Sunday, June 21, 2020

A Little Monday Morning Quarterback

Have you ever been in a disagreement that got out of control? I have.

People are different. Some respond to criticism by trying to placate the other side, even groveling if necessary. They are willing to cede any intellectual or moral position in hopes of ending the argument, even when they believe they are in the right. They take the proverbial knee ... or occasionally the literal knee.

Others fume and fuss and become emotional when the logic of a critique disturbs their received worldview. They take correction personally, as a negative commentary on their character rather than a learning opportunity. Easily baited into debating hypotheticals, they can even find themselves arguing positions they don’t really believe because they are so caught up in trying to “win”.

Still others respond to a critique with humility and restraint. If they can’t offer a cogent counterargument on the spot, they are more inclined to go away and think about it than concede a position, but they remain open to alternative viewpoints that come with actual data to support them.

Readers of the Bible know it’s not just which intellectual and theological positions we hold that reveal our character, but also how we go about arriving at them. There is no real win to be had if you don’t argue the right way.

Job’s Three Friends

Job’s three friends came to see him with all the right intentions. They were genuinely concerned for the condition of his body and soul. They sympathized silently with him for a full week, which is about six days, twenty-three hours and change more than has even been required of yours truly.

Notwithstanding what happened later, these were really good guys. The mess they made of comforting Job was the sort of thing that happens to the best of us, and especially to men. Most women opt to placate or retreat when confronted with an ugly dispute, while men tend to double down even when we are holding a losing hand.

All this is easy to see in hindsight. Monday morning quarterback is the least popular position in football, but one of the reasons scripture has been given to us is to enable us to calmly and impartially analyze the mistakes of others from a distance in order to avoid making those same errors ourselves: “These things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.”

So let’s play a little MMQ with Job and his three friends. Who knows, we may even learn something.

In Their Own Words

The writer of Job has done a very nice job of spelling out for us where Job and his friends went wrong. We even get it in their own words. Here are a few of the mistakes they made, and which you and I would do well to learn to avoid.

Failure #1: Taking the Bait

Eliphaz comes out of the gate and takes a wrong turn almost immediately:
“If one ventures a word with you, will you be impatient? Yet who can keep from speaking?”
Oh, that he would have kept from speaking!

The book of Proverbs says this: “When words are many, transgression is not lacking.” Lines invariably get crossed when we insist on running our mouths. If Eliphaz had only ventured a word, he might have been in good shape. Instead, he ventured two full chapters, 47 verses in English, because he let Job provoke him. What he forgot is that Job was in pain, and people in pain say things they don’t mean. Even when they mean them, they express their thoughts sloppily and in ways that invite unnecessary correction. Moreover, to the person hurting, every comeback to their pity-party feels like an attack. In fact, often a person who is suffering will deliberately bait his friends, family and caregivers to get them to turn on him and victimize him further. This sounds counterintuitive, but for a person steeped in self-pity, confirmation that they are indeed the innocent victim and everyone is out to get them actually makes them feel better, however briefly.

Unfortunately, it is also unproductive, because it entrenches the sufferer in his pain and makes it harder to get him to see anything else.

Failure #2: Getting Insulting

So much for Eliphaz. Bildad’s first attempt at “comfort” starts this way:
“How long will you say these things, and the words of your mouth be a great wind?”
Ouch. Here come the insults, Job, you windbag. And Bildad is not wrong. Job has just gone on longer than Eliphaz, and much of what he has said is quite repetitive. He’s in one of those recursive loops and can’t get out. Probably Bildad only jumps in at this point because Job had to stop to take a breath.

This is how men often argue. When we’re in good health, it’s perfectly fine. Most of us can take it, even if a spirited discussion of the male sort tends to put our womenfolk to flight. A snarky one-liner often clears the air more effectively than a windy soliloquy, as it has the effect of a glass of cold water thrown in the face: it may get through where subtlety fails. The apostle Paul uses sarcasm, exaggeration or deliberate provocation to drive home a point on several occasions, even when his point is deadly serious.

Here, however, Bildad’s rejoinder is provocative in an unhelpful way, and Job eventually begins to reply in kind. Personal remarks are only useful when they address an actual moral problem.

Failure #3: The Metastasizing Argument

Now it’s Zophar’s turn:
“Should a multitude of words go unanswered, and a man full of talk be judged right?”
In a word, sometimes, yes. Verbosity was the least of Job’s issues and one that could easily have been left for another day, or, even better, ignored entirely. Disputing in a helpful way involves discernment; knowing which wrong arguments are worth pursuing and which may be cast aside. The more issues which are shoveled onto the table, the more incomprehensible and unhelpful an argument becomes. The key in helping one another is to distinguish the major issues from the minor ones, and concentrate our fire on the most egregious errors. Otherwise the argument heads off down any of a multitude of rabbit trails, and getting back to addressing the original problem becomes all but impossible.

In this case, Zophar responds to Job’s protestations of innocence by beginning to argue something none of the participants really believes: “Know then that God exacts of you less than your guilt deserves.” This is technically true of everyone including the speaker, but to a man in agony, the notion that none of us gets the full treatment we deserve from God is extraordinarily unhelpful. Zophar is telling a man who has just lost all ten of his children, “Hey, it could have been a lot worse.” Er ... how, precisely?

That point would definitely have been better off not made.

Failure #4: The False Argument from Authority

Eliphaz again:
What do you know that we do not know? What do you understand that is not clear to us? Both the gray-haired and the aged are among us, older than your father.”
The logical fallacy in play here is sometimes called the argument from authority. We tend to resort to it when we haven’t got much else left. It’s an appeal to credentials of one sort or another: “I have a higher IQ.” “I went to a better university.” “I am considered the leading expert in my field.” “I wrote the book on that!” In this case, it’s age that is the metric: “Some of us have been around longer than your dad, Job!” The implication is that Job’s argument cannot be right because he hasn’t lived as long or seen as much as those with whom he is disputing.

While age is often an indicator of wisdom, it is no guarantee of it. Age makes some people cranky, hidebound, fearful, pandering and occasionally senile. I would rather have been Samuel than Eli, for example. Or, as Solomon puts it in Ecclesiastes, “Better was a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who no longer knew how to take advice.”

In any case, trumpeting one’s previous successes is no way to win an argument. The truth is no respecter of credentials.

Failure #5: The Ill-Thought-Out Answer

Then Zophar puts his foot in it a second time:
“Therefore my thoughts answer me, because of my haste within me. I hear censure that insults me, and out of my understanding a spirit answers me.”
Speaking in haste, especially in response to provocation, is a recipe for disaster. Solomon again, from Proverbs: “Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him.” Nathan was a prophet of God, but when he failed to consult the Lord, he was as fallible as anyone else, and as prone to having to make a retraction.

As a result of speaking in haste, Zophar says things about the wicked that are observably untrue, and Job points this out in his counterargument.

Winning the Argument

There is more, of course, but this will do for now. What should be evident from the book of Job is that how we argue is as important as what we argue.

If we stump the person on the other side of the debate with lies he doesn’t know are untrue, what exactly have we accomplished? If we impress onlookers with logical fallacies they can’t instantly identify, how have we helped anyone or anything? If we turn an intellectual argument into a hailstorm of abuse, how is that any sort of Christian testimony? If we wind up saying things even we don’t believe, what sort of judgment may we expect? And if we make a sick friend more miserable, how is that to our credit?

Jesus won the moral high ground more than once with nothing more eloquent than silence. There’s an approach from which we might all benefit. Even if we don’t convince anyone of anything, at least we haven’t looked like fools or made things worse.

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