Maybe it’s the neighborhood atheist who just loves to bait you. It could be the great-uncle with values from 1910, or that guy at church who disagrees with you on abortion. Whatever the details, their opinions make your blood boil.
And Jesus tells you to love them anyway.
Loving them, of course, means talking with them. But you know how that goes: It’s hard to even start a conversation without feeling your face flush and your blood pressure spike. Overcoming this totally natural reaction calls for supernatural help. If we go about it right, we can not only talk with these people, but bless them—and even learn from them.
Old virtues, new attitude
The key lies in the spiritual practices we’re already called to as Christians, and the godly attitudes they produce in our lives. The more we open ourselves to the Spirit’s work—through prayer, study of the Word and fellowship—the more God can build these virtues within us.
Some of these virtues are often misunderstood. Take humility. Many people think of it as poor self-esteem; really, though, humility is just complete clarity about our individual selves and our place in the universe. You can see this as a subtext to Paul’s teaching about the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12): if each of us has specific gifts—and not others—we can only use them properly if we understand that they fit as one “skill set” among many in the church.
This goes for our beliefs, too. As one person among billions, I have exactly one perspective, one set of values, one finite window on God. So does everyone else. That means the perspectives of others might hold some truth as well. Where they differ from my views, they could teach me something about God and His world.
I learned this lesson when a curmudgeonly old priest came to serve our church. He would have been right at home in the Middle Ages; I like pushing theological boundaries. One of his sermons annoyed me, so I asked him about it—and we embarked on a year-long email dialogue about matters of faith. Along the way, it dawned on me that he had a point about certain issues, like pushing some boundaries with care. In short, the dialogue taught me something that deepened my walk with God.
Humility comes in handy when we’re cultivating another of those godly attitudes: an unwavering pursuit of truth. For us as Christians, it’s easy to think we’ve got this down pat. We already have a great deal of truth in the Bible, right?
Absolutely. But now that we’ve cultivated some humility, we can see that our perspective on this truth is one among many. Maybe our beliefs about sex aren’t the whole truth. Maybe our opponents in the health care debate have a point—and it’s more biblical than our own. As we open ourselves to the Source of all truth, we naturally grow to share God’s passion for truth, whatever its source. We start talking with people to explore rather than debate, and we’re more willing to be wrong.
Warning: this kind of open dialogue can expose our vested interests and sacred cows. We may have to reexamine beliefs that, as we often think, define us. But here’s the thing: they don’t define us. Only the love of God does that. As this realization grows within us, we gain the confidence to loosen our grip on our most cherished perspectives.
Loosening our grip, by the way, also allows us to love people as they are—and we need that virtue for dialogue too. If we’re committed to each other in love, we’re free to disagree without fear of losing the relationship. We also go into dialogue with the other’s benefit foremost in mind. This too comes from our growing relationship with God: how can you hang with God and not become more loving?
How this helps
So we spend time with God, and He builds these godly attitudes in us. How do they actually help? By preparing us to make full use of practical dialogue techniques.
Listening, for instance. When Great-Uncle Frank starts in with his old-school attitudes, it’s tempting to listen just long enough to formulate a response (if we don’t tune him out entirely). But wait: there might be some truth, somewhere, in what he says. As the humble, loving, truth-seeking people we now are, we’re more attuned to that possibility, so we hear him out, weigh his words carefully, maybe even find areas of agreement.
Our walk with God also helps us set aside our preconceptions, at least temporarily, so we can truly hear the other person’s perspective unfiltered by our own defenses. With our foundation secure in God, we’re more willing to assess new ideas on their own merits before we apply our beliefs to them. This doesn’t mean we swallow them whole; it does mean we give them due consideration.
I post regularly to an interfaith forum that includes, among many others, a secular humanist. At one point, I asked him to explain his beliefs. The response startled me: He wrote eloquently about the dignity of every person, a sense of awe at the universe, the use of reason to explore issues—all things I hold dear. In that moment, we bridged a gap. Do I buy secular humanism now? No. Do I have a larger perspective on a mindset that pervades our culture? Yes. Could I have asked him the question, let alone heard him out with my defenses down, unless God had done His work in me? I doubt it.
As we do this “work of the soul,” we find ourselves able to do many things that prime us for dialogue. We become less fearful and more curious. We ask thoughtful questions. We take joy in learning about others. We look for different ways to see things.
Best of all, we build bridges—even with those who drive us crazy. And we come one step closer to fulfilling Jesus’ will: to love them as ourselves.
As a regular contributor to Huffington Post Religion and an associate of an Episcopal monastery, John Backman writes on Christian spirituality, conflict and dialogue. He authored Why CanÕt We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart, and his articles have appeared in numerous Christian publications.