April 9, 2008

The Gentle Art of Civility

2008 1510 page22 capS A CHURCH WE HAVE 28
fundamental beliefs. I would not wish to delete or add to any of them, but I do wish that the defense of our beliefs, especially in public discourse, were consistently pervaded with the grace of courtesy. Any point of truth, no matter how incontrovertible or sublime, suffers damage if it is contentiously promoted.
I well recall the early days of my contact with the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Breaking out of a mold of reclusiveness, I started in my mid-20s to attend Sabbath school with an international congregation in San Francisco.
Though the lessons in Revelation, which occupied two consecutive quarters, were fascinating and replete with glorious treasures of truth, it was the spirit of the Sabbath school teacher that held me in thrall and melted my unchurched reserve. His class of about 30 members included several abrasive participants, who seemed at times more interested in voicing their views than in mining for Bible truth. One would hammer away pugnaciously on this or that extraneous point. Another would take off no less energetically on some other tangent into unlighted corridors of fruitless conjecture.
I often wondered what relationship their points bore to the lesson in the study material. But what struck me with far more wonder was the patience, tact, and courtesy of the teacher, who never abruptly silenced anyone, never spoke an acidulous word, but always with a sure hand and kindly voice brought the lesson back around to its proper bearings.
2008 1510 page22This method of teaching was as educational to me as the Scripture insights that he so ably drew out from those who had studied the lesson. The spirit of this teacher kept me coming back week after week. It was intensively remedial for me, for I had a deep-rooted education in debate and sarcasm. Never had I seen such royal courtesy so consistently exercised. Plainly, I was studying at the feet of a seasoned ambassador for Christ, and the privilege was healing to my irascible spirit.
Just What I Needed
God alone knows how crucial this experience was for me, for I needed more than the intellectual satisfaction that I derived from the clarity of Adventist doctrine. I needed a demonstration of its gracious fruits in the life of someone dedicated to communicating the truth with redeeming intent. Had my Sabbath school teacher ever uttered a caustic reply, like the ones that so often silently revolved in my mind, it would have severely disappointed me, and perhaps driven me back into the alcoholic darkness and alienation from which I was then queasily emerging.
But like the Master whom he served, “a bruised reed he did not break, nor a smoking flax quench” (see Isa. 42:3). I perceived that in this church one could speak one’s mind without receiving a crushing blow from its appointed teachers. I saw that without resorting to acrimony or insult, truth can outface error.
What a revelation! It was evident that the spirit of truth is intrinsically courteous and considerate. Who can measure how healing this is to the jaded human spirit—which is so often compelled to breathe the noxious fumes of cynicism, fumes more lethal than the smoke of industrial pollution?
• Courtesy is the polite and thoughtful treatment that we would wish to receive under all circumstances, especially those in which open or potential disagreements are present.
• Courtesy is the golden rule of Matthew 7:12, observed even when our names are draped in
derision and the truth we love is clothed in burlap by the rough hands of unbelief.
• Courtesy holds open with unfeigned kindness the golden door to the temple of truth.
Three Shining Examples
Consider Jeremiah before his accusers (Jer. 26), Paul before the sneering court of Agrippa (Acts 26), Jesus before His unjust judges (Matt. 26). Truth and righteousness never languished on their lips; but neither did scathing denunciations mar their witness. After listening to Paul’s impassioned plea for him to turn his heart to Christ, Agrippa, quaking with conviction, replied,
“Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian” (Acts 26:28).* And Paul’s answer exhibited the quintessence of courtesy: “I would to God, that not only thou, but also all that hear me this day, were both almost, and altogether such as I am, except these bonds” (verse 29).
Now, Paul knew that Agrippa and many of his entourage could well have been fellow prisoners for their private and political crimes. To this he made no reference, however, for Paul’s preeminent desire was not for his own exoneration, but for the salvation of his hearers. This desire, when it’s the controlling force of the life, rules out the blight of unmannerly speech—and writing.
Consider these sentiments from Ellen G. White:
“What course shall the advocates of truth pursue? They have the unchangeable, eternal word of God, and they should reveal the fact that they have the truth as it is in Jesus. Their words must not be rugged and sharp. In their presentation of truth they must manifest the love and meekness and gentleness of Christ. Let the truth do the cutting; the word of God is as a sharp, two-edged sword, and will cut its way to the heart. Those who know that they have the truth should not, by the use of harsh and severe expressions, give Satan one chance to misinterpret their spirit. . . .
“The course of Christ in dealing even with the adversary of souls, should be an example to us in all our intercourse with others, never to bring a railing accusation against any; much less should we employ harshness or severity toward those who may be as anxious to know the right way as we are ourselves. . . .
“Let not those who write for our papers make unkind thrusts and allusions that will certainly do harm, and that will hedge up the way and hinder us from doing the work that we should do in order to reach all classes. . . . It is our work to speak the truth in love, and not to mix in with the truth the unsanctified elements of the natural heart, and speak things that savor of the same spirit possessed by our enemies. All sharp thrusts will come back upon us in double measure when the power is in the hands of those who can exercise it for our injury. Over and over the message has been given to me that we are not to say one word, not to publish one sentence, especially by way of personalities, unless positively essential in vindicating the truth, that will stir up our enemies against us, and arouse their passions to a white heat.”1
Beyond Ordinary Benefits
Solomon declared: “Just as water reflects the face, so one human heart reflects another” (Prov. 27:19, NRSV).† It is often true that others mirror to us the spirit in which we treat them, thus making courtesy or discourtesy a propagative influence of far-reaching effect.
2008 1510 page22But for those who love the gospel, an even deeper consideration takes hold. It is the thought of how Christ’s enemies treated Him while He hung upon the cross. Their irreverent words of ridicule and scorn reveal that all such utterances bear the hallmark of unholy inspiration. This puts the business of rancor and mockery permanently out of credit.
As I look upon the cross of Calvary, I cannot help feeling that a word of sarcasm from my lips is tainted with the serpent’s venom, and a clever riposte flashes through the air like Peter’s sword that severed Malchus’s ear, or like one of the well-aimed hammerblows that drove the spikes through Christ’s hands and feet. In the spirit of Galatians 6:14 I must be crucified 
to all words that slash and twit and tease: “God forbid that 
I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.”
Will Its Absence Make Us Bland?
But will this form of abnegation rob our speech and writing of some vital force? Perhaps in one sense; but it is the removal a literary spice too pungent for spiritual minds to enjoy. Can the blistering condiment of acerbity not be replaced with a seasoning that promotes spiritual and even physical health? Paul says: “Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man” (Col. 4:6; see also 3:12-17; Isa. 58:9-12). “There is that speaketh like the piercings of a sword: but the tongue of the wise is health” (Prov. 12:18). “Grievous words stir up anger,” says Proverbs 15:1, but “the lips of the wise disperse knowledge” (verse 7).2
Courtesy is more than a seasoning to add delectation to friendship. It is more than an oil to lubricate human relations. It is an integral element of Christian character and a destiny-altering influence. If we could see the end from the beginning and the extensive influence of our words upon others, we would all wish that everything we say and do from now to the end of our earthly days would exude “a savor of life unto life.” And this is perfectly possible if we meld our lives with Him who is the True and Faithful Witness, whose speech was such that even his crafty opponents who spied on Him in search of offense were compelled to declare, “Never man spake like this man!” (John 7:46).
Let others call it simpering and banal piety if they must, but I dare not dispense the fermented drink called derision and disparagement; I must commit my tongue to wholesome speech that is like fruit from the tree of life. For it might make a soul-saving difference to someone, and at least keep the way clear for respectful and brotherly (or sisterly) discourse on 
crucial questions.

Questions for Reflection

How prone are you to become overheated when facing those who disagree with your beliefs or convictions? What strategies have you developed for handling this problem?

2. What is the place for passion in religious discussions? How do we keep passion from being confused with anger?

3. How would you describe Jesus' address to the Pharisees in Matthew 23? What is that not a pattern for us? Or is it?

What's the most effective approach you've found in dealing with religious controversy?

“How sweet and gracious, even in common speech,

 Is that fine sense which men call Courtesy!
 Wholesome as air and genial as light,
 Welcome in every clime as breath of flowers,
 It transmutes aliens into trusting friends,
 And gives its owner passport round the globe!”      
                                                —James T. Fields
We are living in days during which storms of controversy hover and lash all around us. According to Scripture, that will intensify till the close of time (see 2 Tim. 3:1-13; Rev. 12:17). Shall we develop a spirit of belligerence to meet this challenge, or does the Lord prefer that we take another approach?
If We Had to Have One More . . .
If we were to have a twenty-ninth Fundamental Belief, I would like it to be that in all our fervent advocacy of the truth we preserve a spirit of Christlike kindness and courtesy. Let this doctrine permeate the whole body of our beliefs like sanctuary incense, for “the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, in meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth” (2 Tim. 2:24, 25).
“For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace” (James 3:16-18).
*Unless otherwise noted, all scriptures in this article are from the King James Version.
†Bible texts credited to NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.
1Counsels to Writers and Editors, pp. 58-60. Read the whole chapter “Words of Caution,” pp. 58-67. Here you will find other thought-provoking words, such as the following: “Every article you write may be all truth, but one drop of gall in it will be poison to the reader. One reader will discard all your good and acceptable words because of that drop of poison. Another will feed on the poison, for he loves such harsh words” (pp. 65, 66).
2For a profitable study on sanctified speech, study the book of Proverbs, doing a word search under words such as “lips,” “mouth,” “words,” “speech,” etc.
Brian Jones is the communication director for the Mountain View Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, as well as pastor of the Wheeling and Weirton churches in West Virginia.