The old adage goes like this: ‘Convince a man against his will, he’s of the same opinion still’. It seems to get truer and truer. Let me explain.
As Christians we are commanded to give a reason for the hope that we have. The aim is to persuade and commend faith in the Lord Jesus. As we do that, we sometimes have to say things that are true but unpalatable.
So, take the controversy a few years back about penal substitution, and the Isaiah 53 idea that Jesus in his love bears the punishment for my sins in my place. One of the threads of argument against penal substitution was that ‘the man in the pub’ could not believe anything so horrible and so we should drop it.
It is intriguing: drop the idea not because it is not true, but because non-believers do not like it! There again, in the current debate about same-sex marriage one of the underlying issues is: how do you say something is wrong, when your audience almost as a knee-jerk reflex says you have said it in a hugely offensive and homophobic way?
Please note several things that are going on when debate takes place along these lines. To begin with, the focus is not so much on the truth of what is said, but the way that it is said.
People are dismissed not because of what they have said (at least on the surface), but because of how they have said it. There is a tightrope here: of course people sometimes do say things with an intent to wound, or play to the gallery, or manipulate.
We do well to take the warnings of James to heart about the power of the tongue. That means that it does matter how we say things: truth can be said in a way that repels rather than attracts, sometimes aiming for just that.
On the other hand, taking offence can equally be quite calculated. The advantage of taking offence at the way someone says something is that is a very good way of not having to ask the question, ‘Is it true?’ It short-circuits discussion of the issue itself.
More than that, when someone takes offence, the shape of the conversation changes. It suddenly has a pecking-order. A conversation on, say, penal substitution starts as an adult-adult conversation: ‘I think this is what Isaiah 53 means, it teaches penal substitution’. But it changes from being an adult-adult conversation when the response is, ‘I take huge offence at that because you are making God into a child-abuser’.
At this stage, the objector has put himself or herself into a position of moral superiority because he or she has been wronged by being offended; they become a victim, and the person making the statement is expected to apologise for causing offence. After all, that is what polite British people do!
The conversation is then recast as one between the morally superior and more sensitive person who is offended, and the crass boor who has given offence.
How do you get back on adult-adult terms with someone who says they are offended and insists on staying offended? How do you even continue the discussion? After all, polite people would drop it and talk about the weather. It’s not easy.
Moreover, this ‘taking of offence’ makes a big assumption about who we are. It assumes that we get offended at the right things.
Certainly there is a right offence. I remember seeing an interview with a woman who had grassed up her Jewish neighbours to the SS, in which she belittled the consequences (her neighbours died in the camps).
I think it is appropriate to be offended by what she said, even though she actually said it in a very pleasant, sweet-little-old-lady way. But my internal sense is not reliable enough to say I always take the right amount of offence at the right things. Human beings are not like that.
Jesus is clear that people take offence at him and what he says, not because they are morally reliable, but precisely because they are not. We are a race that, since the Fall, loves darkness and hates those who tell us that our deeds are evil (John 7:7).
At that point, you can see the wisdom in the Proverbs idea that I should be slow to take offence and slow to anger. My heart is not reliable enough to indulge myself in this particular area. Yet ours is a culture where we are actually quick to take offence, not least because we assume our emotions of anger and outrage are self-validating.
This takes me back to the general question of hearing. The Bible does teach me about how I should speak; in particular, how I should speak without malice. That is a fairly straightforward application of the ‘Love God, love your neighbour’ commands. But what intrigues me here is the way it is possible to listen with malice.
I can listen in a way that is quick to take offence at how someone speaks and use that to divert attention away from what they say and the question of whether what they say is, in the end, true.
This situation is certainly not much fun for the speaker. How do you tell the truth to someone who has such an effective way of diverting attention away from the issue of truth?
It is, though, destructive in the long-term for the hearers themselves as well. Not only do they risk wronging those who seek to tell them the truth, they start to imprison themselves in a dream-world. They also risk rewarding those who tell them what they want to hear so that people stop trying to tell them the truth.
In many ways this is, of course, the way the human heart behaves with God’s Word. We do not by nature always like what it says, no doubt because, as Genesis 3 shows us, in the end we resent and envy our Creator.
But what is disturbing about some of the present debates among those who call ourselves Christians is that we seem to forget that we are, in Luther’s famous phrase, still simul justus et peccator — still justified yet sinful — until Christ returns to perfect us.
That means we retain the sinful inclination to reject, dismiss or twist God’s Word. Not all the time maybe. And we may and should experience a love for God’s Word. But, since sin remains, we do not experience only that.
From that point of view, one of the most telling passages for us about church life is 2 Timothy 4:1ff, with its disturbing comment that people who are in church can have itching ears and want a sermon that flatters rather than a sermon that teaches.
It is perilously easy (naturally) for me to think that that particular point is aimed at others. But perhaps I should more readily ask whether I have itching ears. What makes me think I don’t?
As I read God’s Word or hear it taught, what checks do I have that seek to prevent me from having itching ears? Or do I have a working assumption that I don’t? Almost certainly I need to ask myself harder questions here.
And sometimes as I seek to explain counter-cultural truths — whether it’s about same-sex issues or penal substitution or anything else — I should be prepared to ask harder questions of the professional offence-takers.
‘Why are you so quick to take offence?’; ‘Do you think your outrage means you are missing the point?’; ‘How can I explain this to you in a way that does not get immediately written off by you?’; ‘Would you prefer it if I never said anything on this ever again?’
But if I am to ask those questions with any integrity, I should start by being a loving listener myself.
Dr Ovey is the Principal of Oak Hill Theological College, where he lectures in apologetics, doctrine and liturgy.