Monday, May 1, 2023

Secret Popularity Contests and Worthless Conversations

Suggested Reading: 2 Timothy 2

I once served as a substitute teacher for first grade. One of the required supplies for the class was a handheld whiteboard that the kids could use to do scratch work and play with when all of their assignments were finished. While I was helping guide some of the students through an assignment, I noticed another student sneaking around with his whiteboard. When I went to investigate, I discovered the names of two students had been written down and there were hash marks beside each name. The student had been taking a secret vote to see which of his fellow students was the most well liked. I immediately erased the board and told the sneaky surveyor that voting just to see which student was more popular was only going to hurt somebody's feelings. A sheepish grin from the student told me that the student understood perfectly and it might have even been the intent.

As adults, and especially as Christian adults, we like to think we have grown beyond petty exercises which serve only to hurt people but the truth is that often we have only become less honest and more sophisticated about it. The self-proclaimed "theologians" among us tend to be the worst but almost all of us are guilty of it. We begin a "discussion" on a controversial topic just to get a rise out of people. We post our "enlightened" opinion on Facebook hoping someone will disagree with us so that we can feel superior and have a chance to "teach." We bring up something terrible another person has done, knowing (and probably hoping) it will lead to everyone badmouthing someone we should have forgiven long ago. We fight over "theological" tenets that hold little, if any, practical value and end up taking sides and dividing our groups, churches, and denominations over them.

The Apostle Paul understood this very human tendency when he was advising Timothy on his pastoral ministry. In 2 Timothy chapter 2, Paul advised Timothy three different times not to engage in such discussions and to steer his people away from them and their dire consequences. In verse 14, Paul wrote, Remind everyone about these things, and command them in God’s presence to stop fighting over words. Such arguments are useless, and they can ruin those who hear them. Two verses later, he wrote,  Avoid worthless, foolish talk that only leads to more godless behavior. Then seven verses later Paul added, Again I say, don’t get involved in foolish, ignorant arguments that only start fights (2 Timothy 2:14, 16, 23, NLT). 

When we engage in potentially dangerous conversations, we must ask ourselves two very important questions: 1) Why do I want to have this discussion? And 2) What will the likely consequences of this discussion be? If we only want to feel good about ourselves in comparison to someone else, to get an ego boost or put someone down, we should never even begin. If the conversation is more likely to lead to division and hurt feelings than to actually accomplish any good, we should never even begin. Some conversations never have happy endings. Some conversations only serve to benefit us at everyone else's expense. Those are the conversations we should avoid at all costs. Some difficult conversations must happen, but they should always be approached with wisdom and with love.

What conversation are you thinking of starting? Before you open your mouth, consider your motives and the consequences. Once the words are out, you likely won't get another chance.

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