Whether dedicated or foolhardy, I’m a strong believer in engaging others in argumentation. When played right, they help to exercise the mind and shape perspective. However, what should be a search for the truth often turns into mindless attempts to score points, unwinnable efforts where ethos takes the place of logos and everyone’s time is wasted. In an age where debaters are anonymous but more commonplace, Jesus provides useful advice with regards to parsing productive discussions from unproductive ones.
The discussion between Jesus and Nicodemus (John 3) ended in disappointment. Nicodemus comes to Jesus acknowledging His divine influence, under the implication that Nicodemus has come to learn from or to discuss theology with Him. Jesus responds with insight, about how one must be born again to see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus asks Him how that could be possible. Jesus responds that the Spirit and the flesh are separate entities, a perfectly reasonable explanation for having to be born twice: once for each entity. Nicodemus replies with, “How can these things be?” Rather than develop the conversation and bounce off of Jesus’s explanation, he reverted to his previous question, unable to go forward. At this point, the dialogue is over. Jesus chides Nicodemus for not understanding that aspect and not receiving Jesus’s testimony. Jesus says more, but Nicodemus’s role in the conversation is over. His role was now to listen and receive Christ’s good news, rather than to inquire about and discuss it. It should be noted that Nicodemus would eventually come to adorn Jesus’s body with myrrh, but he needed lecture and testimony before he reached that point.
Unlike Nicodemus, the devil adapted to the conversation. He challenged God to make bread in the desert (Matthew 4 and/or Luke 4). Jesus, well prepared, responded with memorized scripture as a counterpoint. Matthew and Luke differ on the order, but, rather than respond to Jesus’s counter, the devil challenges Jesus to throw Himself from a mountain and to bow down to the devil. Jesus responds with scripture in both cases. In the Matthew version, Jesus at last demanded the devil to flee from Him, and the devil complied. Here, we see that the devil was never interested in honest conversation; he was only looking to win over Jesus. Jesus knew this and, while he came well prepared to counter Satan’s temptations, forced an end to the conversation. There was no benefit to talking further.
The conversation at the well in Samaria (John 4) is an example of a conversation done right. Jesus brought up the concept of living water to a woman at the well. Like Nicodemus, she asked how Jesus could produce the water. Jesus responded reasonably, and the woman asked for living water. Did she understand the concept? No, but she was receptive and open to new concepts. Jesus continued the conversation for much longer, and the woman was given the high honor of heralding Jesus to the rest of her community. This is the best kind of conversation: one where participants can learn and grow.
It’s okay to withdraw from a conversation. God does not bless all conversations to be productive, and you are no coward for picking your battles. Still, it’s an exhilarating experience to find the truth with someone, and I wish that you feel the same joy that I have!