A Christian Response: What if I Don’t Know What to Say?

Part two in a four-part series.  Read Part 1 here.


Disagreements are hard to talk about. It can be intimidating to talk with someone who believes differently than you. What if the conversation leads to frustration, tension, and division? What if it is just really awkward? Yet, when done with love, dialogues about faith can be among the richest to share. My experience has been that conversation about differences in belief deepens relationships. There is an honesty, vulnerability, and intimacy about sharing the beliefs we treasure and the questions we ponder. Rather than being awkward, it can be a lot of fun and filled with laughter and inside jokes. You learn from one another and run together towards the good, true and beautiful.In such a conversation, a good perspective to keep forefront in your mind is that from the Prayer of Peace attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, “Grant that I may not so much seek to be understood as to understand.” Seek first to understand and then to be understood. Easier said than done.

In such a conversation, a good perspective to keep forefront in your mind is that from the Prayer of Peace attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, “Grant that I may not so much seek to be understood as to understand.” Seek first to understand and then to be understood. Easier said than done.

In this blog, I would like to share some tools that might help you “seek first to understand:”

  1. Ask Open-Ended Questions:

An open-ended question is a question that gives another person the freedom to share what is important to them. Imagine that a conversation is like going for a walk through the woods with a friend. As you hike together, a closed-ended question would be, “Do you want to turn left, or right?” In contrast, an open-ended question would be, “Where do you want to go?” The closed-ended question confines, and directs the other person while an open-ended one gives freedom to explore wherever they want to go. If I am talking with someone about religion, I try to avoid asking closed-ended questions such as, “Do you believe in God?” Instead, I might say, “Tell me what you think about God.” Other questions could be, “Tell me more about this…” or, “Can you explain this more?” or “What do you mean when you say that?” Such open-ended questions are a fantastic tool for genuine understanding.

  1. Paraphrase:

Misunderstanding comes more easily than understanding. As laughable as it may sound, I have been guilty of arguing against a point that the other person wasn’t actually arguing for. A good way to prevent misunderstanding is by paraphrasing back what you think the other person is saying. I might say, “Correct me if I am wrong, is this what you mean?” Or “let me paraphrase back what I am hearing to make sure that I’ve got it right.” Paraphrasing helps to ensure that you talk with each other and not past each other.

How might you show another person that you understand the heart of what they are saying?

  1. Agree where you can: When I speak with someone who believes differently, I assume that they are a rational person and have a good reason for thinking as they do. It is my task to understand that reason. I walk with their line of thought for as far as I can before departing and I seek the good, true and beautiful in what they say. For example, when someone says, “I am an atheist because I don’t believe in a God who would create a bunch of people and sit back and watch them suffer…” I usually reply, “Oh I agree! I am an atheist to that God too. That is why I am a Christian.”
  2. Take the arguments even further than they do: To show that I have an understanding of the arguments that another person finds compelling, I strengthen it before attempting to counter it. For example, if someone says, “I don’t believe in God. How could a good God allow evil?” I might say, “Oh yes! That is a puzzle! If God is all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful and then he would know about the suffering in the world, he would wish to stop it and he would be able to do so. Since it is apparent that there still is suffering, it’s easy to wonder if an all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful God exists! I can see why that would make you want to be an atheist.”

After seeking to understand, how might you help the other person understand?

  1. The best defense of Christianity is good theology: It is my experience that most arguments against Christianity aren’t really against Christianity but against the caricatures of it. People react against an idea that they think Christians teach and are surprised to discover that the theologians have been on their side, arguing against that caricature, for thousands of years. Charles Spurgeon once likened Christianity to an uncaged lion. It doesn’t need defending, it just needs to be released as what it is. My conviction is that a deep, nuanced understanding of the theology and its conversations through history is one of the best ways to address the arguments that are held up against Christianity. Release the lion.
  2. Begin with the beautiful: Reach into your memory and see in your mind’s eye the most beautiful sunset you can imagine at a beach. Imagine that you are with a friend who has never seen a sunset. You don’t introduce your friend to sunsets by explaining the electromagnetic properties of light or by commanding them to watch sunsets every night. You invite them to sit alongside you in the sand, look out over the water and lose themselves in the beauty. So it goes with Christianity. If you begin with the truth and say, “You should believe this,” the reply is often “Who are you to tell me what to believe.” If you begin with the good and say, “You should do this,” the common response is “Who are you to judge me?” Begin with beautiful and say “Come, stand alongside me and look. You have to see this—it is wonderful.” The beauty is something inviting—it calls you in. You want to conform your life to the beauty you see and long to participate in it. You want to understand the truth and laws behind it that give its being and make it beautiful. Sharing the Christian faith is like sharing a sunset, I would suggest beginning with the beautiful and it will move towards the good and the true.

The next time you are brave enough to have a discussion about faith, play with asking open-ended questions, paraphrasing what you hear, agreeing where you can, strengthening the other person’s arguments before countering, drawing from a deep understanding of theology and beginning with the beautiful. But. If you remember one thing from this blog, remember this: Seek first to understand and then to be understood. You may be surprised by the blessings that follow.

This series was written by Ariel Dempsey, who is currently pursuing her Masters of Science & Religion at Oxford University.  She has also a degree in medicine and studied apologetics at Oxford.

© 2017, Never The Same