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Sadly, some relationships—whether in the family unit, the church body or a social setting—amount to constant debate and are more destructive than they are edifying. So, I believe it is essential to share with you what God has been teaching me in my life to prepare you better to win debates.
As a disclaimer, however, this vital information requires me to be transparent with you about my depraved nature. So, I firstly confess that for many years in my life I have not won debates—though many times I have been on the side of truth. You see, possessing truth, while unquestionably important, is not entirely how you win a debate.
Recently, a man with whom I had attended church years ago contacted me. One of his children had gone through a psychiatric crisis, and he had contacted me in the middle of their distress to ask for help. The problem was, however, that he had an entirely different presuppositional belief on how to interpret and approach his child’s struggles.
As I began to try to help them see a new perspective—one which I know is biblical and freeing, our disagreement quickly surfaced. Both of us were cordial and respectful, but we could not agree on a foundational approach to the crisis. I sadly realized that I could not help this family if we could not agree. The family chose another route; they left our church, and we parted ways.
Thankfully, the story does not end there. Recently, we sat down over coffee, and my friend shared with me how God has been changing his perspective and thanked me for speaking into his life years ago. The lesson that God had been teaching him was powerful in my life, as it again reminded me that the truth we possess is not ours, but God’s, and others growing in God’s grace is not on our timetable but a progression according to God’s plan just as it is in our own lives.
We do not win people to truth or a right perspective, whether they are our children, our spouse, our fellow believers, or an unregenerate without Christ. We are not called to change people’s minds or to make them accept the truth. We are all at different points in our knowledge of God and discerning the world, and good teachers humbly seek to lead people further into the truth rather than use truth to belittle or destroy.
Stated differently, in the hands of different people the Sword of the Lord can be wielded as a righteous defense in tearing down strongholds, as an object of healing, as a defense against the enemy, or, sadly, as an attack on a fellow soldier. The soldier’s spiritual heart—either in pride or humility—is responsible for how the instrument of truth is used.
We win debates by lovingly presenting truth that best displays God who is love and truth. In humility, we do not attempt to prove a point or prove ourselves to be right. Instead, we should desire to present the truth in love.
I must offer another confession here: my proud heart often wants to prove a point rather than to banner the truth. God is mercifully working in me to approach others graciously, and over the last several years, I have come to realize the freeing reality that if I want to be a good debater and uphold truth, I need the right motive for presenting truth.
I am not the instrument that convinces people of falsehood or changes their mind to accept the truth. Allow me, then, to offer you some practical ways that God has been teaching me about debating successfully.
There are only two possible motives as you enter any debate about issues of life and godliness: exalting God or exalting oneself. James 3:14-18 explains,
But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
Each person must sincerely evaluate whether or not he or she desires to be a peace-maker or to be a self-promoter when sharing truth with others. Selfish ambition will drive people far from the truth it allegedly banners, and according to this text, it is how Satan desires believers to wield the Sword of the Lord. Presenting wisdom out of selfish ambition is fleshly and demonic.
James also offers a simple test of how to discern a person’s motive in presenting the truth:
If we want to win a debate—to have a harvest of righteousness—peace with God and others must be our underlying motive and highest priority. We are not trying to prove our point to others for our glory but to present our Savior in all of His glory and splendor.
This right approach applies to every disagreement including issues in politics, business, and spiritual matters, etc. As I have counseled many couples who are fighting, a common theme arises: Being right and justified is far more critical to each of the parties than being at peace with their spouses.
But having a wrong priority in motive is both self-centered and will not bring about a harvest of righteousness—a marriage will never be reconciled if peace is not genuinely treasured above self-advancement, self-preservation, and self-realization by at least one covenant holder. Christians who are living in peace with God highly treasure peace and reconciliation with God and others. 2 Corinthians 13:11 offers this insight.
Finally, brothers, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.
True Christians do all they can within God’s will to be at peace with others (Romans 12:18). Sadly, it is more common for many believers to aim for their comfort and self-advancement than it is to purpose to restore relationships.
Both your words and delivery matter: how you state truth is just as important as what you say. The preacher who angrily yells of God’s grace and mercy is opposing the beautiful truth he declares in the very manner he proclaims it. Proverbs 16:21 explains, “The wise of heart is called discerning, and sweetness of speech increases persuasiveness.”
It might be said, then, that the one who is possessed by God’s truth is gracious, whereas the one who pridefully believes that he/she possesses God’s truth is harsh. The wise of heart do not manipulate change in others; they allow God to change others just as the Holy Spirit’s gracious work has changed them. One’s motive—either to love God and others or to exult oneself—will be seen in the words and manner of delivery they choose.
Not only does your motive matter, but so too does the other person’s intentions. Proverbs 26:4-5 offers us wisdom in discerning other’s motives and when/if we should engage with someone who is opposed to God’s truth:
The fool desires to exalt himself by verbally bullying the bearer of truth, and he has no desire to uphold truth but to attack the soul. When a believer begins to angrily approach and attack the fool in the same way that the fool is behaving (“according to his folly) and according to his wrong desire, the bearer of truth has lost the debate and though bantering truth, ends up no different than the fool.
The one who wishes to share God’s truth with others must discern whether engaging in debate with a fool will further foolishness or tear down pride. It is not enough to possess truth; one must know when and to whom to reveal it.
Being “open to reason” and “impartial” demands that if you want to win a debate, you must be a good listener. This practice is not only necessary in the initial accumulation of truth, but also in considering other’s perspective. Proverbs 18:13 affirms this truth: “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.”
This Proverb both exposes a foolish and prideful tendency of human nature as well as a warning to the wise to search out a matter diligently to give a wise answer. In pride, we regularly believe that we know it all and are unwilling to listen or learn from others.
Personal theory, far too often, becomes as valuable to the fool as is fact. Simply put, it is foolish to engage dogmatically in a debate where the facts are obscured or not yet known. Many in the news media, for example, insist upon narratives that are based upon conjecture and which are time and again proven to be false.
Their offering theory without complete information presents them as foolish and untrustworthy. Many of these people continue to debate these issues on live television with only minimal evidence or upon theory alone.
There are times that we must discern whether or not to share the truth with a person at all. In fact, in Matthew 13:34, it is recorded that Jesus only spoke the truth in parable form.
All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable.
In Matthew 13:13, Christ explains why he chose to reveal the truth in this way:
This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.
Christ spoke in parables to keep those who would not understand His truth from understanding, and conversely, to enlighten those who needed to understand. Not everyone is ready or always needs to hear the truth that God has entrusted to us, and though we are not perfect, we must discern with each person and within each social setting whether revealing truth will help to bring peace or create turmoil.
For example, the spouse who is continuously quick to point out his/her spouse’s flaws and shortcomings—though true—will likely not bring about peace. Not every truth needs to be spoken or spoken to every person. Being a steward of truth requires discernment both to arrive at truth and to know when and to whom to distribute it.
When we post or respond on social media, or we engage in a debate or dialogue, we must sincerely pray and ask God if our doing so will bring Him glory. We must honestly consider if we are advancing ourselves or advancing the Kingdom of God. We must consider if we are helping the soul we are engaging or embittering them with the truth.
While it is vitally important to be on the side of truth and to know it well, our motive in approaching others with the truth is just as important as our possession of it. Romans 14:19 states the motive that we should all consider:
So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.”
We either are people who pursue peace and thus God’s glory, or we seek our glory and forego peace.