(This article first appeared in the Reformed Presbyterian Witness--reprinted here with permission. That article in turn drew on one I wrote which first appeared here at Gentle Reformation. Anyhow, with the all the polarisation that is going on in the world at the minute, I thought we could do with revisiting the subject. By all means read this one, and the older one too.)
We live in an increasingly polarized world. Everything is binary. Nuance is suspect. Taking time to understand another is tantamount to compromise. Entrenchment is seen as best.
Social media hasn’t helped. Its faceless interface allows people to sound off without seeing the impact. Its algorithms surround us with a cheering crowd of opinion confirmers. Its instantaneous nature and characteristic brevity cater to point scoring, not persuasion.
Here is an opportunity for Christians to look and sound different. But for that to happen we need to be different. We all like to think we are reasonable, but many confuse being reasoned with being reasonable.
To be reasoned means that your opinions are well thought through. To be reasonable means you are open to persuasion.
James says the marks of godly wisdom are that it is “pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason…” (3:17 ESV). The word translated “open to reason” can be translated “willing to yield” or “persuadable” and has the idea of being willing to listen, to consider another person’s viewpoint, with an openness to changing your own.
Remember it is wisdom that is in view here—the art of applying biblical principles to all of life. God’s Word speaks clearly about the black and white issues—central doctrines, etc. But life isn’t always black and white; some parts are gray. Wisdom is the ability to apply God’s Word to make right decisions in the gray areas.
True wisdom is persuadable or open to reason. It recognizes that we don’t always get it right. That we haven’t necessarily arrived at our final opinion on every matter. That we have our biases, limitations, and blind spots. That situations change and new factors need to be taken into account.
Reasonableness is a practical outworking of our finitude. We don’t have all the answers, we don’t have infinite knowledge, and we are sinners. In short, we can be wrong.
I have come to value and look for this characteristic above many others—especially in church leaders. I have met those who don’t have it; for them it is their way or the highway. And at times I have failed to be reasonable too. Yet it is a key quality of leadership and Christian character.
Here are four aspects of reasonableness:
1. A commitment to considering all the factors. Too often we are tempted to make snap decisions. A situation sounds like one we were in before and, without stopping to consider what other factors may be involved, we move to a decision.
Experience has its place, yet this situation may be different from our previous experience. Wisdom stops to consider all the factors involved. Do they change our view of the situation? Do they mean we deal differently with it or move at a different pace?
2. The ability to reassess your own position in light of what you are hearing. Fundamentally, the Christian must be a persuadable person. This needs to happen every week as we sit under God’s Word. Too often we can hear a challenging sermon and immediately think of someone else who needed to hear it—as opposed to applying it to our own soul. Do we let God’s Word reason with us? Are we open to persuasion?
It also needs to happen in discussion. We all like to think we are right. Yet often new information means we need to reassess our position. A wise person grasps new factors and changes accordingly. When did you last change your mind or alter an opinion?
3. The ability to hear another’s position and interact with its central points. Sometimes you can see the shutters coming down when you talk with someone. They aren’t listening to what you say, but are mentally rehearsing the next thing they will say. Or maybe we are the ones that do it.
The flip side of the coin is seeking refuge in the minutia when you are in the wrong—increasingly insisting on being in the right in a minor area, while ignoring fault in major areas. We need the humility to listen and engage teachably with others.
4. A hunger to grow. We should all have a hunger to grow in wisdom and knowledge, as Jesus did. Luke tells us the Lord grew in wisdom. If that is true of Him who was never wrong, how much more true must it be of us who often are?
Our growth is utterly undermined if we see everything as our own personal Martin Luther moment (“Here I stand, I can do no other”) or we see changing our mind as backing down and a sign of weakness. While being open to persuasion may in the short term lead to admission of error, in the long run it leads to growing in the ability to be right.
A Final Thought
I wonder how much James is reflecting on what he saw in his (half) brother Jesus when he writes about “the wisdom that comes from heaven” (NIV)? He certainly had a ringside seat of wisdom personified for about 30 years.
That makes being persuadable a vital component of Christlikeness—something we should all be aiming at!