How to Handle Contention
I’m a naturally contentious person. I always have been. Whenever I listen to someone express their beliefs and ideas, I comb their words for flawed premises or close-mindedness or ways in which I disagree with them. I’m very critical, and I am rarely satisfied with an expression of belief, especially if it’s a controversial one. Bowing to the status quo rarely satisfies me, and I’m much more comfortable challenging it, and thinking outside its borders than maintaining it—especially when I’m in a church setting (which really is quite unfortunate).
I think this is both a blessing and a curse (and more often than not, it is very exhausting!), because I often turn this personality trait on myself. I constantly analyze my own beliefs and the ways in which I see the world, wondering if I’m seeing something wrong, if I need to be more vocal and publicly affirming about certain beliefs, and more skeptical and curious about others. I never want to be so convicted of something that my heart and mind are closed when God is probing them and trying to transform them, but I also want to be able to rest in that assurance and comfort of the Father that always seems to elude me. It’s a double-edged sword, it really is.
The way I see things, there are two alternatives: either subdue my critical spirit in an attempt to achieve solidarity with my Christian brothers and sisters, or let my critical spirit do what it wishes and step on a lot of toes in the process. I’m ashamed to admit it, but ever since I started growing beyond the conservative bubble I used to live in, I’ve found that the second alternative characterizes my interactions with other Christians much more often than the first. I think this is because I’ve found so much more to be critical of within conservative Christianity than I ever have before, and so there is more “fodder”, for lack of a better word, for my contentious spirit to indulge in, and so indulge I do, and quite rampantly at that.
But this Christian life doesn’t have to come down to these two alternatives, this choice between suppressing honesty so the status quo remains intact, and vocalizing my disagreement with every issue or doctrine or outlook that rubs me the wrong way. There is a third alternative, a wiser and more compassionate way of living in community with my fellow believers in the midst of widely varying perspectives. This third way requires me to speak honestly, yes, but also remember to put myself into the shoes of the person I’m speaking with, and think about why they believe what they do, why they hold opinions I might find abhorrent or flawed, why they believe it is in my best interests make sure I know how wrong I am.
When I do that, I find that I am able to tone down my contentious spirit. I am able to inflect grace and compassion into my words instead of getting so fired up and passionate that it becomes impossible to construct any sort of positive dialogue. And of course, I know full well how hard that is when you’re so sure they’re wrong, when it’s so clear to you what the right way of thinking is. But it’s still so important to develop that skill of seeing through the eyes of others. Until you can do that, you’ll never be able to convince them they’re wrong, no matter how obvious it may seem to you.
And, simultaneously, I think you acquire the wonderful gift of learning from that person too. Because sometimes, it is you who are wrong and in need of a change of perspective. And that won’t happen either, until you’re willing to open yourself up to the possibility.