Consider this scenario: You sit down for dinner with your fraternity brothers. Just as you are about to enjoy your delicious meal, one brother plops down beside you and tells the most offensive, sexist joke about a sorority woman. There are a couple of ways you might react to inapropriate dinner-time conversation.
1. You stand up with righteous anger burning out of your ears as you throw your Bible down shouting, “This place is so sinful, you’re all going to burn in hell.”
2. You stick your head under the table to spend the next ten minutes "looking" for your cell phone, while texting your staff to pray for you.
3. You chuckle to placate your brother and quickly change the topic. You're not sure if it's funny, but nobody likes the person who brings the mood down.
Maybe you would have reacted differently, but hopefully you are laughing hysterically or cringing out of discomfort at these responses. But what do we actually do when conversations we are in take a turn for being inappropriate, offensive, or hurtful? Not many people enjoy confronting sin, especially sin that seems harmless. Surely a joke that the offended party can't hear won't offend anybody.
In general, we either shy away from hard conversations because we fear judgment for speaking up, we go on a tirade about the evils of the world, or just ignore it because we're not actually sure it is wrong anyway. Here are some suggestions for how to handle difficult conversations more effectively.
REMEMBERING THE DESIRED OUTCOME
What is our desired outcome when we address people who say offensive comments? Shouting the truth in a way that makes it unable for others to hear makes both Jesus and ourselves irrelevant. Truth, when told without love, is empty. Or in Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” Or if our response is for them to think that you are condoning the conversation, feel free to hide or ignore it. However, avoiding these conversations teaches neither love nor truth.
If your desired outcome is to see them take a step towards God, then we have to show them how their words are both hurtful to others and hurtful to ourselves.
Our words can train our heart to believe certain lies. For example, if you constantly make jokes that objectify women, you may begin to start seeing women as objects. If you are always making jokes about how there are no worthy guys, you may begin seeing all men as pigs. As we train our heart to be judgmental with our words, we break God’s heart. We cannot love God without loving our neighbors, and we cannot love our neighbors if we are training ourselves to judge them. Instead, try to be honest with yourself about the words you say about people. Help your friends to do the same by pulling them into conversations that could possibly change their lives.
GETTING TO THE HEART OF THE MATTER
I was sitting down with a friend who I know through my work on campus. He made a joke about Mexicans. When I asked him about it, he said, “I’m Latino, so if I’m not offended, how does being funny hurt anybody?” I am not Latino but I was offended because his words were based on a mean-spirited stereotype. But I didn’t want to be that person that couldn’t take a joke.
I acted cowardly on this occasion and kept my mouth shut; but what if I had asked my friend why he believed it was okay to make fun of his own community? Or I could have asked why he thinks the stereotype exists. If I had asked questions, I could have gotten to the heart of how he was feeling and engaged in conversation. Instead I chose to move on and the conversation ended there.
There is a reason Jesus used questions when he interacted with his disciples and people he encountered. A good question that gets people to ponder their motive can get at the heart of how they are feeling. Gently drawing them into conversation that can change perspective and maybe eventually draw them closer to Jesus.
ENGAGING OUR FRIENDS
Maybe it would be easier if we could just focus on the "ends of the earth" in Acts 1:8 instead of ministering to our brothers and sisters. This is especially true when something unexpected happens and we don't want to engage. Remember that some of our friends are actually as hard-hearted as we are. Jesus got a hold of your heart, so surely he can figure out how to impact your friends.
When we hide behind our silence, we perpetuate the lie that Jesus doesn't care about inappropriate jokes or slanderous stories. Silence may get us through an uncomfortable situation, but Jesus cares about it and mourns when we tear each other down.
If we want to get down in the dirt with Jesus, seeking to see our friend’s lives transformed, we have to be willing to engage in tough conversations and trust that Jesus really does perform miracles. When your next attempt to engage in dialogue is rebuffed, turn to God and trust that he actually listens to our prayers.