On Being Persuasive

From parenting to preaching, seeking to persuade others about the truths of the Bible and obedience to it is a fine art. One can easily veer off course and come across as harsh, demanding, exasperating, and legalistic. An over-correction in the other direction can make one sound nagging, permissive, whiny, and lacking in authority. Learning how to persuade others winsomely is a skill that needs to be cultivated. As Proverbs 16:23 says, “The heart of the wise makes his speech judicious and adds persuasiveness to his lips.”

In his work on preaching originally titled Sacred Rhetoric but now usually printed as Evangelical EloquenceRobert Dabney, a nineteenth century theologian, has a fascinating section on this topic. Dabney reminds us that just as there are laws governing other aspects of nature, so there are rules for appealing to people to work toward a true, willing acceptance of the words that they are hearing rather than a blind obedience, grudging compliance, or outright rejection of them. He says that

…there are facts and laws belonging to man’s emotive system which must also be regarded in dealing successfully with it. It is the emotions which immediately move the will. To produce volition it is not enough that the intellect be convinced; affection must also be aroused.”

In other words, if you are going to persuade someone’s will, you must appeal not only to his understanding of the topic but to his emotions as well. Yet in this appeal certain laws must be observed. Let me summarize three of these laws so you can see the insight into the human soul that Dabney shares.

Appeals to emotions should be to those affections that are moral and spiritual, not sensual.

On the one hand, it is not hard to manipulate people and get them to follow a suggested course if you aim at their fleshly desires. For instance, currently politicians are appealing to the anger of the populace to get voters to support their platforms. For another common example, advertisers use sexually suggestive speech to sell products and generally have great success doing so. Or, to bring this closer to home, televangelists promise material blessings if only their hearers will send in a donation.

But the Christian parent, counselor, or preacher cannot lawfully appeal to the flesh to change minds, for they are guided by the ethics of the Word of God and must call their audiences to holy living. So they are to seek to motivate by calling their listeners to please God, to love their brothers and sisters, to sacrifice for Christ who loved them, and other such emotional appeals.

An increase of emotions cannot be made a direct and immediate object of volition. 

To truly persuade others, you have to bring them along a proper path of emotional appeal rather than demanding an immediate change of affections. To help one understand this concept, Dabney gives the analogy of our emotions being like the nerves of involuntary motion in our physical bodies. For instance, if a patient goes to a doctor with a rapid heart rate, the physician cannot just tell the patient to stop making his heart beat so fast and expect an immediate change. The anxiety that might cause could make the heart rate actually increase! Rather, the doctor will work with him by prescribing and convincing him of needed actions, and perhaps even medication, that will help bring the heart rate down over time.

Similarly, persuasive speech must be insightful, patient, and spoken in a way that the hearer is increasingly convinced that his best interest is in mind. “The wise of heart is called discerning, and sweetness of speech increases persuasiveness” (Proverbs 16:21). Angry and demanding speech is actually self-defeating. One might yell and get a response, but it is not achieving the change in heart and disposition a pastor or parent should want. Rather, it builds inner resentment and resistance. Bringing people along a course of proper understanding and growing emotional ardor regarding a subject shows wisdom in communication.

Use logic but also imagination with it.

Dabney encourages in preaching the use of logic like one would see in “Edwards or Thornwell.” But then he reminds us of the need to offer vivid descriptions of the subject at hand that fire the imaginations of our listeners. To do this work mentioned above of bringing hearers along emotionally, the orator “must combine perspicuity of images, definiteness of outline, and brevity.” Using the imagination wisely will draw in the listener emotionally and open up his will to the need being put before him.

For one example, a simple, clear illustration can do wonders for helping listeners desire the point that is being pressed upon them. We can see this with the very subject at hand. It is no accident that found in the context of the verses above quoted from Proverbs 16 that there is also found this verse: “Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body” (v. 24).  The imagery of the honeycomb dripping with sweet honey fits the subtle yet strong admonition being given in this chapter toward wise, gracious speech. Offer this type of speech to others, and they will be drawn to you and gather strength from your words. Preachers should see this wisdom, and carefully craft word pictures and stories to press their point home. Jesus, as the greater Solomon, did this very thing in his preaching. 

It is not enough in preaching or in the instructing of others to only be convinced of the truth in our own minds. We must be knowledgeable of the constitution of our hearers and work with them, seeking to persuade them, in ways that honor how people are made by God, to obey him willingly from the heart.

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