Do Your Spiritual Conversations Become Frustrating Arguments?

By Mikel Del Rosario

We need to bring truth and love together in our apologetics

Do Your Spiritual Conversations Become Frustrating Arguments?

I once had lunch with actor and filmmaker named Alex Kendrick. He’s best-known for his movies like Fireproof, War Room, and Overcomer. Few people realize what undergirds his ethos of engagement. Afterwards, we recorded an episode of the Table Podcast called “Faith, Work, and Filmmaking,” where he explained how 1 Peter 3:15 became his life verse. He told me this story:

During college, I was talking to someone of the Baha’i faith. They believe there’s a number of ways to get to heaven…I found myself growing in frustration that he couldn’t see what I saw in the gospel. We began arguing and…we both left frustrated.

But the Lord convicted me…when I saw 1 Peter 3:15. “But in your heart, sanctify Christ as Lord.” In other words, set Him apart as more important than anything else. “Always be ready to give an answer to anyone that asks you of the hope that you have, but do this with a gentleness and respect.”

His experience isn’t rare. A lot of Christians aren’t sure how to show both truth and love when talking about faith. I’m a big advocate of seeing apologetics not as a debate but as a conversation. In fact, I wrote a variety of journal articles on dialogical apologetics with my mentor, Darrell Bock. This just means “what apologetics looks like in everyday conversations.”

In this post, let me just mention four guidelines for bringing truth and love together in your spiritual conversations: Engaging in conversational apologetics includes asking good questions, listening to understand, considering our character, and reflecting God’s heart in every encounter. These points came out of discussions we had with apologists like Stand to Reason President Greg Koukl and Staff Apologist Amy Hall.

1. Ask good questions

How can we lovingly begin spiritual conversations? Rather than rushing to explain the evidence for Christian truth claims, it is best to initially let the other person share their views. This allows you to better understand their spiritual concerns. What are their pains and longings? This helps you know how to better connect with them and build trust. On an episode of the Table called “Approaching Spiritual Conversations,” I sat down with Greg Koukl and Amy Hall to discuss how using questions can help you engage in a more personal way. Greg explained:

When I meet somebody… I’m not [immediately] thinking about getting to the gospel. My first step is to gather information…if I hear something that seems like an opportunity, I’m going to use my key question: “What do you mean by that?”

I saw a woman wearing a pentagram…I asked her, “Does that jewelry have religious significance?” Turns out, she was a witch. But she was happy to talk about her jewelry and her Wiccan convictions. How did I find out about that? I just asked a pleasant question about the thing: “What do you mean by that jewelry?” basically. Showing interest in people.

As they’re talking, I’m starting to get a spiritual topography…if there is an opportunity, now I have an idea of where I might go with my next question.

The challenging thing for many people is turning down their truth meter, because a lot of Christians will feel like, “Okay, they just said something I disagree with. Now I have to defend the entire contents of the Christian worldview because they have an opinion different than mine.” And this brings me to my next point: The importance of understanding the person.

2. Listen to Understand

After asking good questions, the next step is to actively listen to the answer with the desire to minister to the person. How did they come to hold their beliefs? Sometimes, we can miss out on the answers to our questions due to internal communication noise. This can include distracting thoughts or merely listening with the intent to refute challenges. My mentor, Darrell Bock, talks about what he calls “triphonics”:

Difficult conversations have three layers to them: There’s what you’re talking about. Then, there’s the filter through which you’re looking at what you’re talking about. And then, there’s the way your identity or your perception of yourself—what’s at stake in what I’m talking about—your perception of that. Oftentimes, people think they’re only talking about the top layer, and they don’t think about the other two layers. But the other two layers are driving what’s happening in the conversations. So, how do you move past the top layer and think about what’s underneath?

There’s a test that I run…[to] tell whether I’m in the right mode or not to advance the conversation: When the person is talking to me, am I paying attention to what they’re saying? Or am I thinking through my response? Usually, if I’m in a combative mode…then [I’ve defaulted to] rebuttal mode in terms of engaging with the person.

One helpful exercise is to repeat the person’s view back to them in order to insure that you are engaging fairly with their view. We need to develop an awareness of factors beyond the subject matter—including worldview filters and identity issues—which may be influencing the discussion. A patient, listening ear can do much to demonstrate courageous, yet compassionate engagement.

3. Consider Your Character

How should we respond when a difficult conversation gets tense? Peter writes, “For it is better to suffer for doing good, if God wills it than for doing evil” (1 Peter 3:17). We shouldn’t react with hostility. The character we display during spiritual conversations needs to match up with the fruit of the Spirit and the way Jesus himself suffered. Think about how your character plays a role in defending the faith. I really like what Amy and Greg told me on the show:

Amy Hall

Character is an apologetic because we are representing Christ. 1 Peter [2:9] says, “We were called so that we can proclaim the excellencies of Him who called us.” That’s sandwiched among behavioral commands and saying, “Prove yourself to be someone with good behavior so that they’ll glorify God” (1 Peter 2:12).

Our character represents Christ…we can show the gospel to them by responding in ways that they don’t deserve. Because that’s how God responded to us.

Every time they’re rude to us, and we respond with grace, we’re giving an apologetic for Jesus’ character that people need to see…[1 Peter 3:15, which says] to give a defense with gentleness and respect, begins with saying sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts. And that’s your obedience to Christ; that’s your character that begins this whole process.

When we respond to them, character is a huge part [of that]. We want to represent Christ; we want to be truthful; we want to be humble. We want to show all the things that make Christ great so they can see who He is…

The key thing you have to remember is the dignity of the human being you’re talking to…we’re speaking to someone who is made in the image of God, no matter how rude they’re being.

Greg Koukl

Proverbs [15:1] says, “A harsh word stirs up anger, but a gentle answer turns away wrath.” … You don’t want to be poking people in the eye in the way you’re communicating…

Here’s the deal: If I get mad, I’m gonna lose. What if I don’t get mad and they get mad. Well, then I’m still going to lose. If anybody gets mad, then we’re going to lose. That is, we are not going to be able to have the positive impact as ambassadors for Christ we want to have.

Sometimes, it’s not our fault; they get mad. It’s the message’s fault. And we have – we live with that. But we want to try to avoid anything that makes them unnecessarily angry. We want to maneuver in a way – with the kind of grace that’s appropriate to the message of grace that we’re communicating.

So true. Spiritual conversations aren’t very productive when either person gets angry. Rather than respond in anger, let’s reflect God’s heart and model a different way of relating to people who reject our message. When we demonstrate a Christ-like character, it could very well be the most effective way to overcome negative Christian stereotypes.

Think about the stereotype some people have that “Christian” equals “intolerant, homophobic bigot.” One way we can work to deflate this stereotype for the sake of the Christian message getting a hearing is to engage in such a way that if a person hears this charge against Christians, they might pause and say, “I don’t know about that. The Christians I know don’t seem like that to me at all.”

I always like to say that our apologetic arguments or explanations of the faith are not heard in a vacuum. They come in this wrapper called “your life.” A quiet confidence in the truth of Christianity and a character that matches Jesus’ example carries a persuasive force that just refuting arguments won’t match.

4. Reflect God’s Heart

We should reflect God’s heart for all people. This means presenting the Christian message as a positive one. One the one hand, there’s a tension between how the gospel challenges our beliefs and actions. On the other hand, it also includes an invitation to know and experience God in a personal way. Unfortunately, some people just emphasize what is wrong with society and end up minimizing our hope in Christ. Others want to talk about this hope as only a future thing, instead of something you can have in your life right now.

Christian hope should result in humble engagement and genuine love for the people we challenge with the gospel message. Reflecting God’s heart means engaging difficult spiritual conversations with gentleness and respect rather than with fear, anger, or resentment. Before entering a difficult spiritual conversation, ask God to help you reflect his heart as your minister to your conversation partner.

This was the example of Jesus. Peter wrote, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” (1 Peter 3:18). Indeed, God took the initiative to reach out to us before we embraced him or his message. Let’s navigate difficult spiritual conversations while remembering the gracious way God treated us.

The “How” of Apologetics Matters

Remember that conversation Alex Kendrick had with a Baha’i student during his college days? He told me: “I could articulate the faith, and I was ready to defend it, but there wasn’t the meekness or the gentleness the Scripture talks about.” He ended up communicating an attitude like, “You’re crazy because you don’t see my way.” This is a bad way to engage that seems easy to fall into. But today, Alex tells everyone that “truth and love should go together,” and he says, “now, I try to incorporate a very loving but truthful approach.”

We must help Christians understand what influences popular ideas about God, Jesus, and the Bible and equip them to engage the culture and defend the truth. At the same time, we must also help believers understand the importance of reflecting God’s loving character at all times. Our character in spiritual conversations should match the way God took the initiative to pursue us before we ever embraced him or his message. Engaging in conversational apologetics includes asking good questions, listening to understand, considering our character, and reflecting God’s heart in every encounter.

Recommended resources related to the topic:

I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (Paperback), and (Sermon) by Norman Geisler and Frank Turek 

Defending the Faith on Campus by Frank Turek (DVD Set, mp4 Download set and Complete Package)

Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions by Greg Koukl (Book)

So the Next Generation will Know by J. Warner Wallace (Book and Participant’s Guide)

Fearless Faith by Mike Adams, Frank Turek and J. Warner Wallace (Complete DVD Series)

Stealing From God by Dr. Frank Turek (Book)


Mikel Del Rosario helps Christians explain their faith with courage and compassion. He is a doctoral student in the New Testament department at Dallas Theological Seminary. Mikel teaches Christian Apologetics and World Religion at William Jessup University. He is the author of Accessible Apologetics and has published over 20 journal articles on apologetics and cultural engagement with his mentor, Dr. Darrell Bock. Mikel holds an M.A. in Christian Apologetics with highest honors from Biola University and a Master of Theology (Th.M) from Dallas Theological Seminary where he serves as Cultural Engagement Manager at the Hendricks Center and a host of the Table Podcast. Visit his Web site at ApologeticsGuy.com.

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