Persuasion with Gentleness and Respect

By Reverend John C. Lin, Theologian-in-Residence

I’ve made a career out of persuasion. That’s not to say that I’ve mastered it nor that I’m necessarily good at it (I still have trouble getting my kids out of bed in the morning). It’s simply to say that I’ve thought about it (a lot) and I’ve worked at it.

In my many roles as a minister who delivers sermons, teaches Bible studies, dispenses advice, and invites people to consider their need for a savior, even if they may be hostile to the idea, I persuade. It happens through intellectual reasoning, emotional appeal, personal storytelling, and sometimes all of the above. In the inner workings of my mind, I am constantly thinking through how I might convince someone to consider an ancient truth through words of persuasion that are eloquent, unimpeachably true, and rich with beauty.

What’s striking in the New Testament was that its writers never suggest that out-arguing your opponent is the hallmark of effective persuasion. Paul writes that we are “the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved” (2 Corinthians 5:15). There is to be something deeply compelling, even fragrant and attractive, about a life of Christian faith. Peter describes the church as “God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9). The community of God’s people is to be a persuasive one that declares the praises of God. In his charge to young ministers, Paul entreats Timothy: “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16). It is your life and the way you treat others and engage the world, not simply your doctrine, that will bring about the salvation of others.

I find it compelling how extensively biblical authors suggest that our persuasive impact comes, not from a well-prepared argument, but from a deeply human and humble engagement with others and the world. “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect . . . (1 Peter 3:15-16 (emphasis added)). Persuasion happens through a life marked by the beauty of virtuous, truthful, and gracious character. It is a mode of discourse that honors human agency at the risk of disagreement. Where coercion forces agreement and compliance, persuasion seeks to recruit and partner. And sometimes, the best composed sermon will not be as compelling as a less than stellar sermon delivered by one whose life is marked by beauty, goodness, humility, and integrity.

The practice of law is a vocation of persuasion. It is about advocating, defending, pleading, and appealing. It is about counseling others towards ethical and prudent decisions. Persuasion assumes that those “across the table” can exercise their human agency to agree or disagree. And while we live in an increasingly polemicized culture where the winner takes all in public discourse, perhaps our collective posture should not be simply to refute, but rather to invite and enlist. Persuasion can be the celebration of our shared humanity when we respectfully engage, sometimes graciously disagree, and collectively work towards more ethical and equitable outcomes, all with “gentleness and respect.”

All Bible verses included are from the New International Version translation.

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