Engaging Confidently with Questions and Disagreements

Nathan Betts talks about how to respond to questions in an emotionally charged culture, handling disagreement, and dealing with suffering in the midst of a pandemic.

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The following is adapted from the transcript from a radio interview with Nathan Betts, “Being and Thinking Christian in a Crisis Culture.”

Interviewer (Erica Parkerson):

What is the one thing that you learned from Ravi Zacharias' life?

Nathan Betts:

I think it would be tenderhearted thoughtfulness, that it was never just an answer, but it was always about people. And he had such a love that when you talked to him, interacted with him, it was never just trotting out another answer. There was a love and there was a tenderheartedness that came through in the thoughtfulness.

Erica:

Yeah, it's a gift to be tenderhearted in this world. The one thing I love about Ravi Zacharias, that I love about you, is that you all do not shy away from the hard conversations. As a matter of fact, I was pondering these powerful words, "If we are serious about wanting to listen and learn from others in our radically misunderstanding time, the Christian faith shows us that a meaningful start begins with a willingness to enter into the hard conversations." Nathan, those are your words. So why do we shy away from the hard conversations? Is it fear?

Nathan:

Great question, Erica. I think certainly fear. Fear certainly plays into that equation of, “why do we shy away?” I think the other reason is we don't understand. Certainly there's overlap. The two coalesce. Misunderstanding often leads to fear. If we don't actually do something to mitigate the situation at that point, that often can lead to anger. Especially when it comes to hot button issues, issues that are not just intellectual, but also involve the emotion. So I think, yes, it is fear, as to why we do not engage certain conversations, certain issues, but also we don't understand.

Some of what happens in the misunderstanding is we make poor assumptions. That is, I think, also what can then lead to anger and the anger is often, it's misinformed. The very beautiful, good, and attractive news of Jesus Christ, is that love, in how we engage with people, with friends, with colleagues, with family members, with issues that are massively tough and complex, is that Jesus Christ invites us to engage, but engage with an understanding, with an understanding that then leads to love. And then in many cases, it requires courage, but the courage is all linked together to love and love that understands well.

Jesus Christ invites us to engage, but to engage with an understanding, and with an understanding that then leads to love.

Erica:

You know, I'm finding in the midst of all of the tension that is just blistering in our country right now, if we could just get to the table, right? And all sit down together and talk about these things, I think that our spirits would feel so free. So Nathan, how do we respond once we get to the table and we're willing to enter in, how do we act as believers? Because there are so many minefields, it feels like that we're afraid to step in.

Nathan:

Yes, I think it's hard, and I think there can be many answers. So let me just make a start. I think the starting point has to be questions. So even when people ask questions, I think it's helpful to ask a question so that–not by way of playing games or anything like that–but to really truly understand when a person asks a question before we give a statement, a question helps clarify what is really being asked. And I think especially when we come to issues that are so tense, sometimes the pressure is on for us to just, we have to give an answer. We have to say something. That I think sometimes can create more heat than light, and we're after light, we're after, how do we find clarity amidst confusion? And sometimes questions I think are just so helpful.

What's interesting is I'm not just pulling this out of some book. In a way I am, but it's actually a reflection of Jesus Christ, how he navigated conversations. Sometimes we, and I put my hand up for this, sometimes we don't necessarily see Jesus as a brilliant person. We see him as a miracle worker. There's a warmth to him, but really I'm just putting it plainly. Make no mistake. Jesus was brilliant, particularly when it came to conversations. And what we find often when you look through his biographies of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, he is constantly responding to questions with questions. "So, good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" What does Jesus say? "Why do you call me good?" And he's not playing games. What he's doing is engaging that person to find out, “why are you asking this question?” “What's behind the issue?”

And so, when we are in issues, especially at a table, and tough, tense, emotionally charged questions come up, instead of offering statements, I think questions can be helpful. I think after that, when we find out, okay, what is the issue and how can we respond? I think the next step is to find common ground. I think sometimes when people who we even say are on different sides, people who would be opposing us, I think it can actually be very unhelpful to see it as, you know, us versus them mentality. No matter, whatever the issue is, that can be just flat out unhelpful, but what can somehow bridge the chasm is by saying, "Look, we agree on this. How can we work together?" And really what's happening there is, what we're saying there is, ultimately no matter, even if you want to say we're on this side and you're on that side, ultimately the Christian perspective offers something fresh and rich and it's this: We are all made in the image of God.

So even if you're on that side or I'm on this side, or we agree on this and we disagree on that, when we have this bigger picture of, “Hey, we are all ultimately before God, how can we live well? How can we engage well in that?” So, I think asking questions firstly, and secondly finding the common ground. And I think a third aspect is just listening. So much of this has to do with listening. The idea summed up is this: In an age where everybody seems to be rushing to the microphone, we actually need to do a better job just listening. I love what the late pastor, Eugene Peterson, once said. He said something along the lines of “There seems to be this urgency for action, but what we really need,” said Peterson, “was an urgency to listen.” So I think that that's a start to a very big question.

In an age where everybody seems to be rushing to the microphone, we actually need to do a better job just listening.

Erica:

All of those things you just mentioned, the asking questions, the coming together, the listening, all of them project this message, "I care about you."

Nathan:

Yes, absolutely. I think what we're finding today is that's one of the questions at the top of the list. We are, as a culture, in not just the Western hemisphere, globally. So both locally and globally, we're asking the question, look, when I'm in a conversation with a friend or a leader, we're asking the question, do you care about me? Do you understand me? Or will you care for me? Will you understand me? This is where, I think the Christian faith, has something so profoundly beautiful and practical to offer here.

Erica:

Indeed. Here we are in the middle of a pandemic. We're going through all of these tensions in our country, but we are coming together in some ways. So, there is hope in the midst of the struggle. I was reading recently that there have always been plagues and wars, but we're always surprised, right, by these things. You often speak about suffering. Why does God allow suffering? Would you just take one more moment and speak to that, Nathan. How do we grapple with what feels like a world that is crumbling around us?

Nathan:

What I would say is God is present in suffering. And the reason why I say that is because we don't always feel that. We don't always see it, but the Christian's faith shows that through the sacred scriptures, from Old Testament to New Testament, that sometimes God is felt in suffering, but sometimes he's not, but that does not mean he's not there. I think it was one of Ravi Zacharias' favorite writers, F.W. Boreham, who said that the idea was when you go into a ship, the most powerful part of that ship is actually the quietest part. That is the engine room. The engine room is the quietest part of these massive boats.

His idea there was not to mistake silence for inactivity. And sometimes when we are in suffering, we do make that mistake of saying, "God, where are you?" and the questions are valid. They're important. We need to ask those questions. We see that reflected in many of the people who stayed faithful to God in the scripture. So the questions are good, but we go wrong when we mistake silence, and there is, there will be silence. It's something very often I've seen from experience, silence in suffering. But the silence is not inactivity. F.W. Boreham was saying that actually, we need to be aware of that. Sometimes the most powerful places, the most powerful rooms, are often the quietest rooms.

Martin Luther was the one who pointed to the cross and said, "Of all places in that moment, no one in that moment would have said "This is where God is." But it was as if God was in the very place of suffering, a place where everybody said God was not present. He was actually right there in the middle of suffering." So I think that is one point. I would suggest that God is present in suffering, and that's a truth. That I think should remind us that in our suffering. God is not absent. He's not distant. He knows it and He is with us. Sometimes there's a quietness, there's a silence, but that does not mean inactivity. God is still working. He's still powerful.

Erica:

I almost lost my son to ulcerative colitis. He's doing great now. But I remember there were so many days–I can't tell you the pain that I was in watching him suffer. But when I look back and I can't explain this to you, except to say, I know that Christ was there in the most horrible moments and I didn't necessarily feel him, but he was there. I can look back and see, because I wouldn't have made it otherwise. You know? So thank you for that. I hope that I never picture a ship or the cross the same way again. Beautiful. And I'll end on this.. How excited are you about baseball beginning again?

Nathan:

I don't know how to put into words, how excited I am. It's been hard. That has been a challenge to see so much not happening, but baseball, my favorite sport, I'm so happy that it's coming back. I'm very much looking forward to seeing, yeah, the boys of summer play, the smell of sunflower seeds, bubble gum and the pine tar from the baseball bats. I'm very much looking forward to seeing that.

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