Online Debating Part 2: How Would Jesus Answer a Troll?

By Tom Gilson Published on June 22, 2023

Last week I gave You Can Have Better Social Media Debates: 5 Points to Learn and Use from Jesus’ Example. I have to admit I’m not always satisfied with leaving things where those 5 points land, though. Here they are for review. This isn’t for every online conversation. It’s for your debates with people who don’t care for decent dialogue, and mostly just want to fight.

  1. They don’t own your time, and you don’t owe it to them.
  2. Don’t get snookered into false terms of debate. Answer truly and honorably, and you’ve done your job, whether it satisfies them or not.
  3. Don’t chase people down false trails, and don’t let them trap you there, either.
  4. If they don’t really care to hear your answer, you’re not obliged to tangle with them.
  5. Write with onlookers in mind.

Something’s missing there, though: It doesn’t say what to do with a troll. The first answer is simple enough:

Rule 6: The person matters much more than the argument.

This comes straight from Jesus’ example, though Paul stated it clearest: You can talk like angels, but if you don’t have love, it means nothing (1 Cor. 13:1). So when you’re in the heat of the battle, remember there’s a real person on the other end of it. I’m okay with winning arguments. Treat him or her like a person, not like an argument to win.

I’m all for winning arguments. I know how to do it, on topics I’ve studied enough. Interesting thing about that, though: The other person is hardly ever impressed. Such folks hardly even act as if they notice. They deflect instead.

When They Deflect, You Reflect

Want more examples? See my book How Would Jesus Blog? Answering Online Adversaries Jesus’ Way.

Sometimes they keep repeating things I’ve already answered. It’s as if they have special courses on how to ignore the person they’re talking to. Other times they jump to another topic, never even acknowledging that I’ve answered. It’s online whack-a-mole, where the mole doesn’t notice he ought to have a headache by now. Sometimes they just don’t know what they’re talking about, and don’t know that they don’t know. The Dunning-Kruger is strong in them. Sometimes they’re just snarky trolls.

That’s when caring for the person, not the argument, really comes in. Hardly anyone ever does this online. I’d like to see more Christians learn and use this skill. When the argument obviously isn’t working, step back from the argument, reflect on the process, and help the other person see it, too. Help them see themselves for who they are.

Rule 7: Be a mirror to them.

I like thinking in terms of a mirror, because it really is about reflecting themselves back to them. You point at what they’ve written, nothing more, and then you ask them whether it meets their own standards. You need a sense of what those standards are, but usually they let you know. You’ll see how that works in the examples.

Jesus Used the “Mirror”

Jesus did this all the time. Sometimes he was direct: “You hypocrites!” Other times He used questions. He did it with Nicodemus, who needed to discover he wasn’t as bright as he thought he was (John 3). He ended the Good Samaritan parable with a question meant to show the people their religious bigotry.

He showed the mirror most often when a person didn’t want to see and hear Jesus for who He was. If they didn’t care who He was, he showed them a picture of who they were. My favorite example is Luke 20:1-8. Religious leaders challenged Him on His authority, and He changed the subject. He asked them where John the Baptist got his authority from, and left them talking politics among themselves. Whether they noticed it or not, everyone else could see they were more interested in their own power than in God’s truth.

Jesus wasn’t playing games when He did that. He was trying to shake them free of their proud self-sufficiency, so that eventually they might realize they need a Guide, a Savior, a true God to direct their lives.

Online Example 1: The Snarky Progressive

No one will match Jesus in this skill, but let’s do what we can. Not long ago, I tangled on Twitter and elsewhere with a progressive Christian who thinks he’s superior to ordinary evangelicals. I’m pretty sure he believes evangelicals are mostly Christians, just defective in certain ways. That’s not me making a judgment against him. He says it plainly enough, often enough.

Several times I’ve seen or heard him say, “Progressive Christianity is more about right action than right belief.” I don’t think that even makes sense. He saw that answer, but he kept right on saying it. He’s kept on pouring scorn and mockery on conservative Christians, too.

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For a short while, I tried convincing him he had a distorted picture of evangelicals. It wasn’t getting through, so I switched tracks. I cared a lot less for the argument than I did for him as a person, so I quit trying to make that case. Instead over a period of weeks, every time he did that I named his action for what it was. “You’re pouring scorn on your brothers and sisters in Christ,” I would say. I followed that with a question. More than once I asked him how that counts as “right action,” in view of Jesus’ “new command” in John 13:34-35. Several times I asked him, “Do you like yourself this way?”

I found a value he considered important, and I reflected some of his actions back to him. Then in a couple different ways I asked him to consider whether he was violating his own standard, and whether he liked that about himself.

Leave the Results to God

Notice what I didn’t do, though. I didn’t speak about anything except what he’d written on the page or said on video. I didn’t try to guess what he’s like offline. I didn’t accuse him of character flaws. All I know about him is what’s on the screen, and I stuck with that. Even there I didn’t judge him. I just reflected what he was doing, then I asked him questions. Hard questions — because by even by his own idiosyncratic standards he was acting like a fool, not a Christian.

No one will match Jesus in this skill, but we can still do what we can do.

Later on — much later, after much more interaction — I asked him to consider the “fool” in Proverbs, the one who continually closed his ears to good counsel. If he thought I was saying he was a fool in those terms, good. If they have the same consistent response for a long enough time, you can draw conclusions. I didn’t rush to that conclusion, but I got there. And even then I put it in the form of a question. What good is it if I tell him? He has to hear it.

Rule 8: Leave the Results to God

Funny thing, though: He didn’t write back and say, “Wow, thank you! I never noticed that about myself before!” I don’t expect that, and I certainly wouldn’t try to force it. That’s between him and God.

Caring and Succeeding Are Not the Same Thing

Strangers online don’t usually appreciate this kind of caring, but that’s exactly what I believe it is. Part of coming to faith in Christ’s sufficiency is losing faith in your own self-sufficiency. The one who’s caught up in himself is unlikely to be caught up in Jesus. My hope is to chip away at that barrier, and help clear a path to Christ.

It doesn’t always work. Jesus used the same approach with the religious leaders. Three or four of them might have budged, from the evidence in the Scriptures. The rest of them had Him put up on a cross to die.

Treating people correctly is an act of love, whether they see it that way or not. Often they won’t. Leave that in God’s hands.

Online Example 2: Sometimes it Works!

In my last article I gave a kind of play-by-play of a Twitter debate with an atheist. I didn’t make it to the end of the story. I did some very quick reflecting and question-asking. First, “It sounds to me like no matter what I said, you’d brush it off as bigotry. True or false?” Then to follow up, “Your demand [for an answer] can be fulfilled, but not in 1 or 2 quick tweets. Before I start in, I want reason for confidence you’ll listen. So far it’s not looking likely.”

He actually came around. A little. He said he wouldn’t “prematurely judge” my motives, and admitted to being “curious as to how someone would go about justifying the original claim biblically.”

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It wasn’t exactly hugs and high fives at that point, but I’ve seen a lot worse. It was good enough for me: I wrote the answer he’d been asking for.

Rule 9: When It’s Over, It’s Over

I notified him of it on Twitter. He hasn’t answered. There comes a time when it’s just over. I’m not going to go chasing after him. I let go of trying with the progressive Christian guy, too.

I don’t do mirroring this way with everyone. It depends on how much time I have, and how much good I think it might do. Sometimes I walk away first, sometimes they do. Sometimes — rarely — I see something so egregiously wrong, I go straight to telling them so. Either way, it’s in God’s hands.

 

Tom Gilson (@TomGilsonAuthor) is a senior editor with The Stream and the author or editor of six books, including the highly acclaimed Too Good To Be False: How Jesus’ Incomparable Character Reveals His Reality.

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