Have you ever felt frustrated when someone wouldn’t listen to you?
It is hard enough when someone doesn’t pay attention to you in normal life. But when you have potentially life-saving information, it is much more agonizing. How can you open their mind so they don’t reject God’s truth?
I have been involved in many discussions. Some were successful, while others were not. Some were nice, whereas others were ugly. Through God’s word and these experiences, I have learned a few tactics which have increased the number of people who seriously consider what I have to share.
#1: Win Discussions By Avoiding Debates
I still remember the frustration I felt when I was emailing back and forth with a man about the Sabbath. He said that Jesus broke the Sabbath when He healed people on it. In response, I went to Matthew 12:12 where it says that “it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” “See, the word ‘lawful’ is right in the text. Jesus didn’t break the law,” I triumphed.
He refused to acknowledge my point. When I pressed him further (even showing him the Greek roots of the word “exestin” for “lawful”), he gave a one sentence response which amounted to: “Yeah, but it doesn’t really matter anyway.” He then followed up with paragraphs of other arguments. Realizing that discussion was hopeless, I quit the conversation.
There is a small but significant difference between a discussion and a debate. A discussion is a back-and-forth dialogue, with each person attempting to both explain their views and understand the other person’s perspective. A debate is a competition where one person outmanuevers the other by words and reasoning.
The key difference is the word “competition.” Competition does not care about who is right or wrong. It does not care about understanding the other person. It may not even care about fairness. Above all else, it cares about winning.
While teaching at Dakota Adventist Academy, two boys were discussing if the United States was a democracy. After an hour of trading verbal blows, they were both angry. As I listened to their debate, it became clear that they had the exact same perspective on the issue. But because both boys wanted to “win” and their pride was at stake, neither of them would admit that the other person was right.
The same is true for adults. If I start speaking with someone who wants to debate instead of discuss, I have already lost. Why? Because the person doesn’t want to listen. They just want to beat me with whatever arguments they have. Their pride is at stake. To admit that the other person could be right about something would be weakness.
For these people, it is better to not talk with them at all. “For as the churning of milk produces butter, and wringing the nose produces blood, so the forcing of wrath produces strife” (Proverbs 30:33, NKJV). It will just cause a fight and harden the other person. I have repeatedly ignored such people and have never been sorry.
The only exception to this rule is when you have a large audience. The debater won’t listen to you, but people in the audience may be open to what you have to say. Even then, it is often better to avoid a debate, as it creates much bitterness.
#2: Be Prepared to Lose
It would be hypocrisy to avoid debaters because they don’t listen, while yourself ignoring what others have to say. If you really care about truth, you will listen to other people’s arguments. Why? Because you may be wrong!
Early in my Christian experience, I came across some Jewish arguments against Jesus. One of them was that Christians mistranslated Psalm 22:16, where it says, “they pierced my hands and my feet.” The word for “pierced”, the Jews contend, should be translated “lion”.
Wanting to know if this was true, I looked up the original Hebrew word. What I found was that out of 73 uses in the Old Testament, 71 of them were translated “lion”, including two other times in the very same Psalm. Use #72 was a proper name, and use #73 was translated “pierced”.
I am no scholar, but to consistently translate a word as “lion” except for one reference makes that one reference seem very suspicious, especially when they already twice translated it as “lion” in the same chapter! Adding to this suspicion is that the apostles, who knew the Old Testament, are never shown using Psalm 22:16 as evidence of Jesus’s death by crucifixion. It seems that the Jews have a point about Christians misusing it.
This experience taught me a valuable lesson: people with different views may have valid points and are worth listening to. It is no shame to find out that you are wrong, because every error corrected is one step closer to God’s whole truth. Furthermore, when people find out that you are open to change, they themselves are more likely to listen to you.
#3: Use Simple Reasoning
When presenting a point, the most effective arguments are the ones that people can understand. A discussion usually doesn’t give time for an extended Bible study. Therefore, if you can find one obvious, logical flaw in their argument, it is often enough to settle the issue.
I remember a potluck where a lady and I were talking about the Seven Seals. She was telling me about a teacher who interpreted the first four Seals as future events. I didn’t know much about the Seven Seals then, but I knew enough to see a serious contradiction in what she had heard.
I took her to the Fifth Seal, where it talks about the people under the altar crying for justice. They are then given white robes at a set time and told to wait a little longer. It is a text about the start of the Investigative Judgment. I read the text with her, then asked her some questions:
“Now the Fifth Seal has dead people receiving white robes at a specific time,” I stated. “This is the start of the Investigative Judgment, right?”
“Yes,” she quickly replied.
“If the Fifth Seal started in the past,” I asked, “how could the first four Seals start in the future?”
A look of utter disappointment came to her face. That one piece of simple logic undid the entire false interpretation. Despite the pain and disappointment (I hate doing that to people), she accepted it graciously.
One of my favorite points is from Eugene Prewitt about a pre- or post-tribulation advent. Instead of having an extended Bible study, you can take the person to Revelation 16:15. There, Jesus says that He is “coming as a thief.” The catch? Jesus says this after the Sixth Plague.
If Jesus hasn’t come like a thief after the first six Plagues, then a pre-tribulation advent is impossible, because there is no tribulation worse than the Plagues. This simple point has decisively ended every discussion that I have used it in where the person was willing to listen.
#4: Pray, Don’t Push
When discussing, it is extremely tempting to try to reason someone into truth. It makes sense: if people listen to reason, all we need to do is give them enough solid arguments, and they will be convinced, right?
This couldn’t be further from the truth. When Jesus spoke to Nicodemus, He plainly stated, “...unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). John the Baptist gave the same lesson to his disciples: “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given to him from heaven.” (John 3:27). Put another way, it is impossible for us to learn anything spiritual unless God gives it to us directly.
Do not misunderstand me. Good, logical reasons are important. They should be used. But when it comes to spiritual truth, they aren’t enough. God Himself must speak to the person for them to understand. Therefore, prayer can give victories that arguments will never win.
One day, I exchanged emails with a man who believed the doctrine of Once Saved Always Saved. I sent him three clear texts showing otherwise. He didn’t see truth in it and started to argue. Realizing that I was in a no-win situation (remember the first point about avoiding debates?), I backed off and stopped answering his emails. For the next few days, he continued to send me emails, seeking to draw me into a debate. I ignored all of them and fervently prayed that God would help the man understand his mistake.
A few days later, I received a very different email from the man. He was testing some new Bible software when he read James 5:19-20. He saw that someone could “wander from the truth”, be “turned back”, and therefore be saved “from death.” At that moment, he told me, the Holy Spirit strongly impressed on his mind that a person could lose their salvation, and he was convinced. We rejoiced together that God had bypassed me and taught him directly: a clear victory for Jesus and not for a man!
If you have presented several good arguments, and the person still doesn’t see it, it is time to back off and give the Holy Spirit time to work. The Holy Spirit is a still, small voice, and it is often hard to hear Him in the middle of a discussion. But when the person goes home and has some quiet time to reflect, the Spirit can speak more clearly.
The Bottom Line
It is not possible to convince the other person in every discussion. Some don’t want to be convinced. Others are so deep in error that they need much patience, time, and study to correct. For an unfortunate few, circumstances in their life are so serious that they can’t focus on what you have to say. Therefore, the purpose of avoiding debates, being open to change, using simple reasoning, and prayer is not to “win”, but to do the most good possible. It keeps the doors of the heart open and makes good use of opportunities. That is all that Jesus expects of us.
Jensen and his wife Jennita serve at VIDA Internacional, a self-supporting ministry in rural Honduras. May God strengthen you by His Spirit always.