A client recently detailed her complicated feelings about something a loved one posted on social media after a mass shooting.
“She is like a grandmother to my kids,” my client said. “I love her, and yet I just can’t stop thinking about what she said. I just don’t know what to do with it.”
Listening, I thought of all the times I have wrestled with similar situations. What does it look like to disagree well with those that we love? Is it possible to stay true to our convictions while remaining in relationship with those who may hold (seemingly) opposing convictions? How do we love well even when we disagree strongly?
These are important questions for us as believers, maybe now more than at any other time.
In 2014, Pew Research reported that the political climate in America has become increasingly polarized over the previous two decades. Not only are those who identify as Republicans and Democrats moving farther apart from one another ideologically, but animosity between the two groups has increased significantly. It appears that we are holding more strongly to our personal ideologies and beliefs while also becoming increasingly negative and hostile toward those with whom we disagree.
This research paints a picture of our cultural climate that is worth considering as followers of Jesus. How does our faith guide us? What does Jesus teach us about how to lead and love well when we disagree?
1. Hold space for differences.
I became a mom through transracial adoption. Parenting a child who does not share my physical characteristics has revealed to me how much value we place on sameness. When my son was an infant, I made a deliberate decision to celebrate differences.
Beauty can be found in the things that unite us and in the things that make us different. Both can be equally important and equally beautiful. We must value both and keep both at the forefront of our minds as we approach places of disagreement. In the midst of disputes, we can find common ground in our places of sameness, while our places of difference can teach us something valuable we may have otherwise missed.
Researchers interested in understanding why the polarization in America is happening at a faster rate than elsewhere in the world note that in the last decades our primary political parties have become increasingly homogenous ideologically, racially and religiously. We have sorted ourselves onto teams and set up issues as battlefields.
Instead, we must value diversity, creating space in our lives for those who do not check all the same boxes as we do. When we believe that even those with whom we staunchly disagree might have something to teach us about who God is, we swing open a door for genuine connection.
2. Remain curious.
There is a story behind every opinion. Being curious about how someone came to an opinion or belief can be helpful in finding common ground on which to move forward.
On my daily commute I pass by a home displaying multiple, large flags that change every couple of weeks. I don’t agree with the flags and find some quite offensive. When the flags first showed up, I was irritated. I rolled my eyes at the messages and had negative thoughts about the owners.
After a few weeks of feeling annoyed as I passed the flags, the Holy Spirit gently nudged me, inviting me to pray for the people behind the flags. As I prayed each day, it didn’t take long until something shifted. I went from being irritated to being curious. I wondered who they are and why they are so invested in waving these flags high along the highway. What makes them spend hundreds of dollars on flags? What are they hoping to accomplish? Why does this matter to them?
By being curious about the people behind the issues, my heart has moved. I have considered pulling into their drive to meet the flag owners. Now I find myself willing to have a conversation with them. Curiosity has opened a pathway to relationships that I couldn’t see when I first passed by.
I doubt I will ever change the flag owners’ minds, and I don’t think they can change mine. I do think, however, that we might find a way to respect and care for one another despite our differences.
Even with those we know and love, there is always room for curiosity. As we push back on our assumptions and lean in with questions, we just might be surprised by what we find waiting for us.
3. Reflect on your goal.
Consider if being right is more important to you than the relationship. 1 John 4 reminds us that love is the defining characteristic of our life as believers. John writes that loving God means to love our neighbor, our brother, our sister. When we look at the life of Jesus there is no denying that relationships matter. Over and over again in Scripture we see Jesus connecting with people and reminding us that loving well always comes first.
A few weeks ago, I walked away from an interaction with someone I love and thought, “They definitely care more about being right than having a relationship with me.” I felt sad. And hurt. For a few days after I continued to ponder the interaction and pray about how to move forward.
It was a reminder that I don’t want others to walk away from interactions with me believing that I care more about my convictions and opinions than I do about them as a person. I want even those with whom I strongly disagree to feel loved. This challenges me to consider once again what it means to keep love and relationships with those I love at the forefront.
4. Practice discernment.
Disagreement can be healthy. We would do well to stop seeing disagreement as entirely negative. Unity need not be synonymous with sameness. To disagree does not threaten our unity in Christ. In fact, disagreement can make us wiser, more mature followers of Jesus. James writes about how the testing, or working out of one’s faith, produces character. When we commit ourselves to loving well amid disagreement, we submit to the refining process that produces Christ-like character.
It requires humility and courage to enter the discomfort of disagreement. Not every disagreement necessitates the same response. At times, the work of disagreeing well is personal, an internal work that we must commit to before we can engage well with others.
Disagreeing well demands discernment. Here are some questions to consider when discerning whether a response is needed:
- Is someone being harmed by the opinion or position held by the other person? If so, what is my responsibility to act?
- What’s my motivation for addressing/not addressing my thoughts or feelings with this other person?
- Do I have a relationship with this person that is going to be harmed by my silence on the issue?
- Could the relationship be strengthened by a willingness to address the issues?
- How might God be using the process of disagreement to bring about growth in my life and in the lives of those I love?
If the time comes to address the disagreement directly, then there is great wisdom in practicing the apostle Paul’s encouragement to the believers in Colossae (who happened to be dealing with their own set of disagreements): “Therefore as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12).
Erica Haude is a licensed clinical professional counselor and a graduate of Denver Seminary. She is a member of the Southern District Board of Faith and Life. Haude and her family attend Parkview Church in Hillsboro, Kan.
Erica Haude is a licensed clinical professional counselor and a graduate of Denver Seminary. She is a member of the Southern District Board of Faith and Life. Haude and her family attend Parkview Church in Hillsboro, Kansas.