Criticism of any kind hurts to some extent. No matter how much you love and respect the person offering criticism and how much you know that person loves and respects you, criticism—no matter how constructive—comes with a great deal of pain. Sometimes this pain is rooted in the realization that the criticism is valid, and its very validity makes it that much harder to accept because of the implied changes it necessitates. Sometimes we hurt because the person offering criticism—however sincere—displays an ignorance of the situation and even of us that reveals a gap in the relationship we did not realize existed. However, sometimes we respond to criticism with frustration and anger because the criticism is justified but we remain in denial because of our own assumptions and ignorance. Job’s friend, Zophar, found himself in this latter category when he replied to Job after yet another of that great patriarch’s defenses of his character. With frustration bordering on anger, Zophar argued, “Therefore my anxious thoughts make me answer, Because of the turmoil within me. I have heard the rebuke that reproaches me, And the spirit of my understanding causes me to answer” (Job 20:2-3).
Zophar fell into that (obviously) age-old trap of listening to respond instead of listening to learn. Zophar refused to entertain the possibility of Job’s innocence—despite knowing Job personally, being acquainted with Job’s high moral character, and having heard Job’s replies. His adherence to a false template of theology kept him from listening and therefore prohibited him from learning something important. Many people approach biblical discussions in the same manner. They know their own position, they assume it is correct, and they then proceed to argue against anything different without taking the time to evaluate the position or the argument logically. In other words, we tend to get defensive. We identify so much with the positions we hold that we begin treating any disagreement as if it were a personal attack. The various forms of social media are filled with evidence in support of this fact, though we would be wrong to assume that the Internet is the underlying culprit. The new media only reveal our social dysfunction; they did not create it. And so it is in this case. Like Zophar, we feel the sting of rebuke when someone points out a flaw in our reasoning or position, but rather than listening, learning, and growing, in pride we try to defend the indefensible.
Will there be times when people will offer unwarranted criticism, silly sophistry, or various other attempts to argue for the sake of argument? Of course. However, we must learn to discern the difference between mean-spirited and foolish trolling and honest and healthy debate, and that requires listening. Trying to intimidate others or mock their positions is not logical argumentation. Far from it! Unfortunately, even some Christians resort to such tactics without having the substance of argument to back them up. Disagreement is inevitable when interacting with others, but how we choose to discuss those disagreements and whether we choose to listen and learn from these experiences is a testimony to our character.