Repentance: the art of staying on course
“You’re not making any sense,” I said.
“Well, you’re not listening to me,” she said.
My wife and I were having an argument, and it was not going well. I love to argue, but I don’t like it when the argument turns into a fight. I don’t like the hurt feelings and the misunderstandings. This time I was feeling stuck, and I didn’t know how to find a resolution we’d both be happy with.
The skill of a good argument
When I was growing up, my family argued. Sometimes we argued out of anger, but often we argued just for the sake of argument. For me, this turned out to be a pretty useful skill. I learned to think logically and to reason through from a premise to a conclusion. I think I’m less susceptible to specious advertising claims and political promises, because I can recognize when a conclusion is based on faulty data.
This same skill, however, doesn’t serve me as well in my marriage. When my wife is trying to make a point, it isn’t all that helpful for me to indicate the holes in her reasoning. You may think that would be obvious, but it took me a long time to learn. When I was much younger, I really thought the goal of an argument (heated or otherwise) was to clearly reason through an idea to come to a single, correct resolution. Of course, the resolution always seemed to be in my favor. Eventually, I realized that I might be shading the data a little. Because I was good at crafting arguments, I could make almost any argument work to my benefit.
I resolved to change this. For many years, I worked at examining all the facts on both sides of an argument. I tried very hard to give just as much weight to the other person’s facts as I gave to my own. This was a big change for me, and it felt to me like I had grown up a little. I was no longer trying to “win” my arguments. I was trying to find the “right” answer—no matter who benefitted. And this new attitude worked pretty well with people who argue like I do. But my wife does not argue like I do.
Then a couple of years ago, I read a book on listening skills that gave me a great insight. The author suggested that as we listen to another person, we try to construct in our own heads an argument for why that person is right. We should do this, he said, even when we vehemently disagree with the person we’re listening to. Even when their facts don’t add up and their reasoning is nonsensical. Constructing the argument in the other person’s favor does not mean we have to agree with him or her. It just means we are deeply listening to both the spoken and possibly unspoken things the person is trying to communicate.
So when my wife said I wasn’t listening, my first instinct was to prove to her I had been listening by telling her what she had just said. But then I stopped myself and tried to prove her point in my head. In what ways might I have not been listening? What was she trying to communicate that I had not “heard,” even though I could recall everything she had said? How did her “facts” make sense to her, even if they didn’t make sense to me?
This new way of “arguing” is a radical transformation for me. I grew up learning how to make my case and win my point—not trying to make the other person’s argument for them. And honestly, the arguments I engage in now are a lot more interesting to me. Trying to find the logic in what at first seems illogical about another person’s position is freeing. I feel like we are really working together towards a resolution instead of trying to prove who is right and who is wrong.
Jesus has a word for this kind of radical transformation: repentance. In the gospels, Jesus is continuously calling people to repent because the kingdom of God is at hand. It is easy for me to read those calls to repentance as directed at all the evildoers out there who are forestalling the fullness of the reign of God. What is more difficult is to discover the ways in which I need to repent—especially with my loved ones.
After several missteps, I’ve made a couple of steps in the right direction. But I know I’m not done yet. Repentance is not a one-time thing. It is a lifestyle. I think of it like trying to follow GPS directions. I’m headed along toward the kingdom, and all of a sudden a computerized voice begins to repeat, “Off course. Off course.” I know I’m generally headed in the right direction, but if I don’t make regular course corrections, I’ll get lost.
Repentance is the art of staying on course. Sometimes the route might not seem logical to me, but that’s not the point. The point is the journey itself and always walking in the Spirit of Divine Love. That makes a lot of sense.
I’d love to know what you think. Do you have a method for correcting course in your life? What are two or three new things you might add to your course correction skills?
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