You might be familiar with the old Star Trek episodes in which Captain Kirk would encounter unknown life-forms on new planets and declare, “We come in peace!” Sometimes I think this declaration should be a mandatory starting point when engaging in spiritual conversations. We come in peace.
It often feels as if completely different worlds are colliding when two people with opposing viewpoints encounter each other. There seem to be two reflexive instincts: (1) to protect one’s own territory and (2) to dominate the other’s territory. Even the best of us, those who truly mean well, can’t help but be caught up in this pull toward claiming and protecting spiritual, religious, philosophical, and even sometimes political territory.
As followers of Jesus, how do we hold on to our convictions and cherished beliefs while giving other people the space to hold on to their own as well? And even more complicated than that, how do we spread the message of the hope we have, the Good News, without dishonoring, belittling, or insulting people in the process?
The collision of opposing worldviews involves uncomfortable elements that are nearly impossible to eliminate. There is anxiety. There is self-protection. There is tension. There is fear. There is pride. There is defensiveness. There is vulnerability. When we enter spiritual conversations saying sincerely, “We come in peace,” we are not attempting to remove all discomfort. Rather, we are trying to add something. We are adding honor. We are giving understanding. We are seeing the whole instead of the pieces. And mostly we are giving dignity. Dignity can be defined as “bearing, conduct, or speech indicative of self- respect or appreciation of the formality or gravity of an occasion or situation.”1
The word gravity stands out. When we recognize the gravity of a situation, we inevitably treat it (or, in this case, persons of varying beliefs) with greater respect and deference. Offering platitudes and being condescending, rude, superficial, disingenuous, frivolous, ignorant, and unaware are unthinkable approaches or attitudes when we appreciate the gravity involved. Basically, dignity says, “This is a big deal, and we know it.” Another definition of dignity is “worthiness.”2
This word strikes a deep chord as well. We treat something that (or someone whom) we deem worthy as special, valuable, even extraordinary. The eyes of the heart look at the object of worthiness and proclaim, “You mean something to me, and I genuinely see you!”
If there’s a time when dignity should be front and center, it’s when we’re talking about God. We Christ followers talk much about love when it comes to showing and spreading our faith, as we should. But what does love really look like? Love looks a lot like dignity. It recognizes the gravity of a person. It recognizes the worthiness of a person. And it is truly genuine… Talking about God is one of the most profoundly important things we can do in this life besides actually living out our faith in God.
Here are some dos and don’ts to keep in mind when you have conversations about spirituality.
1. Don’t just merely show up. Show up and engage.
2. Don’t just merely throw truth at someone’s soul like darts aimed at a bull’s-eye on a dartboard. Instead, help that person find where God is already speaking to him or her and explore that through dialogue.
3. Don’t ignore or avoid difficult truths.
4. Don’t pretend as if you’ve got it all together or that you never have doubts or questions.
5. Don’t hold back humble honesty and appropriate truth telling.
6. Don’t forget about grace, gentleness, compassion, and respect.
1. Do bring humanity back to conversations.
2. Do look for genuine points of connection and reinforce those places.
3. Do listen more. Again, please listen more.
4. Do validate the person’s experiences as meaningful change agents in his or her life.
5. Do admit when you don’t know the answers to questions he or she is asking.
6. Do laugh together. Laughter builds affection and bonding, and it breaks down walls of resistance.