Empty Words

Any discussion that includes some level of disagreement requires greater communication skills than most people maintain in their arsenal. Instead, people tend to avoid disagreement in favor of the comfortable confines of self-affirming opinions offered by friends or they resort to mocking the other person and his position, usually with an assumption built on a misperception couched in a fallacy. Neither of these approaches helps span the chasm existing between the two positions. Unfortunately, this likely indicates that reconciliation or greater understanding rarely motivates the participants. Instead, whether in person or online, people posit their opinions and express their disagreement with little reflection or consideration of the other point of view. Is it any wonder, then, that so many discussions turn ugly and often incoherent as two otherwise friendly people engage in heated debate—sometimes over a person’s chosen wording? 

When Job responded yet again to the arguments of his friends, he recognized this very problem in their speeches. He told them, “Listen carefully to my speech, And let this be your consolation. Bear with me that I may speak, And after I have spoken, keep mocking” (Job 21:2-3). To Job, his friends were not listening to what he was saying but instead jumping to conclusions and then mocking him. Then he explained that they had missed the point of his frustration (Job 21:4-6). As he himself grappled to understand his situation, he pointed out a problem that their arguments could not answer. Their position that he was suffering based upon his own sin was based on the common assumption of the day that our physical situation in this life is a mirror of our spiritual situation. Job then asked them to explain how this matched the evidence available that wicked men often live to old age and seemingly suffer nothing in this life (Job 21:7-21). He wanted them to explain how different men could receive such different opportunities in this life, based upon their assumption (Job 21:22-26). However, Job then does the unexpected: he shows that he understands their position as well as they do but that the ultimate judgment of God on the wicked does not address the problem before them (Job 21:27-33). He was showing that they held two different positions that could not be reconciled. Job had realized this and been forced to reconsider, but his friends remained unmoved. However, Job’s final statement reaches the heart of the matter: “How then can you comfort me with empty words, Since falsehood remains in your answers?” (Job 21:34).  Job exposed the problem with their desired purpose and their approach. If they had come to comfort and help him, they were doing a miserable job of it. Why? Because what they had to say was rooted in an agenda that did not match the facts, and this had caused them to reply and argue but not to listen and learn. 

There are therefore moral responsibilities that go hand in hand with disagreement. 

    1. Show concern for the other person throughout the entire process. 
    2. Listen carefully to understand the other person’s position to clarify any misunderstandings. 
    3. Define terminology so as to avoid differences based solely in rhetoric. 
    4. Treat people with respect even if their positions are indefensible. 
    5. Expose the fallacies of a position logically and within the context offered by the other person rather than resorting to mockery and straw man arguments. 
    6. Be honest about the weaknesses of your own arguments. 
    7. Maintain a Christian attitude, a Christian tone, and a Christian purpose until the end. 

These are likely just a starting point, but I believe in this case, starting to apply these things is just what most of us need.

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