The lost art of civility • Denison Forum

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The lost art of civility

May 16, 2024 - and

Business coworkers arguing with each other. By Andrey Popov/

Business coworkers arguing with each other. By Andrey Popov/

Business coworkers arguing with each other. By Andrey Popov/

Fighting who we think is wrong is often confused with doing what’s right. Those two things are not always the same.” (Justin Giboney)

The notion of civility stands as a foundational component of the concept of a civilization. It comes with the implicit recognition that no society can survive for long in the absence of civility among its people. Now, that doesn’t mean everyone has to get along or agree, but an underlying sense of respect and decency in how we relate to one another is essential for a culture to endure.

Sadly, civil is not a word many would use to describe many aspects of our society today, and that is especially true in the realm of politics, which is the focus of this essay.

To be sure, civility has a role to play in every facet of our lives, but politics offers us a clear avenue to examine both its impact when present and the consequences of its absence. As such, it’s a good lens for us to examine the basic concepts today.

Let’s start by examining what it means to practice civility and how we can relate to others in a civil fashion.

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What does it mean to be civil?

The best description of civility I know is found in Galatians 5:22–23: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.”

By contrast, the best description of incivility is found in the verses just prior: “The works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” (Galatians 5:19–21).

If we would be people of civility, then clearly we need to be people who manifest the “fruit of the Spirit.”

However, note that “fruit” is singular—these are nine manifestations of the one “fruit” demonstrating the Spirit at work in our lives. Moreover, they are the Spirit’s “fruit,” not ours. We are not called to try harder to make more fruit. Rather, we are to stay surrendered to the Spirit so he can produce his fruit in and through us.

Given that context, what would it look like to practice each of those qualities in our relationships with others? As we go through this list, we encourage you to pause after each to reflect on what impact it would make on our culture if all people—but especially those with opposing political views—decided to allow the fruit of the spirit to guide their interactions.

Love God and love others

Our list begins with love. Why does it come first?

“Love” translates agape, which refers to unconditional acceptance, the commitment to put the other person first regardless of circumstances or challenges. It contrasts in the New Testament with phileo, friendship love, and eros, erotic or sexual love. To choose agape is to love other people regardless of how they treat you. It is to choose another’s best regardless of the cost to you. It is to love them as Jesus loves you.

Those who construct houses in Southern California have discovered that buildings survive earthquakes only when they are bolted several feet down into solid rock. Otherwise, they simply slide off their foundation and collapse.

The foundation of our relationship with God and others is love—his for us and ours for them.

Live joyfully

When J. S. Bach returned from a yearlong concert tour to discover that his wife and child had died, he wrote in his diary, “Dear Lord, may my joy not leave me.” Imagine even thinking of joy at such a time. But Bach was right: the joy of the Lord is ours whatever our circumstances hold.

What is “joy”? First, let’s note what it’s not:

  • A feeling. Nowhere does the Bible describe what it feels like to have God’s joy.
  • A circumstance. Joy is not “happiness,” which depends on “happenings.” You can have joy even in hard times.
  • A temporary experience. Joy transcends the moment, the feelings, and the circumstances of this day. You can have joy no matter what the past has been or the future holds.

So, what is joy? I define it as “a deep state of well-being that transcends circumstances.” Romans 14:17 states that “the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Paul said he was “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10).

How can you have joy? By surrendering to the Holy Spirit. You can know the degree to which he is controlling your life by the degree to which you are experiencing and manifesting his joy.

Then you can “rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4). You can sing hymns at midnight in jail (Acts 16:25). You can respond to persecution as did the apostles: “They left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (Acts 5:41).

Seek peace

In Mark 4, we find Jesus in a storm. His disciples were fighting for their lives, but he was asleep. After they exhausted all their efforts, they woke him in fear. He then said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” With this result: “And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm” (v. 39).

Why didn’t they wake Jesus earlier? Why don’t we?

Some of us don’t think we need his help. We think our boat is big enough, the storm small enough, our abilities good enough, or that our training and experience are all that’s needed. Like these veteran sailors, we’ve been through storms on our lake before and we know how to handle our boats. We like rowing. We don’t need help. We want to do this ourselves. We think we can.

But no boat, ability, money, possession, or resource is enough to live at peace without God. That’s just how he made the world—and us.

Some of us have given up on peace. We accept storms as a way of life. We’ve been through so many downpours, so many hurricanes, that we’ve given up on peace in our hearts or homes. We’re accustomed to a life filled with stress and strife, hectic hurry and perennial pressure.

All the while, the Prince of Peace waits to give peace to our hearts and souls, to calm our storms, to bring tranquility to our lives—if we will ask.

And some of us have given up on God. He’s been asleep in our boat before. We prayed without answers, or so we think. We grieved without hope, suffered without help, rowed on our own. Or so it seems to us. So we let him sleep. All the while, he’s waiting for us to turn to him first.

What’s your storm named today? Where is your ship battered? How can Jesus bring you peace?

Invite him to captain your boat. Go to him at the first sign of a storm. Settle for nothing less than his peace. Then decide to begin each day’s voyage with him at the helm.

(For more, see Janet Denison’s book A Great Calm.)

Exercise patience

Success seldom comes quickly with God’s people. Abraham was seventy-five when God first promised him offspring (Genesis 12:4, 7) and one hundred when Isaac was born (Genesis 21:5). Moses was a shepherd for forty years and wandered in the wilderness for forty more until coming to the edge of the promised land.

If we are to succeed in life and in God’s kingdom, we must have the fruit of the Spirit called patience.

“Patience” translates makrothumia, which literally means to be “long- or large-tempered.” It can be rendered “to be longsuffering, patiently enduring under injuries inflicted by others.” God displays such patience with us:

  • He “is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
  • “The Lᴏʀᴅ is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 103:8). The Old Testament repeats this affirmation four more times.
  • “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:15–16). God was patient even with Paul, the murderer of his people. He is therefore patient with you, no matter what you’ve done.

Now he calls us to display his patience with each other. Paul prayed for the Colossians to be “strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy” (Colossians 1:11). If you’ll make Paul’s intercession yours, the Holy Spirit will answer your prayer today.

Be kind

“Kindness” translates chrestos, which means “goodness, kindness, generosity toward all people, no matter what they have done to us.” God graciously manifests such kindness toward us despite all our sins.

Scripture teaches that “when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:4–5). God saved us “so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:7).

Now our Father calls us to choose kindness with others, no matter what they do to us: “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:17–18).

Lewis Smedes’ excellent book, Forgive and Forget, explains what forgiveness is and what it is not. Forgiveness is not excusing, or forgetting, or explaining away. To forgive is to pardon—to refuse to punish, even though you could, as a governor pardons a convicted criminal. To forgive is to release the person from the punishment they deserve.

Let God be the judge while you offer kindness. If you’ll make this choice, the Spirit will give you the kindness you need.

Initiate goodness

“Goodness” translates the Greek word agathosune, which means “goodness in action.” Scripture says that our Lord is a “good” Father. Consider Nehemiah 9:35: “Even in their own kingdom, and amid your great goodness that you gave them, and in the large and rich land that you set before them, they did not serve you or turn from their wicked works.” Hundreds of times the Scriptures call God “good.”

All through the Bible we find God initiating such goodness toward us:

  • “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). He took the initiative to find us when we didn’t want to be found.
  • This was his Son’s mission in life: “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).

Now God calls us to initiate goodness toward others:

  • “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone” (Matthew 18:15).
  • “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23–24).

Think of the last sin God forgave in your life. Now think of the person whose sin you need to forgive and choose to initiate goodness today.

Remain faithful

“Faithfulness” translates pistis, which means “faith” in relation to God and faithfulness in relation to people.

All through Scripture we read that our Father is “faithful.” For instance, 1 Thessalonians 5:24 states, “He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.” In 2 Thessalonians 3:3, Paul writes, “The Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one.”

Now your Father calls you to be faithful with him and others as he has been faithful with you: “Fear the Lᴏʀᴅ and serve him faithfully with all your heart. For consider what great things he has done for you” (1 Samuel 12:24). And he will reward your faithfulness in eternity: “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:21).

Where do you need the faithfulness of God today? With whom is he calling you to be faithful?

Express gentleness

Frederick Buechner is one of my favorite writers. Here is his definition of “anger“:

Of the Seven Deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back—in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.

Now we come to the fruit of the Spirit called “gentleness.” This term translates praus, one of the truly great words in the Greek language. No one English word adequately describes this Greek word.

Aristotle gave the word its classic definition: the man who is always angry at the right time and never at the wrong time. It describes someone who controls his or her emotions no matter the circumstances. Plato used it to describe the power to soothe and calm, as an ointment on a wound. Socrates used it for a man who could discuss emotional things without losing his temper.

Our holy King has every right to condemn each of us for our sins. Instead, he is angry at our sins but forgives us when we confess them (1 John 1:9) and forgets all he forgives (Isaiah 43:25). Now he calls us to manifest such praus with each other.

Gentleness is one of the greatest hallmarks of a life led by the Holy Spirit:

  • “Let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious” (1 Peter 3:4).
  • “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness” (Galatians 6:1).
  • “The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness” (2 Timothy 2:24–25).
  • We are to defend our faith “with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).
  • “Walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness” (Ephesians 4:1–2).

When you cannot be forgiving and gentle, know that the Spirit can do what you cannot.

Seek self-control

We have learned that when the Holy Spirit takes control of our lives, he manifests the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and gentleness. The last characteristic of his fruit is “self-control.” This term translates ekrates, someone who controls his or her desires.

The word originally meant to grip something, to dominate it. Plato and Aristotle used the word for a man who had powerful passions and desires he controlled. He was always their master, never their servant. The word was typically used with regard to sexual desires but was also applied to food, love, and ego. Someone who controls his desires, no matter how tempted he or she is, manifests ekrates.

Where do you need self-control today? Scripture calls you to choose this character trait and warns of the consequences if you do not:

  • “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls” (Proverbs 25:28).
  • “Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control” (2 Peter 1:5–6).
  • We are to be “hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined” (Titus 1:8).

But know that your Father does not expect you to manifest self-control in your own ability. The Bible assures us that “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7). The Holy Spirit is ready to empower you with the self-control you need if you will ask him for such grace today.

The fruit of the Spirit produces civility

We have learned that the Holy Spirit is God indwelling us. He affects and empowers every dimension of our lives. He directs every step and decision of our days. He is the Lord who gives us significance and purpose, life and a future.

And when he manifests his “fruit” in us, he makes us civil people in an uncivil day.

Understanding and accepting the truth that God calls us to be civil even when those around us are not is crucial to living out his will for our lives. It’s also what makes a lack of civility among Christians so damning to the effectiveness of our witness to the larger world. As such, learning how to disagree well is an essential part of Christ’s call to civility.

How to be civil with uncivil people

It’s been said, “If two people always agree, one isn’t necessary.” Disagreements are an obvious and inevitable fact of life. Even when people share precisely the same worldview, they can differ in its applications to circumstances and challenges.

Disagreements are natural in marriage, friendship, and families as well.

Now add the systemic, foundational worldview differences we’ve discussed in this series.

Secularists and materialists deny or minimize spiritual truth and reality. Relativists reject the concept of objective or absolute truth. Claiming biblical warrant for your position will be no more persuasive for many nonbelievers than a Muslim’s appeal to the Qur’an would be for you.

Not to mention our divisive political environment, arguments over sexual morality, and disagreements over geopolitical realities. Our culture has not been this divided in my lifetime.

In such days, how do we speak the truth in love, as instructed in Ephesians 4:15?

Let’s learn how to dialogue redemptively with those with whom we disagree, particularly when that disagreement is over issues of biblical truth.

How to disagree agreeably

The apostle Paul was clear: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1). There seem to be no exceptions or qualifications here. Peter was equally clear: “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Peter 2:13–14).

And yet, Paul and Peter were both executed by Rome because they would not submit to its authority when the Empire demanded that they cease their ministries. In a similar vein, when Peter and John were ordered by the religious authorities to stop preaching and teaching in the name of Jesus, they responded: “We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). When arrested again, the apostles made a similar response: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

So, how should Christians relate to those who disagree with biblical truth and morality?

We are taught “to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one” (Titus 3:1–2). Peter urged us to defend our faith “with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame” (1 Peter 3:15–16).

In short, Scripture calls us to be:

  • Respectful (Titus 3:2),
  • Considerate (1 Timothy 2:2),
  • And reverent (1 Peter 3:15).

But we are also to be:

  • Bold (Acts 4:29; Ephesians 6:19),
  • Strong (1 Corinthians 16:13),
  • And courageous (Philippians 1:28).

God’s call to civility does not preclude dealing with controversial people and subjects. Rather, the likelihood of such discussions in these divisive days shows the need and urgency of biblical civility.

If God’s people model biblical character even in contentious days and conversations, our light will be apparent in the dark and will draw people to the Light. And that’s all God asks us to do. Those with whom we speak still have their own free will, and whether or not they will listen to what we say is their choice. God does not hold us responsible for the actions of others, only for our own.

So when the time comes to engage with people who disagree with us, whether in politics, matters of the faith, or in any other realm of life, be sure that you play your part in that conversation in accordance with the fruit of the Spirit and under the guidance of God.

And remember that the key to being civil in such circumstances is prioritizing God’s glory and your witness over winning the argument. That doesn’t mean conceding the truth in order to placate a view that’s false, but proving yourself right matters little if you do so in a way that kills any chance of a future conversation.

Christ’s call to our culture today is to be civil and biblical, relying on the Holy Spirit to help us know how to be both.

Where do you need his help with that task today?

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