculture (often not equipped for dealing with such statistically-infrequent questions). [This helps me situate the attack in a framework of personal growth for the attacker, and one in which I might be able to serve them in their quest for peace and authenticity--which I KNOW comes within a relationship with the living God of truth, grace, and depth.]

5. I reflect on the very, very real possibility that God is raising a difficult question JUST FOR ME--and a question that I PERSONALLY might have been avoiding hitherto...this has happened more than once on the Tank, friend...Questions that bothered me, but I suppressed or ignored because they were either too difficult at the time, or because other problems were more pressing...and God--in His pursuit of Peace of mind and heart for me--says 'Okay, time's up--its time to face your fears and doubts, Glenn, and time to discover My beautiful answer to this..." [This creates a strong impulse toward honesty and critical analysis of my comfort zone and 'safe presuppositions'. It also creates a good-hearted 'fearlessness' in which one can have confidence that GOD is leading them into analyzing the doubts, questions, and difficulties.]

6. I reflect on the possibility that the attacker may simply be parroting a view taught by their 'elders', role models, heroes, sub-culture leaders, or teachers. I have found that some of these attackers do not know the reality behind their objections, and are often simply repeating 'uncritical, sub-cultural positions'. Since I have done this often myself, I tend to 'shift blame' to their teachers, and away from 'them'. Or at least I maintain that theoretical position.

7. Over the last several years, I have also come to interpret these attacks in a "spectrum" context. I ask the Lord "to WHAT EXTENT is their objection true?" or "in WHAT ASPECT is their objection on-target?" instead of the (often false) dichotomy: "is their objection true or false?". This allows me to analyze and isolate sub-questions within the overall question, and by focusing on the 'rub', I often find additional refinement and understanding (and appreciation) of the beauty of God's truth.

8. And then there is my growing awareness of the immense range of personal 'style' and 'tone'. To my 'western, semi-Californian' ears, most of the argumentative literature of the ANE and ME (even some of the modern stuff) sounds 'harsh'. The interchanges within the Rabbinic circles (for example) were couched in 'violent' and/or 'hostile' terminology, but I know those individuals were bound by close ties of loyalty, affection, solidarity, and community. In other words, the 'hostility' was a 'surface language' of exaggeration, of hyperbole, of dramatic overstatement. And everyone knew that. Similarly, when Jesus goes on the 'verbal offensive' against the very Pharisees He frequently enjoyed table fellowship with and with whom He would have worshiped alongside of at the Temple all those years, it is NOT 'hostile' or 'harsh' in that day and time at all.

On a personal note, I can easily see this from my own youth. I--like many folks with whom I have compared notes with over the years--was raised in a family of mostly males. The interaction between the brothers was one of constant good-natured teasing and poking fun (and often still is). It was actually an expression of affection and closeness(!), for the same behavior was not manifested toward outsiders. And I have seen this in other situations, such as groups of adult peer males. They sometimes constantly are putting each other down, in a type of 'dramatic braggadocio', as they each try to win some argument or 'position' within the group (I think of this image when I read some of the Rabbinic literature--I can just see the rabbis sitting around the table doing this.).

So, the seeming 'hostility' from an objector may be simply nothing more than their way of arguing, their way of asking questions (I have had students that asked questions by making a strong assertion--"But everybody knows all ducks are Republicans!"--and going silent, waiting for an answer to the question implicit in the overstatement.) There are too many variables in human development for me to assume that a seeming tone of hostility actually is meant to convey a true attitude of hostility.

All in all, between all of these 'reflections', I am immediately 'calmed down' in my heart, and my 'rush to judgment' becomes instead a 'rush to patience/gentleness'. And I find myself immediately switching into 'servant mode', eager to help this person see the beauty and heart of God in the appropriate view of the matter. I become a helper and co-traveler with them on their spiritual journey. and I can thank God for sending them to me, and sometimes, for helping me honestly see MY OWN fears and unresolved doubts. I also have seen an 'adventure' excitement grow over time, as God has consistently blessed my findings at the end of such quest. It's a little like a family Easter Egg hunt, in which you KNOW a really great egg will be found--it's only a matter of time...

And so the first 90% of the problem--dealing with my attitude--is dealt with. And then the "second 90%" (!!!) begins--digging into the cognitive aspect of the presenting problem (smile).

This is tersely written, but I hope it makes SOME sense, friend...

Glenn Miller, July/2003

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