In Soren Kierkegaard’s book, The Sickness Unto Death, a phrase that stayed with me was, “To defend something is always to discredit it.” Although there are many rich lessons to take from his work, the discussion regarding our desperate defenses against the reasoning we have for our actions was thought provoking. At the heart of his statement is when we pursue over explaining our decisions, we run the risk of discrediting them altogether. Even at the forefront of any topic we’d be passionate about defending, our Christian beliefs, there is a point when we go too far in attempting to convince another of why we believe in the God of the Bible. And right on down the line that leads to the ways we choose to conduct our lives: our parenting styles, our methods of raising children, our choices regarding our health, our decisions that we’re convicted of and have a deep personal understanding of how we came to them.
Of course, we are told by Peter to be ready to give an answer to those that ask the question as to why we have hope (1 Peter 3:15) and by Paul, in Philippians 1:16, who says he’s defending the gospel. The biblical proof that we’re to defend the gospel is clear, but how ruthlessly are we to do so? Surely, not with an attitude of self-righteousness or desire to pummel our listener into submission. In these cases, our hearts are bent on wickedness and in search of retribution for our own egos. Jesus was quick to reply to His enquirers, but also divinely in tune with their intentions. We, however, can be underdeveloped in reading the heart motivation of those who ask us and, being aware of this, our answers are best kept fact focused and emotion-lite. Especially if the conversation continues and appears to be approaching a level of hostility, that is a signal that our proselytizing is exiting and our selfish motivations are seeping in.
Moving beyond the case for evangelism, Kierkegaard’s words also ring true on more minor issues that we attempt to defend. After becoming a parent, I was thrust into a different level of judgment from onlookers for decisions made. Each decision was so easily defendable in my mind, as I tend to research and deeply contemplate most either/or situations. I found myself exhausting my time and words attempting to explain my reasoning to those who questioned it and, four years later after reading The Sickness Unto Death, his words spoke into my fruitless attempts to make others understand the hows and whys of all that I do. Trying to defend my stance with enthusiastic fervor, hoping that my hearer will concede and agree with me, is an utter waste of energy. Witnessing, parenting, relationshipping (not a word, but you get the meaning!), and just living life among others slowly became more solid and less energy was spent on convincing others of my convictions.
The discrediting portion of his phrase comes to light since, in our search for a hearer’s understanding, we tend to offer up too many needless justifications to shed light into our case. The more we try to give reasons as to why we do what we do, believe the way we believe, or pursue avenues of our choosing, our continual engagement in trying to convince makes us sound desperate as we detail our process of elimination to the decision we hold dear. In contrast, if an asker is genuinely interested and the intrigue begs more questions, there is a conversation worth our time and energy in answering and explaining our reasoning. In the same respect, when we ourselves are the askers, it is fair to indulge in hearing someone else’s stance on any issue they seem passionate about. If you’re certain of why you believe what you do, by all means, speak your mind. However, let go of extended justifications to one that discredits your reasoning because, in our feeble attempts to push our beliefs, we ourselves become discredited.
Ever listened to someone speak novels on something, as though their many words are intended to persuade, but in the midst of their rambling on you realize they’re actually trying to convince themselves of their belief? I’ve been the rambler and, after it’s too late, I realize I lost my train of thought and also lost my listener. “When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise” (Proverbs 10:19) and, “A man of knowledge uses words with restraint, and a man of understanding is even-tempered” (Proverbs 17:27). We can make our case on anything with limited and choice words of persuasion, whether our words fall on deaf ears is not under our control. What is under our control is our mouths and, by reigning in unnecessary explanation, our best defense is a good offense.