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Joel BelzVoices Joel Belz

Rules for outrage

Five guidelines before you argue

Rules for outrage

(Krieg Barrie)

Maybe it’s the summer heat. Or maybe it’s the launch of a new presidential election cycle. Whatever the source, it’s appropriate to ask: How angry does God allow His people to get when they see or hear something really wrong going on?

Pretty angry, the Bible suggests. But never so angry that it prompts you to sinful behavior. It’s a balance we at WORLD struggle to keep in mind.

So if you’re finding yourself in the thick of things and are worrying that the tea kettle is about to blow its lid, here’s a short list of warnings and suggestions.

(1) No “he-hit-me-first” excuses. I’m tempted, when folks criticize WORLD for being ugly or unkind, to highlight how mean-spirited some of our critics are, or to pass on a few examples of incivility and below-the-belt punches. A variation on this might be to show our critics all the things we have decided not to print—the really vitriolic and loony stuff people have passed on to us, but which we had the good judgment to throw out.

Yet however tempting it may be for Christians to resort to such childish redirection of blame, it doesn’t wash. God doesn’t grade us on the curve. Our task is always to respond to evil in a Biblical manner.

Why are most of us so likely to yell when we want to make a point?

(2) Facts first, then opinion. With God, facts and opinion are one and the same. There’s no slippage between the two in His marvelous, omniscient mind. But with us mortals, there’s a whole spectrum reaching from what the Bible tells us is true, to what we think may or may not be the case, to what we know we don’t know. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with speculations along the middle of that spectrum. But things get dangerous when folks can no longer discern which category they’re thinking in—when they start treating facts and opinions as if they were quite interchangeable.

The Apostle John understood this when he said concerning his gospel, “That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you.” Clearly suggesting that an eyewitness counts for more than an off-the-top-of-the-head opinion, the apostle set the pace for us reporters a couple of thousand years later. If we want people to pay attention to our opinions, he implied, we should start by being careful with our facts. Conversely, if you’re sloppy with the details of your facts, why should anyone trust your opinions?

(3) Lowered voices. I watched a pulling contest once between an elephant and a John Deere tractor at a county fair in Iowa. The tractor was noisy and boisterous—but the lumbering elephant, harnessed to a log chain attached to the tractor’s draw bar, quietly walked the big machine backward without so much as a snort.

Quiet power is always impressive. So why are most of us so likely to yell when we want to make a point? WORLD Editor in Chief Marvin Olasky reminds us on his staff, year after year, of our journalistic goal: “SENSATIONAL FACTS; UNDERSTATED PROSE.” That means hard work for all of us. But it’s a more persuasive approach to truth-telling.

(4) Elusive answers. In God’s scheme of things, not all answers are equally accessible. In my older age, I still hold to the doctrine of creation I learned 70 years ago. But I struggle more with some of the details. I hold to male leadership in marriage and in the church. But the principle is less simple than it used to be. I hold to market economics and I oppose statism. But I have to admit there are times when only the strong arm of the state seems strong enough to slow down abuse of freedoms.

In all this—and dozens of similar issues—I want to be a lion with regard to truth but a pussycat on issues where I’m not sure of Scripture’s clarity. And yes, sometimes when I can’t decide which rule God calls me to play by, I head back to rules 2 and 3.

(5) Esteeming others. The Bible repeatedly tells Christians to think of each other as better than themselves. It doesn’t go that far in telling us how to relate to non-Christians, but does tell us to have high regard even for those who “despitefully use you.” Whatever else such instructions mean, they suggest that today’s argumentation—however vigorously we pursue it—should never preclude the possibility of sitting down with our opponent for a face-to-face discussion.

It’s almost always easier to get carried away talking or writing negatively about someone I’m not likely to meet face-to-face anytime soon. By the same token, it’s a helpful reminder to consider that just such a meeting might be waiting for me right around the corner.