How do you express your convictions with deep respect, appreciation, and even grief? This is a question many are wrestling with currently. An acquaintance for whom I hold deep respect named this struggle quite clearly on social media recently. He addressed it with humility, genuinely hoping to find a way of communicating with both conviction and graciousness. Living with gracious conviction isn’t just something to be pursued by leaders in one denomination, either, as denominational Hospice care is called in for the UMC. How might Christians not only speak with gracious conviction but also live with gracious conviction? How might people uncertain of their faith but desperate for respectful dialogue speak and live with gracious conviction?
In a time when words are thrown around a dime a dozen online – when we’re so inundated with words communicated through modern technology that emojis were developed to communicate nonverbal intent – speaking and living with gracious conviction means getting our hands dirty.
It is not only acceptable, for Christians it is biblical to be prodigal – generous and extravagant with our service toward others. Our service can never solely be toward people who affirm our religion or our theological convictions. Occasionally, no matter what theological camp one finds herself in, there is the fear that showing service, care, or love to someone with whom you disagree is somehow a token of your agreement with all their opinions. This is patently, incontrovertibly wrong. To love your neighbor as yourself, to “let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2) means to promote the welfare and well-being of people who may think you’re wrong, misguided, ignorant, blinded – or laughable. No theological camp is immune. Progressive liberal activists and conservative traditionalists alike easily justify withholding a towel and basin on the basis of principle.
Embodied service doesn’t require the perpetuation of one organization – an organization attempting to hold together so many different theological threads that it is straining and ripping at the seams. Embodied service simply means showing up for people with whom we profoundly disagree, because we value their lives. Organizational pragmatism may indicate the advisability of existing as separate worshiping bodies, where demonstrably and repeatedly over decades profound disagreement emerges on who exactly we’re worshiping.
Belonging to the same organization has never been a prerequisite for serving someone, though. Belonging to the same denomination or tradition isn’t a requirement. The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve. For those in the Wesleyan Methodist branch of the family tree of the faith, we’re familiar with John Wesley’s thinking on the “means of grace,” which include not only works of piety, but works of mercy.
So maybe you notice someone you’ve been arguing with on social media has a sick family member: send them flowers or a restaurant gift card. Maybe you’ve lost your graciousness in an exchange with a colleague: apologize without self-justification. Shovel their sidewalk; mow their lawn. Maybe you long for someone to know that no matter how deeply you differ, you’re trying to really see them, hear them, and treat them with dignity. Donate in their honor to a non-profit they might value.
In times when words are cheap, show up with actions to demonstrate the posture of your heart. It’s interesting that actions shape attitudes as well. Getting down on your knees to pick up the coins accidentally dropped by someone who thinks you’re deeply wrong? You and they both need to feel your willingness to do it, whether or not they ever express gratitude or reciprocation.
The image we have to guide us is Jesus at the Last Supper – Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. These feet included the feet of Judas, who would walk out of the room with feet cleaned by God and would walk to betray God whose hands were wet with dirty water. Jesus knew and knelt anyway. We can’t do less.
Living with gracious conviction can also be expressed by finding something for which you can say thank you. Find something, however small, that you appreciate, and say it. To live and speak with gracious conviction is to step aside from intense irritation, anger, hurt, or frustration long enough to find anything you can say “thank you” to.
This doesn’t come from an odd need to debase yourself. It doesn’t come from a place of neediness for affirmation. Rather, verbalizing gratitude simply reinforces the essential humanity of another person. It reminds both you and them of your acknowledgment that they have something to contribute to the world. If we are quick to write off people due to their opinions, are we making it easier to write off their innate value? Jesus was willing to meet at night in private with Nicodemus, a man who belonged to a group publicly opposed to Jesus during the day.
Obviously, very, very few people in human history have been completely, thoroughly given over to all-consuming evil. If most people are a complex mixture of motives, wounds, gifts, personal histories, self-sabotaging habits, prevenient grace, corrosive self-centeredness, and will – yet all the while made in the image of God, however fractured – then thanking them is a simple, genuine way to communicate gratitude for their existence. It also leaves the door open, because you never know when someone may change their mind, and giving them a path and doorway to do so is vital. Finding something for which you can thank a person will acknowledge that they may have some kind of insight you do not (even if it’s a coffee recommendation) and that you are in the position to receive that insight. It takes discipline to think and communicate in ways that constantly remind us, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, of the glory other beings are capable of bearing.
There is always something you can thank someone for. There is always something you can appreciate. It may have to be only, “I like your shirt.” It may have to be, “thank you for engaging in a difficult conversation,” or “I appreciate the time you took to respond,” or “thank you for sharing your perspective; it’s a privilege to hear your story, I don’t take it lightly.”
If there’s genuine opportunity, you can even verbalize something you’ve learned from them, gained from them, or notice about them. “You are really passionate about what you believe, and I respect that,” or “I know we’re operating from different convictions, but I’ve noticed you’re really gifted at ________, and I hope you have ways of utilizing those talents,” or, “a while back you mentioned ___________ and while I know we have different perspectives on other topics, I want you to know how much I appreciated it when you said __________.”
One time Jesus healed ten men isolated and marginalized by disease; they were so eager to go get medical clearance and find their loved ones that they ran off. Only one came back to thank Jesus – and the one that returned to thank Jesus was a Samaritan – a “foreigner” whose social marginalization wouldn’t end with the healing of a disease. Sometimes we forget how rarely people hear the words “thank you.” Can you think of a time someone thanked you and it made a world of difference?
For Christians, one of the distinctive practices of our faith is sharing Communion – the Eucharist – the “Great Thanksgiving.” To receive Communion is to remember we are recipients of grace. To thank others is to remember we are all recipients of grace, none more worthy than another.
Responding to the Real Thing and the Real Person
Living and speaking with gracious conviction means giving others the gift of seeking to understand their position as they would describe it. You don’t have to agree with it or their conclusions or actions; but you can’t reject a caricature of their position and then pronounce your rejection of the caricature.
Christians are called to seek Truth. In this sense, we are committed to responding to the real. This means we work to seek out and find the real. So while we may hold differing beliefs, convictions, or theological perspectives, a commitment to the Truth means a commitment to discovering what someone actually believes. You’re not repeating someone’s opinion of what someone else believes. You’re not reporting on hearsay of what a group believes. You’re actually researching for yourself to the best of your ability. It is work.
The difficulty of course is that humans are so good at saying one thing and doing another, and that humans are so good at seeing themselves in optimal light and others with skepticism. No one is perfectly self-aware, and whole groups of people may profess one value but fail to embody it consistently.
However, we’re speaking here of explicitly stated declarations of belief, and not just the ability to live those beliefs consistently. We may insist that a Christian denomination ought to have some meaningful measure of shared theology about who Jesus is without making a caricature of one individual hateful progressive activist intolerant of those with whom they disagree. We may insist that a Christian denomination ought to value and act on initiatives to dismantle systemic racism, poverty, and injustice, without making a caricature of one individual hateful traditionalist conservative intolerant of those with whom they disagree.
To live with gracious conviction is to be ruthlessly committed to the Truth, which requires us to represent others’ convictions as fairly as possible – so that they would be able to recognize the description as an accurate representation of themselves. In this sense, it’s simple honesty. We are trying to be truthful and fair in our representation of others (even though it’s not nearly as satisfying as sharing a meme mocking them; unless it’s a meme mocking the Patriots, we can all agree those are universally acceptable, right?).
By responding to the real beliefs and professed values rather than mischaracterizations, we extend dignity to those with whom we differ. And to thoughtlessly, carelessly mischaracterize an opponent is to lie and steal – you are lying about their beliefs or motives and you are stealing their reputation. What may have been a profound but respectful disagreement becomes a hurtful, toxic stew of mischief that feeds off the half-formed perspectives of those new to the conflict and bewildered by the exaggerated portraits they’re presented. When we research and read and listen and track down primary sources and ignore clickbait commentary, it’s easier to respond both to beliefs and to the people who hold them.
Recently a friend commented, “it’s easy to hate something you get to define.” He meant that it’s easy to decide something is A, and since you hate A, you hate the something. The question is whether something is A or whether you quickly decided it is – and then dismissed it. To live with gracious conviction is to be willing to learn what something is before you decide to define it and reject it.
Laughing at Yourself
Some of the people in my life who most closely embodied the word “saint” are people who never took themselves too seriously even when other people took them very seriously indeed. There was a childlikeness to them, independent of age. By all means, take Christ seriously – though Chesterton reminded us all of how surprised we’ll be by God’s mirth – but in your earnestness, be able to laugh at yourself easily. Your silly, inconsistent, hobbit-like self.
I can make a cheap shot at the Patriots that will garner a strong response of approval or howls of indignation – but the truth is, I rarely watch American NFL football, my loyalty to the Colts is casually based on growing up in Indiana, and I have no idea whether other teams cheat as well and the Patriots just got caught at it. I can smile while looking at my silly bias, when I haven’t watched football in over a year and the last time I really cared about the Colts was before Manning headed West.
We’ve got to be able to laugh at ourselves.
In a culture in which we all take ourselves quite seriously, perhaps one sign of holiness is holding our own dignity and reputation lightly while seeking to deal fairly with others’. Burnt out pastors and leaders in particular struggle to be able to laugh at themselves; a sign you’re on the path to rest and restoration is when you can have fun again without worrying what’s being neglected while you do. Living with gracious conviction doesn’t mean the responsibility is all on your shoulders. It’s not irresponsible to a cause to stop and smile; it’s essential.
If you believe that in his full God-ness Jesus was also full human, then remember: we have a Savior who laughed until he cried. Probably at James and John, who seem likely to have been the Fred and George Weasley of the disciples.
Show up and serve (your enemies), say thank you (to your opponents), respond to the real thing (not the caricature), laugh at yourself (instead of others). These habits will help form a posture of communicating – of living – with gracious conviction. Most of them rely on humility in action; they show and shape perspective at the same time. They are habits learned as we follow Jesus around as his apprentices. They don’t always come easily; as we learn, we still fall short. But this is the Jesus way. We can’t do less – and by God’s grace, it will become easier.